Those who make too much of Representative Ilhan Omar’s statement, and who are happy to gain some short-term win by conflating legitimate concern over Israeli influence with anti-Semitism, run the risk of permanently connecting the two terms…
I was sitting under a huge oak tree on my college campus reading a political science textbook when I first heard the news. It was October 6, 1973, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, and also within the holiest Islamic month, Ramadan. The Egyptian army had caught the Israeli Defense Forces by surprise, launching a stunning assault across the Suez Canal and penetrating deep into the Sinai. Not too surprisingly, within a few days the Israeli forces counterattacked and, with a massive amount of American supplies and logistical support, turned the tide of battle. But on October 6 it was not at all clear to anyone that Israel would be able to recover in time to counter the attack. My first impulse—although I had been a steadfast critic of our own involvement in Vietnam at that time—was to quit college immediately and try in whatever way I could to help save Israel from what looked like certain destruction.
My core sentiment toward Israel has not much changed since then. I remain a staunch supporter of the Israeli state; indeed, more than supporting the state as such, I firmly believe in the idea of Israel as a safe-haven and refuge for all times for a people who have been appallingly oppressed for centuries. I would go even further to say that there remains an outrageous double standard regarding Israel–the plain truth is we expect far more in terms of freedom and democracy from Israel than we do from any of our other Middle Eastern allies. While Israel has, especially over the last two decades, been a disappointment in some ways—particularly worrisome is how extremist views on race and religion have become more widespread and acceptable among Israelis—one cannot imagine any other country in that region where the country’s political leader could be indicted for criminal acts, nor can one imagine any other country in that region that safeguards so well the rights of its minority citizens.
But to support Israel and to admire its people does not mean that it should not be criticized. Nor should support for Israel make us demand that all other Americans support or admire it. And certainly, regardless of how much we may support or admire Israel, it would take an enormous degree of self-delusion to believe that any other foreign country wields anywhere near as much influence over American foreign policy as does Israel. Not even our so-called closest ally, the United Kingdom, nor our vast military alliance with NATO, has ever been so influential as Israel. Some will denounce any characterization of Israel as having an inordinate influence on our foreign policy as anti-Israel or even-anti-Semitic, but the most obvious proof of the reality of this influence is that while our country is increasingly divided along various cultural and political fault lines, it is stunning how both political parties—apart from a few renegades—remain so steadfast and unequivocal in their bipartisan support for Israel.
Which brings us to the current controversy over recent remarks by the newly-elected Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar. She is not the most likeable person in the Congress and certainly her views on many issues are way to the left of where most Americans stand. Equally irksome, her use of the hijab as a fashion statement is viscerally off-putting. I confess my attitude about her choice of attire is unfair and biased, but the hijab, regardless of how cool an accessory it seems in freewheeling America, is forever seared in my psyche as a symbol of oppression and subjugation after witnessing for years the mistreatment of women in the Middle East. But that all said, the accusations of anti-Semitism against her are overblown and contrived.
Much Ado about (Almost) Nothing
There is a certain irony in this outrage over what Representative Omar has said given that so many on the right take a certain pride in political incorrectness and enjoy poking fun at the straitjacketing of speech and opinions by the overly-sensitive left. Is that not exactly what is happening regarding Rep. Omar and her questionably offensive comment? She is clearly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian, but that is a far cry from being anti-Semitic. And in her defense, her attacks on Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince, have been far more caustic than anything she has said about Israel. No one would be happier seeing Rep. Omar put in her place and silenced than the Halal Butcher who subjugates that country.
As is often the case, social media and the mainstream media drive a controversy and few ever really assess the words actually spoken by the alleged culprit. Let’s look at those exact words: “So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask why it is OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil-fuel industries, of Big Pharma, and not about a powerful lobby that is influencing policy?” Honestly, I had to read those sentences several times to figure out what all the outrage was about. Apparently, the use of the words “push for allegiance to a foreign country” was taken by some to be anti-Semitic and that she was referring to pro-Israel advocates, i.e., AIPAC, pushing for “allegiance to a foreign country.” From there it was a small sidestep to saying she accused Jews of the old anti-Semitic trope about “dual loyalty,” and then another half-step to the side to conclude that she was saying that Jewish Americans are not all loyal citizens. Really? I’m not even sure she was talking about Jewish Americans as opposed to just Americans in general, and the notion that she was questioning anyone’s loyalty is especially farfetched. One has to be very selective in parsing and dicing and slicing her words to reach that conclusion.
Rep. Omar would have been wiser and more circumspect to use the term “unequivocally support” rather than “allegiance,” but even the term allegiance does not mean anything more than a “loyalty or commitment to a group or cause.” Allegiance does not suggest dual loyalty or treason or a lack of devotion to one’s own country. And isn’t her use of the term “allegiance” arguably accurate, even if a little provocative? Doesn’t AIPAC “push” for loyalty and commitment to Israel? AIPAC does not push for anyone to be disloyal to the United States, but it does push the questionable notion that there is no conflict ever between the interests of the United States and the interests of Israel. That was clearly what Mrs. Omar was saying; there is nothing beyond this in her words.
Those who make too much of Rep. Omar’s statement, and who are happy to gain some short-term win by conflating legitimate concern over Israeli influence with anti-Semitism, run the risk of permanently connecting the two terms. This will likely, over time, have the perverse effect of actually increasing the incidence of genuine anti-Semitism. This contrived linkage will also further exacerbate tensions within our country and promote a chilling effect on legitimate discourse and criticism. We have seen a similar effort on the left to cynically conflate legitimate concerns about Islamic terrorism with Islamophobia. To use perhaps an even clearer example that may resonate better with conservative readers, it would be dangerous and counter-productive if someone were accused of being racist simply because they believe the idea of reparations for slavery is nonsense, or that affirmative action is unconstitutional, or that organizations like BLM have fascistic tendencies. If we are going to have open and frank discussions in our society, all sides need to be less thin-skinned and judgmental, and certainly less inclined to always assume the worst. We can hope that the Congress will re-consider its ill-advised effort to chastise Mrs. Omar for her comments, but that seems increasingly unlikely. Wisdom always takes a backseat to politics.
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