Ilhan Omar, Israel, Antisemitism and Anti-Muslim Tropes

First off, I welcome Representative Ilhan Omar’s criticism of Israel. It might come as a surprise to many Americans, but many Jews (and Israelis) are critical of Israel. This is hardly new. In fact, one of the most biting critiques of the Jewish state comes from the Israeli left, and some of it comes from this generational sharp turn to the right. This turn came from the immigration of far-right American Jews, like Meir Kahane, that helped push politics towards radicalism.

It is they who are mostly behind the settler movement.

Some of this trend, if one is to be fair, is driven by terrorism and the innate human need to feel safe. That the Likud Party and it's far right, mostly religious parties have taken advantage of this to turn the country into something its founders would not recognize, is true. And that is only partially true. The Likud is the direct descendant of the Irgun. They were not the Palmach, which was left of center and dedicated to self-defense until 1948, but a far-right terrorist organization.

This is a fact, Menachem Begin was the most wanted man in Palestine by the British Occupation Authority, and when decades later when he became Prime Minister this was a problem. Begin had not been removed from this most wanted list, and should have been arrested on sight in the UK, or any of the Commonwealth. The fact that he was able to work for peace led to the quiet removal from it. He was also the head of state, which made things complicated if he traveled with a diplomatic passport.

There are many reasons why one can be critical of Israel. It’s policies in the West Bank, and particularly Gaza, equal mass punishment, and mass starvation. The Israeli right does not mind, since their forefathers, unlike the Palmach, did not mind a little ethnic cleansing now and again. They were radical from the word go but were a minority when the country began. In fact, they were a problem for the founders of the Jewish State.

And if you have trouble understanding how this is not necessarily the national view, go over to Haaretz and read the paper for a week. Concentrate on the editorial pages. Since the 1990s the Israeli left-wing parties, including Labor, which are far more secular and agree with the two-state solution, have lost ground. It is to the point they have not been part of any ruling coalition for some time. The Likud prefers to make hay with Shas, a religious radical party that has held the education portfolio for years.

You could say that This party, founded in 1984, is the equivalent of the Christian Right, and came from similar forces. They truly hate a secular Israel.

There is another aspect of Israeli politics that has become almost toxic. The Holocaust has become the justification for almost anything the state does. It gets worst, Israel is doing its level best to alienate American Jews. Not that they care that much at this point. There was a time when they depended from Jewish communities abroad, and the American community is the wealthiest at this point. So donations from the community are not something to scoff off. However, the American Jewish community is also the most integrated, with mixed marriages becoming common. The ultra-orthodox Israeli rabbinate has taken on the bad habit not to recognize conversions or even conservative or liberal weddings. Why the shooting at the Tree of Life was not seen by the rabbinate as an attack on a synagogue, but just a study center.

They also hate the fact that American Jews remain very progressive with a liking to the two-state solution.

So if you want to be critical of Israel, by all means. There is plenty of fodder. Incidentally, AIPAC falls on the right side of both Israeli and American politics. However, they are the best-known organization. The upstart on the progressive side is J-Street, which is becoming far more popular with the younger age set. They are aligned with both American and Israeli progressive politics and believe that the only way out of that quagmire is a two-state solution. AIPAC did at one point, but they tend to align with whoever controls the government in both countries.

Which brings me back to Omar. First off, she is not alone in using the stereotypes she used. I have heard the same tropes used by her from both left wing and right wing people. They are common and seem almost true in the popular imagination. They are stereotypes, and in some cases, they are quite toxic. They are just as bad as Blacks are lazy and inclined to crime. None of us would stand for those impressions, however, people seem to not have trouble with Jews have double national loyalties, and Jews only care about money. She engaged in those two and both are classic antisemitic tropes.

They are in wide circulation, not just in the United States. They are usually seen in the streets of Latin America, and the Arab street. Europe is also a place you can find them, and of course Russia as well. At one time the target of this money grubbing figure were the Rothschilds. George Soros has replaced them in the popular imagination, but it is the same stereotype. Yes, both made their money, however, I know this will be a surprise. Most Jews are not filthy rich, or own factories, or businesses. Most Jews are either poor or firmly middle class working in the professions. Why? You can blame European policies that forbade Jews from owning land for over five hundred years.

There are other antisemitic tropes, and I am sure, as antisemitism gains purchase once again, that we will hear them. The Jews control the media is a common one across the world. So is they control banking, or my all time favorite, they control academia and research. There are some that are funny on its face, but some people believe them. Jews have tails and horns goes all the way to the Middle Ages, and blood libel will come back in fashion. If anything, these never die.

There is another one that may not strike you are such. Foreign Aid, which Israel gets, is not limited to Israel. The day people become familiar with how much we give and call out other nations, I will take that one seriously. Spoiler alert, the foreign aid budget is quite frankly, the coins you dropped on the sofa overnight. Yes, it is that small. But when the only nation that gets called on for getting it is Israel, it takes on a more sinister tone.

I do encourage informed criticism of Israel and other countries. One reason governments do what they do is a sense of impunity. What I do not like are stereotypes and this very toxic form of racism. Omar is young and likely she heard this in her community. I hope she does get educated on it, and that allies come to her side to both educate and support her.

Then there is a particularly toxic form of antisemitism. These are Christian fundamentalists who defend Israel by hook and crook because Jews are the chosen people. Paraphrasing Teive in the Fiedler on the Roof, could you please choose somebody else for a while? Where this becomes toxic is the second part of that eschatology…the book of revelations and the fifty thousand imply another holocaust. This Theodore Herzl, and any right-thinking Jew should find offensive.

Being critical of Israel is not antisemitism, accusing Jews of double loyalty is.

The Reaction

Just as she questioned Jewish-American loyalties for the mere fact that they’re Jewish. Hers is questioned because she is Muslim. She is also darker skinned, so there is that. In our current age when melanin content makes people less than human, we are seeing that too.

This was the most obvious of the attacks. Her right to be elected to Congress, or sit in the Foreign Affairs Committee is also under attack. Partly because as a first generation American she is also questioning American policy, ranging from the Middle East to Latin America. She dared asked questions from Elliot Abrams over Venezuela. Good for her, but this did not play well with the conservative hawks that populate the right wing think tanks.

The fact that she wears a Hijab has become a point of derision among many fearful Americans. Her faith, or her right to take her oath of office on a Quran, has become questionable. Attaching somebody’s religion is a form of bias.

And particularly some Jews have come out to defend her right to be critical of Israel. A few have also tried to educate her on these tropes. We know they are common. It is literally part of the cultural landscape. And just as she can surely hear the anti-Muslim tropes, she should trust those who are trying to reach to her.

It is time we all do this.

And yes, some right-wing Jews have joined the American right wing in attacking Democrats as an anti-Israel and antisemitic party. Fun fact, after Charlottesville none condemned the president. After the Tree of Life, there were no declarations against hate. In fact, the GOP never denounces hate speech and only removed Stephen King from his committees after sixteen years. I believe Omar can learn from this, just as the rest of us can refrain from attacking her on her faith.

Time will tell, and quite a bit of this choice is hers and her colleagues in the House

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store