Reflections on Ilhan Omar’s dangerous rhetoric

The following was written by MPP student John Simila.

Across all platforms for the past few weeks there has been an insurgence of news and tabloid headlines regarding Ilhan Omar, freshman congresswoman from Minnesota.  These range from attacks on her personally, Islamophobic remarks, and defense in accordance to her recent tweets and comments on the American-Israeli relationship. The pendulum of condemnation has been swift across Congressional members and constituents.   Together they have created a glimpse into the heart of study for many Americans and an opportunity to discuss psychological antisemitism across the political spectrum.

The issue at hand is not one of criticizing the Israeli government, which has been condemned by almost every Democratic presidential candidate with regards to settlements.  Rather, the issue that have arisen within members of the Congresswoman’s own party is the issue of blind support, or dual loyalty. Omar attributed support for Israel in Washington was caused by donations from AIPAC, a lobbying firm dedicated to maintaining a strong American-Israeli relationship.  This causation was swiftly condemned by members of both parties, noting the common anti-Semitic trope of Jewish money being the pulling levers of power both nationally and across the globe. With an apology, Omar noted her mistakes and stated she will maintain better clarity on the subject. Alas, she has seemed to double down.

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The following tweet was an echo of her trope stated at a town hall meeting.  This invokes the essence of the Jewish community as having dual loyalties, an allegiance to Israel as well as an allegiance to the United States of America.  The revelation is one of no more carelessness or poor word choice, rather the critics who had a point following the AIPAC blunder must now acknowledge the revealed consistency in the Congresswoman’s dialect.  The framework of Congresswoman Omar’s narrative is thus based in the tropes of dual loyalty and allegiance, rather than the many shared interests which she defends as speaking truth to power. Whether it is Omar’s intention or not, the idea that Jews have foreign interests that supersede their domestic ones is all too familiar and has been used to incite violence in the past.

Of course, there are ways to criticize the government of Israel without falling into historic anti-Semitic tropes. Senator and Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren did so over a tweet this past week.  In the tweet she criticized the Israeli government without commentary on the state’s existence or any reference to blind support. Another example of acceptable criticism is through Betty McCollum a neighboring representative of Omar’s.  For years the Congresswoman has criticized Israel and proposed legislation opposing settlement activity. She does this, however, without deploying anti-Semitic tropes. Omar has lots of critics who want to silence anyone in mainstream politics who is critical of Israel. She also routinely expresses her views with words and phrases charged with deep anti-Semitic histories.  At this point, the line is blurring from misunderstanding to animus.

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The dialogue in this country is abhorrently skewed when it comes to this subject. An example of this would be Trump addressing American Jews at a White House Hanukkah event that led to an insinuation of dual loyalty to Israel. He states,  “[Mike Pence] goes [to Israel] & they love your country. They love your country. And they love this country. That’s a good combination, right?”.  If we deeply care about this conversation and avoiding antisemitism in our politics, the American people must remain consistent in their condemnation.  Here’s Donald Trump in 2015 addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.” For President Trump to criticize Congresswoman Omar on her comments is nothing more than Kabuki Theater.

Many of Representative Omar’s critics are driven by or leverage hostility to Muslims.  This is apparent by a GOP poster at a West Virginia event that tied her to 9/11. It is also true that she routinely uses words or phrases charged with deep anti-Semitic histories.  Initially, it was hard for me to understand whether the rhetoric from Congresswoman Omar was wilful or ignorant. Following the repetitive framework of her speakings on the subject, I can see they are ingrained.  Congresswoman Omar should be able to express criticism of Israeli policies and US policies of support toward the Israeli government without repeatedly marching into claims about dual loyalties or foreign allegiances.  It is imperative that she be more careful with her words in the future. Students of anti-Semitic histories  know all too well what the misuse of words can bring.



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