Demonizing Ilhan Omar: Why the entire political establishment wants to crush one woman

Shoddy media reporting, along with elite fears of what the American public really wants, have driven this disgrace

Published March 8, 2019 7:00AM (EST)

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

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I wish I could say I were surprised at the demonization of Ilhan Omar by an establishment that remains eager to whitewash Elliott Abrams' record of war crimes. But I’m not. In fact, it’s exactly what I’ve come to expect. The super-strict (yet simultaneously sloppy) language policing to which Omar has been subjected is ludicrously asymmetric.

No matter how heinously conservatives may behave, Democrats always bend over backward to punish anyone on their side whom conservatives single out as comparable, no matter how far-fetched or bogus those conservative claims might be. We’re seeing that now as House Democrats struggle over a resolution aimed at rebuking Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., for nonexistent anti-Semitic comments. As Paul Waldman explained at the Washington Post: Omar did not accuse Jews of holding dual loyalties. Rather, she objected to dual loyalties being demanded of her — and those who attacked her only proved her point.

A reality check on all this came from Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, which describes itself as "the political home and voice for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,".on Tuesday's “All In” on MSNBC:

If you're going to have a serious discussion about hate and intolerance in this country, let's start at the top. Let's start by having a House discussion about the president's intolerance and his racism. Let's have a discussion about the xenophobia and the racism that's coming from the other side of the aisle. And let's stop using the discussion of anti-Semitism as a way of avoiding a real discussion about policy towards Israel and Palestine, and the issues that are actually on the table about occupation and the treatment of Palestinians.

The last sentence was almost an exact echo of the sentiments Omar had expressed in the public speech that gave rise to the most recent controversy. Before wading further into the swamp of false allegations, it’s wise to consider that eminent Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has hailed Omar as “a glimmer of hope on Capitol Hill,” adding: “Maybe, for the first time in history, someone will dare tell the truth to the American people, absorbing scathing accusations of anti-Semitism, without bowing her head.”

Levy’s assessment of Omar’s alleged transgressions is blunt:

What, after all, has Omar said? That pro-Israel activists demand “allegiance to a foreign country”; that U.S. politicians support Israel because of money they receive from the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, and that “Israel hypnotized the world.” What is incorrect in these statements? Why is describing reality considered anti-Semitic?

The reason, of course, is sensitivity to language — a sensitivity that’s wildly asymmetric in America today. Language matters, of course — but so do context, history, intent and willingness to enter into dialogue. All of which seem to be utterly lacking in the rush to pillory Omar for things she did not say.

Crucially, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., a longtime Israel booster and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Omar serves, accused her of “invoking a vile anti-Semitic slur.” She did nothing of the sort.

Here’s what Omar said: “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.”

And here’s why it’s supposedly problematic: Claims about Jews’ allegiance to Israel (“dual loyalty”) reflect centuries of stereotyping them as inherently disloyal to the communities and countries where they live, because of their identity as Jews, as outsiders, as others.

But there’s just one big problem. Omar didn’t say anything about Jews. What’s more, there is a push for allegiance to Israel at large in American politics — and it’s not just about Jews. It’s about everyone.

A majority of states have passed laws punishing -- and in some sense prohibiting — participation in boycotts against Israel. This is specifically aimed at the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) strategy, modeled on the one used to pressure South Africa to end apartheid in the 1980s, even as Israel supported South Africa. These anti-BDS laws clearly aim to punish political speech and are inherently abhorrent to the First Amendment. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed his state's anti-BDS law, he tweeted, "Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies. Proud to sign anti-BDS legislation into law today." You couldn’t ask for a clearer example of dual loyalty than that. To state what ought to be obvious, the right-wing Republican governor of Texas is not Jewish.

The Senate's very first order of business this year, Marco Rubio's S. 1, included support for these unconstitutional state anti-BDS laws, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., was similarly attacked for her criticism at that time. (Tlaib and Omar, both elected last year, are the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress.)

First, Bernie Sanders tweeted, “It’s absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity. Democrats must block consideration of any bills that don’t reopen the government. Let's get our priorities right.”

Tlaib quote-tweeted him, adding, “They forgot what country they represent. This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality. Maybe a refresher on our U.S. Constitution is in order, then get back to opening up our government instead of taking our rights away.”

Once again, Tlaib said nothing about Jews. There is nothing in her comment that questioning anyone’s loyalty based on religious or ethnic identity, rather than actions. But Rubio ignominiously responded, “This 'dual loyalty' canard is a typical anti-Semitic line,” and Tlaib shot back, “Sen. Rubio, it's clear my earlier tweet was critical of U.S. Senators like yourself, who are seeking to strip Americans of their Constitutional right to free speech.”

This first attempt to demonize the two new Muslim-American congresswomen quickly fizzled out, because it was mounted in the context of the shutdown, and Sanders' position — with which Tlaib was aligned — had the backing of pro-Israel Democratic leaders, at least until the shutdown ended. But the strategic desire behind it — not just to demonize Omar and Tlaib, but to fragment the Democratic coalition — never went away. And now that the shutdown is ancient history, and Rubio's bill passed the Senate easily (with significant Democratic support), these attacks have returned with a fierce vengeance.

Hence, the logic of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's response:

It’s not my position to tell people how to feel, or that their hurt is invalid.

But incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll “send Obama home to Kenya?”

She went on to highlight the core issue of intent, on all sides:

In this administration + all others, we should actively check antisemitism, anti-blackness, homophobia, racism, and all other forms of bigotry.

And the most productive end goal when we see it is to educate and heal.

It’s the difference btwn “calling in” before “calling out.”

“Calling out” is one of the measures of last resort, not 1st or 2nd resort.

We do it when repeated attempts to “call in” are disrespected or ignored. And I believe that Ilhan, in her statement a few weeks ago, has demonstrated a willingness to listen+work w/impacted communities.

But I have to ask: Who’s listening to Ilhan Omar when they put words in her mouth and then demand her apology for things she has never said? Who’s listening when this act of heinous, bullying false accusation illustrates exactly what she was talking about?

It’s important to listen to those who feel impacted — but also important to go beyond surface appearances. Waldman’s Washington Post article, “The dishonest smearing of Ilhan Omar,” not only lays bare the dishonest dual loyalty charge, it also reflects on history.

Waldman explains how “dual loyalty” has almost disappeared as a slur over time, as support for Israel and the orientation of AIPAC have both shifted, with support coming from conservative evangelicals and the Republican Party, while AIPAC’s lobbying has shifted “from supporting Israel generally to being the lobby in the United States for the [right-wing] Likud.” In short, the “loyalties” involved are not at all the ones referred to 30 years ago, so the slur simply doesn’t make sense.

“‘Supporters of Israel’ hasn’t been a synonym for ‘Jews’ since the 1980s,” Waldman notes. “In the United States today, a ‘supporter of Israel’ is much more likely to be an evangelical Christian Republican than a Jew.”

But this situation is even more deeply confused than Waldman describes, since the “support” from right-wing Christians — based on a particular reading of the Book of Revelation — is premised on the prospect of Israel’s ultimate destruction. That gets us into territory that is almost never discussed. Language policing is tightly focused on folks like Ilhan Omar, but no questions are to be asked about the attitudes or belies of white evangelical Christians.

As filmmaker David Heilbroner wrote just before the theatrical release of the documentary "Waiting for Armageddon," end-times theology is their guide:

And if that means embracing foretold disasters and wars including the Battle of Armageddon, so be it.

Professor Gary Dickerson from the all-Christian Corban College puts it this way: “I don’t look at the wars in the Middle East with the hope that things will work out. We’ve been told, Israel will experience this distress all the way to the end.”

Such are the “friends of Israel” in America today. But don’t dare question anything about them! They’ll have a Mark Meadows-style meltdown that may never end. In contrast, it’s supposed "anti-Semites" like Ilhan Omar who don’t want Israel to be destroyed, but want a society based peace and justice in the Middle East instead.

Demonizing Omar serves to defend otherwise indefensible politics, both on the ground in Israel and Palestine and in the halls of power here. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just pushed Likud past simply being a right-wing coalition into an alliance with racist extremists, leading even AIPAC to condemn the move. Here in America, as money-in-politics reporter Alex Kotch noted, “AIPAC officials have bragged about their power over Washington lawmakers,” which simply can’t be ignored:

Labeling anyone who speaks of Jews and money in the same sentence as an anti-Semite weakens our fight against the real anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, and other white nationalist forces that have seen a resurgence in recent years. It also stifles legitimate discussion about the enormous power of special interests, something that threatens our democratic political system.

As Israel plunges farther and farther to the right under Netanyahu, American public opinion really wants the U.S. government to take the constructive bridge-building approach it's always pretended to. Recent polling finds increasing criticism of Israel, while an overwhelming majority of Democrats, 82 percent want America to lean neither toward Israelis nor Palestinians. That staggering supermajority is the underlying threat that Ilhan Omar's refusal to play by Washington's rules really represents.

The irony here is that Omar is asking America to play the role it has long claimed to play, and to seek a liberal international order that actually lives up to its promise. She's being painted as an enemy to that order by the folks who are its real enemies — Donald Trump and his Republican fellow travelers, most obviously, but also those like the "white moderates" whom Martin Luther King Jr. came to see as the greatest obstacles to justice.

One striking example of this is New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who has chosen to take aim at what Brendan Nyhan calls “liberal whataboutism,” saying, “Incredible to see the tactics GOP relies on to defend Trump being mirrored so explicitly -- same playbook (‘the real problem is...’)”. But this symmetrically framed analysis utterly ignores the asymmetrical world we live in, as well as the fundamental underlying facts. Chait wrote:

The main theme of the defenses of Omar is deflection. Mehdi Hasan’s pro-Omar column lists all the anti-Semitism on the Republican side that has gone unpunished, and devotes not a single word to defending or even minimizing her offense. This has been a running theme of pro-Omar commentary on social media.

But Hasan explained the reason for this simply when he appeared along with Ben-Ami on "All In." It's because the media reporting has largely been false: 

Let's be clear, she hasn't said anything about Jews. She's not said one word about Jews. I got an email today from a Jewish reader saying, "You wrote an article and you didn't mention how she's accused Jews of having dual loyalties to Israel. Why didn't you say that?" Because she didn't say that. She talked about supporters of Israel insisting that politicians in the U.S. show allegiance to Israel, and that's kind of undeniable. I mean, that's been reported on for years.

That’s not whataboutism. That’s what-about-the-facts-ism, which is the exact opposite of what Nyhan and Chait pretend is going on.

It was weak-willed moderate pseudo-allies like that who drove Martin Luther King Jr. to distraction. Nevertheless, he persisted. So will Ilhan Omar, no doubt.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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