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Confronting Perceived Bigotry from and against Rep. Ilhan Omar

While attending a vigil for the 49 massacred at a pair of mosques in New Zealand a few weeks ago, Chelsea Clinton was confronted by NYC students who were angry at Clinton for her role in widespread accusations of anti-Semitism cast against Muslim Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. With charges of bigotry flying both against Omar and from advocates of Omar against her critics, there are some lessons to garner in terms of how we might approach the perception of bigotry in a more optimal way. First, let’s recap the saga that has been unfurling since Omar assumed office in January involving allegations lodged against both Omar and a fellow Muslim in Congress, Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

In early January, as Congress introduced legislation that would make Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel illegal, Bernie Sanders lamented on twitter that “the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity.” Representative Rashida Tlaib tweeted in response to Sanders that, “They [Congress] forgot what country they represent,” which then prompted Senator Marco Rubio, who sponsored the anti-BDS bill, to accuse Tlaib of asserting an anti-Semitic dual loyalty clam. Tlaib clarified that her remarks were a reference to stripping Americans of “their Constitutional right to free speech.” Nevertheless, Tlaib’s remark prompted the Anti-Defamation League to release a statement communicating the destructive history of dual loyalty charges while also noting that, “Though the legislation discussed is sponsored by four non-Jewish Senators, any charge of dual loyalty has special sensitivity and resonance for Jews, particularly in an environment of rising anti-Semitism.”

The month of January also saw New York Times columnist Bari Weiss accuse Representative Ilhan Omar of having conveyed anti-Semitism in a 2012 tweet made during the Israeli siege on Gaza. The tweet from Omar stated: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel.” Weiss argued that using the word hypnotize in such a way attributes “evil, almost supernatural powers to Israel in a manner that replicates classic anti-Semitic slanders.” Omar responded in saying her word choice was “unfortunate and offensive” and further stated she was ignorant of the “ugly sentiment” behind the word hypnotize.

Though not explicitly referring to the above remarks by Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar, or the fact both politicians are supporters of the BDS movement, their criticisms of Israel were condemned on February 8th by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). McCarthy suggested their remarks were worse than that of Steve King’s, whose blunt defense of white nationalism prompted Republicans to reprimand King and strip him of his committee seats in mid-January. McCarthy sought that congresswomen Tlaib and Omar be admonished by the Democratic Party while also warning, “And if they do not take action I think you’ll see action from myself.”

Two days later, Glenn Greenwald tweeted out a response to McCarthy’s comments: “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech of Americans.” The tweet included an attached Haaretz article on McCarthy’s promise of “action” against Omar and Tlaib. Omar replied in a tweet, which has since been deleted, that “It’s all about the Benjamins,” adjacent a music note emoji, alluding to the song by the same name. When Omar was inquired via tweet by Batya Ungar-Sargon — a writer for the American Jewish publication, The Forward — what she meant by this, Omar replied: “AIPAC!” Also known as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbies on behalf of Israel in Washington DC.

These two tweets by Omar ignited a firestorm of accusations that Omar was peddling anti-Semitism. The American Jewish Committee contested via tweet that Omar’s remarks were “stunningly anti-Semitic,” and added, “American politicians are pro-Israel because Americans are. Apologize.” The tweet had an attached link to a Gallup poll showing high support of Israel among Americans. Batya Ungar-Sargon echoed the AJC’s sentiment, sending out a tweet with Omar’s initial remarks attached that stated: “Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way. Sincerely, American Jews.” To this, Chelsea Clinton replied, “Co-signed as an American. We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism.” Chelsea’s tweet was widely reported, as were later tweets wherein Omar and Chelsea agreed to meet the following day.

Kevin McCarthy also replied to Omar’s remarks on twitter, stating, “Anti-Semitic tropes have no place in the halls of Congress. It is dangerous for Democrat leadership to stay silent on this reckless language.” The irony was pointed out that McCarthy was not long ago embroiled in accusations of anti-Semitism for a tweet conveying a need to prevent the November 2018 midterm election from being bought by George Soros, Tom Steyer, and Michael Bloomberg — three politically influential billionaires who are each Jewish.

The day after Omar’s “It’s all about the Benjamins” tweet regarding AIPAC’s influence, Nancy Pelosi and Ilhan Omar met to discuss anti-Semitism, and Pelosi tweeted out afterward that they had agreed that “we must use this moment to move forward as we reject anti-Semitism in all forms.” Within her tweet, Pelosi attached a joint-statement by Democratic leadership condemning “anti-Semitic comments made over Twitter by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.”

An hour later, Omar tweeted out “I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes” while also stating “I unequivocally apologize.” She went on to say, “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

Omar’s regret was perhaps more oriented toward her choice of words that “It’s all about the Benjamins” being too insensitively near to the racist sentiment that could be paraphrased as: all Jews care about is money. But the apology fell short for those that interpreted the assertion of AIPAC having an instrumental role in shaping US-Israeli policy as anti-Semitism in itself. Batya Ungar-Sargon equated Omar’s criticism of AIPAC’s influence to the anti-Semitic caricature of a “cartoon octopus with a hook nose.”

In response to Omar’s apology, House Majority Leader Stenny Hoyer (D-MD), who is among the Democratic leadership that signed the aforementioned joint-statement condemning Omar, stated in an interview on MSNBC that he accepts that Omar didn’t intend the February 10th tweet to be a slur or anti-Semitic, but that “it was clearly an anti-Semitic reference that she made.” President Trump also weighed in on Omar’s apology stating to reporters at a Cabinet meeting that Omar’s apology was “lame” and stated she should resign. Vice President Mike Pence chimed in via tweet that Omar’s apology was “inadequate” and that “Anti-Semitism has no place in the United States Congress, much less the Foreign Affairs Committee.”

Weeks later, on February 28th, while Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were at a bookstore cafe in Washington DC in what was a self-styled “Progressive town hall,” Omar stated: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Omar added, “I want to ask why it is okay for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, or fossil fuel industries, or big pharma and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policy.”

Though the remarks seem to reflect a frustration with blowback that is incurred when criticizing AIPAC or Israel, such that Omar experienced, the “allegiance to a foreign country” comment was condemned on twitter as anti-Semitism by two Democratic New York politicians: State Assemblyman Dov Hikind followed by US Representative Nita Lowey. Another New Yorker and US Representative Eliot Engel, who is Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee that Omar sits on, was among those that wanted Omar to apologize for the comments.

Days after Omar’s comments at the bookstore, Democratic member of West Virginia’s House of Delegates, Mike Pushkin, tweeted a photograph of an offensive display at a West Virginia Republican event. The display featured an image of the 911 attacks, reading “Never forget — you said,” above an adjoined image of Omar with text reading, “I am proof you’ve forgotten.” Omar cited the display in a tweet that same day stating:

“No wonder why I am on the ‘Hitlist’ of a domestic terrorist and ‘Assassinate Ilhan Omar’ is written on my local gas stations. Look no further, the GOP’s anti-Muslim display likening me to a terrorist rocks in state capitols and no one is condemning them!”

The display was later reported as having been set up by an anti-Muslim group called ACT for America. Christian, Islamic, and Jewish leaders within WV joined in the condemnation of the display while a WV Republican official referred to a statement made by WV Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw that declared, “West Virginia House of Delegates unequivocally rejects hate in all of its forms.”

On the heels of the news story surrounding the offensive display, Omar doubled-down on previous remarks in a tweeted response to Representative Nita Lowey: “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.” Various prominent right-wing pundits and politicians had indeed called for Omar to be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee for negative sentiments expressed toward Israel, and as already noted, President Trump had stated Omar should resign for her comments critical of AIPAC. Nevertheless, the comments were perceived as anti-Semitism by the ADL who that day wrote a letter to Speaker Pelosi calling for a House Resolution condemning Omar’s “latest slur.”

The Democratic Party agreed and proceeded to put a resolution together. Glenn Greenwald tweeted out that: “The House Democrats’ ‘rebuke’ of Rep. Ilhan Omar is a fraud for many reasons, Including its wild distortion of her comments.” The tweet contained an attached article noting the oft-used description of US politicians having “allegiance” toward Israel sans accusations of anti-Semitism.
When the resolution was completed within the week, the wording didn’t mention Omar, but rather, condemned “hateful expressions of intolerance” against: Jews, Muslims, and minorities. Politico noted that mere hours after the seven-page measure was finalized, it passed the House 407–23. The no votes came from Republicans, with Steve King voting present. Representative Liz Cheney explained that her no vote was based on the failure of the resolution to condemn Omar directly.

With the anti-hate resolution passing on March 7th, a week later in Christchurch New Zealand 49 were gunned down by a white supremacist in two mosques. The Atlantic noted that the shooter’s manifesto: “…invoked the far-right trope of an ‘invasion’ of immigrants overwhelming the white race, declaring online his intent to take revenge and ‘agitate the political enemies of my people into action’ so that they experience a backlash.”

A vigil occurred for the victims the following day, wherein Chelsea Clinton was invited by a multifaith organization. Activists confronted Chelsea Clinton for her role in co-signing the charge of anti-Semitism against Representative Omar in mid-February. The activists, among others, perceived the targeting of Omar as being born of anti-Muslim bigotry. Activist Leen Dweik, who prominently featured in the exchange, stated to Clinton:

“This right here is the result of a massacre stoked by people like you and the words that you put into the world. And I want you to know that, and I want you to feel that deep inside. 49 people died because of the rhetoric you put out there.”

After the video of the confrontation went viral, Chelsea Clinton received widespread support from media, including from conservatives such as Donald Trump Jr, Tucker Carlson, and Kellyanne Conway. Glenn Greenwald tweeted in response to the incident that “it’s certainly understandable why young Muslim activists found her [Clinton’s] presence alienating.” Leen Dweik expressed that her confronting of Chelsea Clinton was impromptu though she had planned on disrupting if Clinton had spoken during the vigil with “the same things that I said to her face.” Dweik expressed incredulity that her statements toward Clinton were being interpreted in their most literal form and in an article for Buzzfeed co-written with fellow activist Rose Asaf, co-founder of the Jewish Voice for Peace chapter at NYU, the activists clarified:

“Just weeks before this tragedy, we bore witness to a bigoted, anti-Muslim mob coming after Rep. Ilhan Omar for speaking the truth about the massive influence of the Israel lobby in this country. As people in unwavering solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle for freedom and human rights, we were profoundly disappointed when Chelsea Clinton used her platform to fan those flames. We believe that Ilhan Omar did nothing wrong except challenge the status quo, but the way many people chose to criticize Omar made her vulnerable to anti-Muslim hatred and death threats.”

In a piece released by The Atlantic just over a week ago, Conor Friedersdorf argues that “callout culture,” that is, the tendency to shame rather than make substantive arguments, has spanned from the initial allegations co-signed by Clinton against Omar in mid-February to the students confronting Clinton in mid-March. Friedersdorf observes that “…at every link in that chain of events, public discourse was dominated not by efforts to persuade or debate anything on the merits, but by attempts to cast, locate, or portray the target of one’s opprobrium as out of bounds.” To allege, as the students did, that “49 people died because of the rhetoric you put out there,” is referred to by Friedersdorf as “neither the truth nor a confrontation on the merits of the anti-Semitism charge.” Further, he criticizes the students for not aspiring toward a substantive argument when confronting Chelsea rather than “call her out and wish her anguish.”

It is unfortunate that Friedersdorf didn’t note that the statement was not to be taken literally, as she clarified what she meant on twitter:
“i can’t believe this has to be said, but i didn’t tell chelsea clinton she was the one who put a gun to muslims’ heads. i said, & continue to say, that by jumping on the right-wing bandwagon & villifying ilhan omar, she fed into the EXACT discourse we were at the vigil to protest.”

In any event, it is true, as Friedersdorf argued, that a merit-based argument is preferable to making an assertion without attempting to substantiate ones claim. So does the claim against Clinton have merit? Was there a “bigoted, anti-Muslim mob?” And were the charges of anti-Semitism invalid?

Soft bigotry, or prejudice, lays its claws into our subconscious in rather subtle ways. It seems highly plausible that with two of the three Muslims in Congress, Talib and Omar, being limelighted with accusations of anti-Semitism, that their Muslim identities served as cinder for such a claim to become a wildfire. Prejudice by definition involves pattern-seeking among a collective to draw assumptions about an individual within that group. And there is an existent pattern, as Fareed Zakaria points out, wherein “anti-Semitism has spread throughout the Islamic world like a cancer.” He notes that the ADL found that anti-Semitism was twice as more likely among Muslims than among Christians in the US, albeit, more common in the Middle East and North Africa. Though Zakaria notes that historically, the Islamic world was “hospitable to Jews when Christian Europe was killing or expelling them.”

In any event, bigoted sentiments are difficult to prove. Rather, it is easier and more practical to assert that there is a credible appearance of bigotry. This assertion is rather easy to substantiate when dissecting the major claims and stances of Omar that featured in the controversy, as well as when analyzing noteworthy contextual clues that Omar was being singled out.

In early March, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) — Chair of the House Select Intelligence Committee, which had been integral to the recently concluded Trump-Russia investigation — was mocked by President Trump at CPAC’s annual meeting. Trump stated:

“I saw little shifty Schiff yesterday. He went into a meeting and he said, ‘We’re going to look into his finances.’ I said, ‘Where did that come from?’ He always talked about Russia. Collusion.”

News outlets reporting the usage of the “Shifty” moniker, such as the Washington Post and Business Insider, failed to note that the term “Shifty” is a derogatory caricature of Jewish bankers, which Trump was using to contemptuously describe a Jewish member of Congress who was looking at his finances. The lack of media attention occurred despite Trump’s history of weathering anti-Semitic allegations. Trump’s CPAC speech referring to Schiff as “Shifty” occurred on March 3rd, and the twitter comment of Omar’s regarding “allegiance” to a foreign nation occurred on the exact same day. Who did the ADL notice? Who did the media notice? Who did Congress notice? And whose comments prompted the anti-hate resolution? The President’s? No. They all noticed and reacted to the comment of the Muslim Congresswoman.

Both Representatives Tlaib and Omar were condemned for making remarks resembling a dual loyalty charge. Yet as Texas media covered an anti-BDS law that demanded signing onto refusal to boycott Israel — and that entailed the firing of a speech pathologist for refusing to sign — the law was roundly referred to as a loyalty oath by The Austin Chronicle, Dallas Observer, Houston Chronicle as well as national media such as The Intercept and Newsweek. The ACLU also referred to it as a loyalty oath. But when anti-BDS legislation was being considered nationally a mere month later, and Tlaib, a Muslim congresswoman, referred to it as pledging “allegiance” to Israel, there was a thunderous condemnation that even prompted a response from the ADL! Mere weeks later, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) referred to the anti-BDS legislation as a “loyalty pledge” and there wasn’t even a ripple of attention. Then when Omar, a Muslim, made statements of “pledging allegiance to a foreign power” the ADL prompted Congress to put forth an anti-hate resolution! Whatever the reality, the optics suggest that Representatives Tlaib and Omar were targeted, consciously or subconsciously, because they were Muslim.

In addition, both Tlaib and Omar were accused of launching the claim of dual loyalty specifically against Jewish Americans as reported by The Atlantic, Slate, the Washington Examiner, among many others. Rather, Tlaib’s comments of dual loyalty were made toward four non-Jews co-sponsoring an anti-BDS bill and Omar’s comments were generalized. Paul Waldman of the Washington Post notes that “the meaning of dual loyalty has a history of referring to the presumption that Jews are loyal to Israel at the expense of the United States.” The ADL expressed awareness of this, yet condemned Tlaib and Omar of promoting anti-Semitism anyway. One might think that if accusing non-Jews of dual loyalty would cause the ADL to worry about the stoking of anti-Semitism, that self-declarations of dual loyalty by non-Jews might cause similar concern. House Majority Leader Stenny Hoyer prompted thunderous applause at the recent AIPAC conference upon stating:

“I stand with Israel, proudly and unapologetically. So, when someone accuses American supporters of Israel of dual loyalty, I say: accuse me. I am part of a large, bipartisan coalition in Congress supporting Israel. I tell Israel’s detractors: accuse us. And millions of Americans, regardless of race or faith or partisan label, stand with Israel because they understand why our relationship with Israel is so important. Accuse us all!”

One of the other items of condemnation Omar received was for her comments that AIPAC had strong financial influence in the shaping of US policy toward Israel. Simply stating this was viewed as anti-Semitic by some. Certainly, any argument on Israel’s influence that doesn’t note the religious component prominently espoused in this Christian-majority country that Israel is the “chosen land” for the Jews, or that doesn’t note the geopolitically strategic aspect of the US having a military foothold in the Middle East, amounts to a deeply insufficient argument. Fixating just on AIPAC certainly amounts to a deficient analysis, but Omar’s emphasis on AIPAC is very much in keeping with the progressive left’s ethos of putting money’s corrupting influence in politics front and center. To not immediately notice that is a bit out-of-touch. As to the merit of Omar’s claim, former AIPAC official, M.J. Rosenberg, notes in The Nation that it would be illegal for AIPAC to fundraise directly, as it represents a foreign power, so instead it devotes its resources to networking individuals and PACs that can coordinate expenditures. This amounts to an indirect and legal form of political fundraising. Rosenberg states, “AIPAC’s political operation is used precisely as Representative Omar suggested.” The Center for Responsible Politics notes that AIPAC spent $3.5 million in lobbying in 2018, and the Jewish lobby in total spent $14.8 million with most of the money going to Democrats.

In the film, The Lobby pro-Israel officials affiliated with AIPAC speak in a way that is, as Ryan Grim of The Intercept points out, “so blunt that if the comments were made by critics, they’d be charged with anti-Semitism.” Eric Gallagher, who was a top AIPAC official from 2010 to 2015 is secretly recorded in the video as he describes AIPAC’s influence. “Getting $38 billion in security aid to Israel matters, which is what AIPAC just did,” Gallagher explains. “Everything AIPAC does is focused on influencing Congress.” But foreign financial influence in Congress is not to be mistakenly thought of as exclusive to the Jewish state of Israel. Rather, as Ryan Grim stated on Twitter amid the Omar controversy: “Yeah and most of those Arab countries are now DC allies with AIPAC, and they also have influence because of money. If you rule that off limits, your political analysis falls short.” Omar has herself condemned the role of Saudi money in a manner that was perhaps more vigorous than her criticism of AIPAC, as she described Saudi Arabia as being able to “buy a President [Trump].” Which if applying the same standards: if saying AIPAC buys politicians makes her anti-Semitic then saying Saudi money buys politicians makes Omar — anti-Muslim? Anti-Saudi?

In any event, AIPAC thinks of itself as extremely influential. As AIPAC’s Steven Rosen, who was then a senior official in AIPAC, stated in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, “You see this napkin? In twenty-four hours, [AIPAC] could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”

The Omar controversy also involved allegations of anti-Semitism for support of the BDS Movement. Thomas Friedman believes Omar doesn’t want the state of Israel to exist. Friedman states he believes Omar’s disdain of AIPAC differs from his own because hers is because she “dislikes Israel,” which is a conclusion he bases on her support of the BDS Movement. His argument being that the BDS Movement’s neutrality on whether or not it supports a two-state solution evidences a desire to see Israel not exist. He states:

“By being specific about the rights of Palestinians to return to their home and not unequivocally committing to a two-state solution, the movement leaves me and many others to believe that B.D.S. is just code for getting rid of the state of Israel.”

Yusuf Munayyer, Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, argues that the BDS movement is a rights-based movement and doesn’t take a position for that reason. Norman Finkelstein, a pro-Palestinian activist, is uncharacteristically aligned with Friedman in saying that implementing all three of the BDS Movement’s demands — that is, ending the occupation, allowing for the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and providing equal rights for Arabs in Israel — would amount to “no Israel.” Though not supportive of the official BDS movement, Finkelstein does still support using boycotts to pressure Israel. The BDS Movement, which is indeed founded by individuals that believe in a one-state solution, contains a linked article on its website addressing Finkelstein’s contentions and asserting compatibility of the movement’s goals with a two-state solution. Regardless of who is correct, it is presumptuous for individuals like Friedman to interpret the movement’s neutrality as tantamount to being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, or to extend that presumption of anti-Semitism to the movement’s supporters.

Last year Omar criticized the BDS Movement as “not helpful in getting that two-state solution.” Months afterward, Omar conveyed to Muslim Girl that she supports BDS, citing that her grandfather had told her how BDS helped end Apartheid in South Africa. Omar and others have described Israel as instituting a system of Apartheid against Palestinians. With Friedman and others associating Omar’s support of BDS with being anti-Israel, Omar recently declared unequivocally in a Washington Post op-ed that she supports a two-state solution.

It is conceivable that Omar supports boycotting Israel for the same reasons Finkelstein does. That is, to pressure Israel with regards to bettering Palestinian human rights. But unlike Finkelstein, it is possible that either she hasn’t analyzed the compatibility of a two-state solution with the BDS movements’ demands, or has analyzed and wrought a different conclusion. Whatever is the case, to conflate support of BDS with anti-Semitism is foolhardy.

Whatever the reality that made Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib targets, whether it is their Muslim heritage, or their pro-BDS stances, or that they are part of the progressive left-wing in Congress that both parties are oppositional toward, the points made above make it reasonable to surmise that the intense scrutiny they received was at least in part due to their Muslim identity. And when activists confront those that they accuse of exhibiting what appears as bigotry, there needs to be what Friedersdorf referred to as an “empathetic discernment” enough to know that an explanation must follow. The same is true of those that accused Omar and Tlaib of anti-Semitism, of which the initial outpour of accusations that Chelsea Clinton co-signed offered no substantive explanation.

Political blogger. Fiction writer. BA from University of Kentucky in International Studies with concentration in Latin American Studies.

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