Ilhan Omar, a Democratic congresswoman representing Minnesota’s 5th district, took office in January 2019. She received media attention for being the first Somali-American and one of the first — along with fellow freshman Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib — Muslim women to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The following month she received media attention for a very different reason: a series of anti-Semitic tweets. On November 16, 2012 Omar had tweeted: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” The tweet employed the anti-Semitic trope of Jews using magic powers to dominate the world. Shortly after Omar took office, The New York Times writer Bari Weiss penned a column explaining why she, as an American Jew, took offense at Omar’s tweet and how the conspiracy theory of Jews as hypnotic puppeteers has a painful and deadly history.
In response to Weiss’ criticism, Omar tweeted: “That statement came in the context of the Gaza War. It’s now apparent to me that I spent lots of energy putting my 2012 tweet in context and little energy in disavowing the anti-Semitic trope I unknowingly used, which is unfortunate and offensive.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, compared Omar’s use of an anti-Semitic trope to Iowa’s Republican Congressman Steve King’s comment to The New York Times expressing befuddlement that white nationalism and white supremacy are considered offensive.
On February 10, journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted: “Equating @IlhanMN [and] @RashidaTlaib’s criticism of Israel to Steve King’s long defense of white supremacy is obscene
(McCarthy said it’s worse). In the U[.]S[.], we’re allowed to criticize our own government: certainly foreign governments. The GOP House Leader’s priorities are warped.”
In response Omar tweeted: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” (a slang reference to hundred-dollar bills).
Batya Ungar-Sargon, Opinion Editor for the Jewish newspaper The Forward, joined the conversation by tweeting: “Would love to know who @IlhanMN thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, though I think I can guess. Bad form, Congresswoman. That’s the second anti-Semitic trope you’ve tweeted.”
Omar replied: “AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee]!”
Reading these tweets was painful for me. As an American Jew and a Millennial, I’ve always taken for granted the acceptance and security I experience living in the United States, a privilege rarely given to Jews throughout history and throughout the world. Omar’s tweets employed anti-Semitic tropes of Jews using money to control the government. This was the first time I experienced an elected U.S. official publicly using hate speech directed at a minority to which I belonged.
Following public outcry, Omar deleted the offensive tweets and issued an apology the next day: “Anti-Semitism is real[,] and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize. 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.”
In some ways, I’m more offended by Omar’s apologies than by her initial statements. While I would like to believe her apologies were genuine, they don’t seem plausible. Omar claimed ignorance. She insisted she wasn’t aware her statements were cloaked in anti-Semitic tropes. But it seems far-fetched to believe it’s merely a coincidence that she unknowingly used classic anti-Semitic notions when tweeting about Israel, employing the same ugly stereotypes anti-Semites have used throughout history. Plus, her AIPAC tweet was in direct response to Ungar-Sargon’s tweet that blatantly called out Omar for anti-Semitism. How can she claim she had no idea she was spewing anti-Semitic jabs when one of her controversial remarks was in response to being alerted to the anti-Semitic nature of her previous remarks?
The fact that she didn’t know — or claimed not to have known — she was using hate speech is appalling. For example, if I as a straight person used the three-letter f-word in reference to the LGBTQ community and then claimed I didn’t know it was offensive, that level of ignorance would be comical. It would also be disgusting because it means I’m so accustomed to communicating with hate speech that I don’t even see anything wrong with it or comprehend how hurtful it can be to others.
Omar insisted that criticisms of AIPAC should not be confused with anti-Semitism. However, when you mix traditional anti-Semitic tropes with your criticism of AIPAC, the word AIPAC becomes a dog-whistle for the word Jews.
Another reason Omar’s apologies seemed disingenuous was because she continued using anti-Semitic tropes. In March, when questioned about the Twitter controversy at a bookstore event in Washington, DC, Omar said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” intimating the anti-Semitic idea that Jews possess dual-loyalty, which is inherently suspect of our devotion to America. This time Omar did not apologize.
Whenever a person makes anti-Semitic remarks, it’s hurtful. When a person in a position of power makes anti-Semitic remarks, it’s scary. I wish Omar would stop talking about us.
In April, as I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I saw that Curtis Sittenfeld, one of my favorite authors and a resident of Minnesota, posted: “#IStandWithIlhan and I’m glad [and] proud she’s my congresswoman.” The post stunned me and also really bothered me. To be fair, I don’t think Sittenfeld was endorsing the use of anti-Semitic tropes. In the same post, Sittenfeld recommended a documentary about Omar that explores “the adversity she’s overcome as a woman and refugee.” While it seemed that Sittenfeld’s support of the congresswoman was based on her ambition and overcoming of adversity, she was nonetheless advocating for someone who traffics in anti-Semitism.
At first, I thought what bothered me about Sittenfeld’s post was that someone I admired was turning a blind eye to incidents that caused me pain. But then I realized that what bothered me was something more complex. Sittenfeld wasn’t the target of Omar’s bigotry; I was. Sittenfeld is not Jewish, and she made no mention of Omar’s anti-Semitic comments in her post, seeming to tacitly give Omar a pass for her hateful rhetoric. What bothered me was someone outside of the targeted minority arbitrating what level of anti-Semitism is considered passable.
That uncomfortable feeling returned on May 8 when late night talk show host Seth Meyers engaged in a testy argument with his guest Meghan McCain about Omar’s tweets. Three days earlier during an appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, roundtable guests were quick to place blame for the synagogue shooting in Poway on President Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric. McCain pointed out that anti-Semitic rhetoric exists on both sides of the political aisle and referred to Omar’s tweets as an example.
Meyers repeatedly asked McCain if she stood by her statement from the previous week about Omar’s tweets being anti-Semitic. McCain confirmed she stood by her statement, saying
that she will call out anti-Semitism when she sees it. Meyers urged McCain to reconsider, saying that Omar has apologized and has received death threats and that as one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress she brings a different point of view to which people should listen.
I felt physically sick. It was painful to listen to a non-Jew publicly make excuses for anti-Semitic rhetoric, and to essentially advocate, as Sittenfeld had, that it was passable.
What scares me more than people who use anti-Semitic rhetoric is non-Jews who use public platforms to argue that anti-Semitic rhetoric is acceptable. It’s these enablers that make anti-Semitism mainstream instead of a fringe viewpoint, giving strength and motion to a dangerous ideology. When seemingly innocuous celebrities align themselves with politicians who spout bigotry, this is the time for the Jewish community to come together and stand against hatred.
The controversy surrounding Omar’s tweets was bookended by synagogue shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue and Chabad of Poway, harsh reminders that anti-Semitism doesn’t just exist on Twitter, it is a real and deadly threat from one coast of the United States to the other. German film director Werner Herzog recently tweeted: “Dear America: You are waking up as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches.”
Originally published in GatherDC on July 9, 2019. I strongly oppose Trump’s tweet on July 14, 2019 telling Omar to “go back.” The answer to bigotry is not more bigotry.