Ilhan Omar: “Anti-Semite of the Year,” or deliberately distorted?

Ilhan Omar: “Anti-Semite of the Year,” or deliberately distorted?

Ilhan Omar, Anti-Semite of the Year? Pictured: State Rep. Ilhan Omar takes the oath of office as the 2017 Legislature convened Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. Omar was the nation’s first Somali-American to be elected to a state legislature.

StopAntisemitism accuses Rep. Ilhan Omar of “anti-Semitic” words and actions. It’s not hard to detect the falsity of these accusations – or the Israel partisanship that drives them.

by Kathryn Shihadah

In the Palestine advocacy ecosphere, there’s a saying: “if you haven’t been called an anti-Semite, you’re just not trying hard enough.” Anyone who speaks the truth about Israel loudly and persistently is considered a threat to Israel, and must be muzzled. The standard method for shutting down such speech is to brand the speaker anti-Semitic.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN-5) inspires a new saying: “if you’ve been called ‘Anti-Semite of the Year,’ you’re operating at optimal Palestine advocacy level.”

The group that conducted the poll, StopAntisemitism.org, claims its mission is to “hold anti-Semites accountable and to create consequences for their bigoted actions.” Each week online followers vote for an “Anti-Semite of the Week” based on a broad definition of anti-Semitism.

The “definition,” crafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) on behalf of Israel, doesn’t just include the familiar, serious manifestations of anti-Semitism. It also injects unconventional, political meanings – meanings that enable pro-Israel groups to apply the anti-Semite label where it does not legitimately belong. (Especially see this video.)

StopAntisemitism accused Rep. Ilhan Omar of five political actions that allegedly qualify her as a purveyor of anti-Semitism – and won her the top spot for the year:

  1. Claiming that American Jews possess dual loyalty
  2. Alleging that Jews buy their political influence with money
  3. Accusing Israel of having hypnotized the world
  4. Avidly supporting the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement
  5. Submitting an official resolution comparing boycotting Israel to boycotting the Nazis

When Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon heard the news, he issued a challenge to Washington – one which Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum called “unnecessarily inflammatory, embarrassingly juvenile, and a great example of what happens when a diplomat thinks social media trolling is more important than actual diplomacy.”

Is Omar, as StopAntisemitism claims, “2019’s most notorious anti-Semite,” and a “vile Jew hater”? These are strong words indeed – and worth a closer look. If StopAntisemitism is a sincere arbiter of prejudice against Jews, its accusations will stand up to scrutiny.

Screen grab from video of "Progressive Issues Town Hall," Feb. 27 2019, featuring Reps. Ilhan Omar (c), Rashida Tlaib (r), and Pramila Jayapal
Screen grab from video of “Progressive Issues Town Hall,” Feb. 27 2019, featuring Reps. Ilhan Omar (c), Rashida Tlaib (r), and Pramila Jayapal (www.facebook.com)

Did Omar claim that American Jews possess dual loyalty?

Here are Rep. Omar’s words from a February 27, 2019 town hall, in context (organizations like StopAntisemitism notoriously remove statements from their context; quotes are from Jewish Insider and Vox):

…a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our allies, go to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim. To me, it’s something that becomes designed to end the debate…Because we end up defending that, and nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine. So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.

Did Omar insinuate that Jews have “dual loyalty”? Decidedly not. She referred to both Jewish and non-Jewish people who, as she sees it, accuse her of anti-Semitism in order to avoid having a frank conversation about the Palestine issue.

Is she right?

It is curious how many Congress members jump to Israel’s defense in spite of its well-known human rights abuses, consistent breach of international law, and confirmed status as an apartheid state.

When politicians block discussion by making anti-Semitism accusations, they prove Omar’s point: the subject of Israeli crimes is off limits. For example:

Questioning support for the US-Israel relationship is unacceptable. (Rep. Juan Vargas D-CA-51)

I don’t think I’ve seen this [threat to the US-Israel alliance] in the 15 years I’ve been in the Congress, and I don’t have any tolerance for that. (Rep. Michael McCaul R-TX-10)

[I]rrespective of which party’s in power, the relationship between the United States and Israel is going to be rock solid. So long as I’m in Congress, this is a matter of ‘over my dead body,’ all right? We’re going to keep things just the way they are. (Rep. Max Rose (D-NY-11)

Any little comment is unacceptable and has to be addressed immediately. (Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-NJ-5)

Just a few weeks after Omar’s comment first broke, Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD-5, who is not Jewish) spoke at the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) national conference:

When someone accuses American supporters of Israel of dual loyalty, I say: Accuse me…I tell Israel’s accusers and detractors: Accuse me…I stand with Israel, proudly and unapologetically.

This is the very sentiment that Omar wants to explore. Members of Congress are willing to say they stand with Israel, but not to have a conversation about it – and obviously these are not Jews only.

Some members of the House of Representatives, StopAntisemitism, and other organizations that tried to shame Rep. Omar, have literally proved her point. Naming her “Anti-Semite of the Year” has effectively shifted the focus from her allegations to her supposed bigotry.

“I would like to see what the Democrats are going to do,” Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Wednesday on controversy over Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. “We’ve already led on this issue.”
“I would like to see what the Democrats are going to do,” Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Wednesday on controversy over Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. “We’ve already led on this issue.” (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Did Rep. Omar allege that Jews buy their political influence with money?

Let’s examine the context.

On February 10, 2019, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA-23), unhappy with Reps. Omar and Tlaib for their position on Israel, threatened to “take action” against them. “[Dissent] can not sustain itself. It’s unacceptable in this country,” he insisted.

A journalist then commented, “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans” – to which Omar responded, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” spelling out later that she was referring to “AIPAC.” These comments earned Omar the “anti-Semite” label in February.

Did Omar state (or imply) that Jews buy their political influence with money? No. Her frame of reference was “US political leaders.”

Was her actual statement true – that some politicians may willingly sell out to a foreign nation for money? Americans know that plenty of politicians are for sale to the highest bidder, and AIPAC is not immune from the practice.

Open Secrets, part of the Center for Responsive Politics, tracks how money affects elections and public policy in the US. It states,

One of, if not the most, powerful international issue lobby is that of the pro-Israel crowd. Well-financed and politically powerful, the pro-Israel lobby is a major force on American foreign affairs that looks to continue America’s military and fiscal support of the Jewish nation-state.

Since 1990, the Israel lobby (its foremost player being AIPAC) has collected over $158 million in campaign contributions.

AIPAC itself tells its members (who are both Jewish and non-Jewish) that campaign contributions show that “you care about who serves in Congress,” and expects donations “in a clearly pro-Israel context.”

In other words, for members of Congress, it pays to be pro-Israel. For some of them at least, it is “all about the Benjamins.”

It may be inconvenient to point out the financial advantage of being pro-Israel in Congress, but it is not anti-Semitic. (For more on the influence of the Israel lobby, watch this film, or read a few of these.)

Did Rep. Omar accuse Israel of having “hypnotized” the world?

Omar’s 2012 tweet said, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” So yes, StopAntisemitism quoted her accurately.

Israel partisans quickly jumped in, calling her statement an “anti-Semitic trope,” harkening back to a (not well-known) stereotype. David Samel came to Omar’s defense in Mondoweiss, explaining, “This trope/canard nonsense could be used to immunize Israel from virtually any criticism.”

Omar graciously tweeted, “I heard from Jewish orgs that my use of the word ‘hypnotize’ and the ugly sentiment it holds was offensive,” and acknowledged that she had unknowingly used an “anti-Semitic trope,” – yet she stood behind her original point:

In that tweet and in any other conversation I’ve had, I only talk about the State of Israel. And I think it is really important for us to make sure that we are not associating the people with the country and its government…

[T]here is a difference between criticizing a military action by a government that has exercised really oppressive policies and being offensive or attacking to particular people of faith…

Rep. Omar’s 2012 tweet had clearly referred to the state, not the Jewish people.

“Ugly sentiment” aside, is there any truth to her statement? Is Israel the darling of the world, in that its wrongdoings are routinely overlooked? Once again, context matters.

Omar’s comment was made on November 16, 2012, in the context of an Israeli attack on Gaza. At the time, Israel had held Gaza under blockade for five years, limiting its food and medicine, restricting travel, education, and employment (the blockade continues today).

Israel’s stated reason for its aggression was to stop rockets that were being fired out of Gaza. Barred by Israel from having a standing army, and under de facto occupation, this was the only form of resistance Palestinians felt was available to them against Israel’s military, one of the most powerful in the world. In eleven years, those rockets had killed 21 Israelis. In the same period of time – 2001-2012 – Israel had killed about 4,700 Gazans.

Left: Palestinians gather around a destroyed house after an Israeli air strike in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Right: Israeli police explosives experts work atop a roof damaged after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in the southern Israeli town of Ofakim November 18, 2012.
Left: Palestinians gather around a destroyed house after an Israeli air strike in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Right: Israeli police explosives experts work atop a roof damaged after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in the southern Israeli town of Ofakim November 18, 2012. (REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa and REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

Omar’s tweet might have been prompted by news of ten Gazan deaths in one evening – including an 11-month-old baby and a woman pregnant with twins.

The week-long incursion to which Ilhan Omar was reacting (and for which she was accused of anti-Semitism) cost 167 Palestinian lives (about 80 of them civilians) and six Israeli lives (four civilians). Israel destroyed 52 places of worship, 97 schools, and 15 hospitals.

Washington had responded promptly to Israel’s aggression by passing H.Res.813 and S.Res.599. Both resolutions expressed

vigorous support and unwavering commitment to the welfare, security, and survival of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure borders, and recognizing and strongly supporting its right to act in self-defense to protect its citizens against acts of terrorism.

A press release from the US State Department had declared:

We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel…We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Other major Western countries supported Israel’s “right to defend itself,” and/or condemned the Palestinian resistance against the incursion. The international community has done little on behalf of the Palestinians, in spite of enduring years of well-documented human rights violations.

It is perhaps not far from the mark to suggest that Israel has indeed “hypnotized” the world. StopAntisemitism and other groups might consider the possibility that Omar’s choice of words is not as dreadful as the atrocities that provoked her words.

Does Rep. Omar support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement – and is that movement anti-Semitic?

Yes, Omar supports BDS. To answer the anti-Semitism charge requires a little more effort.

Israel partisans regularly paint the movement in inaccurate, inflammatory terms. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL-22) proclaimed that BDS “envisions a world without Israel”; Lindsey Graham insisted that BDS would “basically destroy the state [of Israel].”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) claims that one of the “founding goals of the BDS movement [is] denying the Jewish people the universal right of self-determination”; other alarmists contend that BDS wants Israel “eliminated” or “destroyed”; all therefore deem the movement – and its supporters, including Omar – anti-Semitic.

Omar Barghouti, center, a top B.D.S. spokesman, says that Israeli laws favoring Jews are racist and discriminatory.
Omar Barghouti, center, a top B.D.S. spokesman, says that Israeli laws favoring Jews are racist and discriminatory. (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

One of the cofounders of the movement, Omar Barghouti, declared that “no Palestinian…will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” Some BDS detractors suggest that Barghouti, and BDS itself, call for the end of Israel.

Once again, context matters. Barghouti’s remark reads, in its entirety,

A Jewish state in Palestine in any shape or form cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically. As we would oppose a Muslim state or a Christian state, or any kind of exclusionary state, definitely, most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian — rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian — would ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.

Barghouti’s full statement makes it clear that the focus of BDS is not about Jews, but about an exclusive state set up in the middle of an inclusive society. The concept is easy to grasp, but hard for Israel supporters to tolerate.

BDS simply seeks to pressure Israel to comply with international law and give Palestinians their “fundamental right to full equality” – the same fundamental right that the ADL seeks for Jewish people.

If Israel ended its discrimination against Palestinians, Jewish Israelis would lose their privileged position, and the “Jewishness” of the state would be compromised in favor of a state for its citizens, the normal situation for nations. This would not be a favorable outcome in the eyes of some Jews – but there is nothing inherently anti-Semitic about equality for Palestinians.

The BDS movement – which has the support of many Jews – is not anti-Semitic.

Did Rep. Omar submit a resolution comparing boycotting Israel to boycotting the Nazis?

Those who draw this conclusion are either disingenuous or simply too lazy to read the text of this brief bill.

H.Res.496 affirms Americans’ historic use of free speech to boycott injustice, and calls for the preservation of that freedom of advocacy. It lists well-known examples, including the Boston Tea Party, Civil Rights era movements, and the anti-apartheid boycott of South African goods. The resolution names one additional example:

boycotting Nazi Germany from March 1933 to October 1941 in response to the dehumanization of the Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust.

StopAntisemitism, Fox News, and others have gratuitously hijacked an anti-Nazi campaign, and repurposed it to block efforts at equal rights to Palestinians. Omar’s resolution is in no way anti-Semitic.

Did neo-Nazi David Duke endorse Omar’s statements?

The answer is Yes. Rep. Omar did not seek out the endorsement, nor does the endorsement link her to in any way neo-Nazism. David Duke has also endorsed Tulsi Gabbard:

Tulsi Gabbard is currently the only Presidential candidate who doesn’t want to send White children off to die for Israel.

He was of course referring to her antiwar stance, not any white supremacist or anti-Semitic position Gabbard holds.

Similarly, Duke has latched onto something he likes about Ilhan Omar: her willingness to call out the power of AIPAC and question the “unquestionable” nature of loyalty to Israel. He distorted her words and made them race-based – precisely what Israel partisans (including StopAntisemitism) did.

Yes, David Duke did “endorse” Rep. Omar – but not because she’s an anti-Semite, and not because she sought his endorsement.

Representative Ilhan Omar on "Face the Nation," September 15, 2019: "you have to give people the opportunity to seek the kind of justice they want in a peaceful way. And I think the opportunity to boycott divest sanction is the kind of pressure that leads to [a] peaceful process."
Rep. Ilhan Omar on “Face the Nation,” Sept. 15, 2019: “you have to give people the opportunity to seek the kind of justice they want in a peaceful way…boycott, divest, sanction is the kind of pressure that leads to [a] peaceful process.” (www.cbsnews.com)

Omar is dangerous because she tells the truth

Clearly, Ilhan Omar was named “Anti-Semite of the Year” not because of actual anti-Semitism, but because Israel partisans have spun, decontextualized, and twisted her words. Rather, Rep. Omar is the face of the emerging Palestinian justice movement – a truth-telling movement – and is being duly scapegoated.

Israel supporters see in Omar the threat of the BDS call to accountability for Israeli atrocities, the exposure of the Israel lobby’s power and foreign priorities, the unmasking of many Congress members’ relentless loyalty to Israel, and the world’s indifference to the Palestinian plight.

“Anti-Semite of the Year”? – Omar must be doing something right.


Kathryn Shihadah is staff writer for If Americans Knew. She blogs at Palestine Home

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