Opinion: Representative Ilhan Omar and the Difference Between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

Content warning: Discussion of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia 

Background

Ilhan Omar has lived in the 5th congressional district of Minnesota for 20 years and is now their elected representative. Representative Omar has achieved many accomplishments: she is one of the two first Muslim-American women, along with Rashida Tlaib, to ever be elected to the House of Representatives, the first Somali-American legislator in the US and the first woman of color to represent Minnesota. She is also the Whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Representative Omar has experienced war first hand since she fled from Somalia’s civil war to a Kenyan refugee camp at eight years old. Ilhan Omar and her family moved to the Midwest region of the United States in Minneapolis. Before her run for Congress, she has notable experience in community organizing and local politics. In addition to the historical landmarks Representative Omar achieved in the US House of Representatives, she also made significant history in local politics of Minnesota. She became the “highest-elected Somali-American public official in the United States” when she was elected as a Minnesota House Representative. 

The Controversy

In the past few months, Representative Omar has been subject to heavy criticism by members of the Democratic and Republican parties because of her criticisms against the Israeli government. A tweet from Omar recently resurfaced from 2012 causing controversy. The tweet stated, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

In February of this year, another tweet from Representative Omar was accused of being anti-Semitic. The tweet was in response to journalist Glenn Greenwald questioning the GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy’s threats to punish Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib for their criticisms of Israel by tweeting, “It’s stunning how much time U.S. political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.” Representative Omar quoted Greenwald’s tweet saying, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” 

Critics are accusing Representative Omar of using “antisemitic tropes.” Specifically, her more recent tweet has been compared to the “antisemitic trope” of Jewish people controlling the world with money, however, Representative Omar has defended herself by explaining that her tweet referred to Israeli lobbyist groups, citing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The BBC explained its role in the US government, “AIPAC spends millions of dollars a year lobbying lawmakers and the US federal government to adopt pro-Israel policies, according to campaign-finance monitors.” 

Responses to the Controversy

Members of both the Democratic and Republican parties have been quick to respond to the controversy surrounding Representative Omar. Many Republican officials that responded to the controversy called for Representative Omar's removal from the House of Representatives and her apology. The elected Democratic officials that have responded include House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries and Vice Chair Katherine Clark, Majority Whip James Clyburn and Assistant House Speaker Ben Ray Lujan. Chelsea Clinton is another high-profile Democrat who has publicly responded and criticized Representative Omar for her tweets. Due to the substantial criticism that Representative Omar has received, she has since apologized for both tweets and has deleted them. 

The official response to the controversy was more than just words, but also legislative action. The House of Representatives passed a resolution 407-23 denouncing all forms of hate, including anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim bigotry. The resolution did not specifically call out Representative Omar, but it was written in direct response to Representative Omar’s controversy. Representative Omar voted in support of the resolution and she has publicized a statement of support. All Democrats in the house voted for the resolution, while many Republican representatives voted against the resolution because it did not directly target Ilhan Omar. 

Analysis

Much too often people conflate Anti-Semitism with what is actually Anti-Zionism, which is exactly what is happening in the case of the Ilhan Omar controversy. Anti-Zionism refers to the opposal of the modern state of Israel, specifically Israel's occupation of Palestine. Anti-Semitism refers to prejudice against Jewish people. Representative Omar's tweets and other statements about Israel are aimed to be Anti-Zionist, not Anti-Semitic. It may be correct that she unknowingly used Anti-Semitic Tropes to critique the actions of the Israeli government and lobbyist groups, but she was not targeting Jewish people and her intent was clearly not Anti-Semitic.

We should condemn Representative Omar's tweets, but the condemning of Omar's character and intent is unacceptable. In the United States, there is a habit of calling out anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism and censoring anyone who criticizes the state of Israel, especially when it comes to their occupation of Israel or impact on U.S. policy. The fact is the United States government's ties with Israel is stronger than any other allyship that the U.S. participates in. One example of the strength of U.S. allyship with Israel is the fact that 26 states have policies in place that prohibit state employees from participating in boycott movements against Israel. Both of the policies and occupation of Palestine are what Representative Omar is criticizing and politicians who receive large sums of lobbying money from AIPAC, Democrats and Republicans alike, are trying to discredit her by wrongfully calling her anti-Semitic. 

Additionally, some of the same politicians that are accusing Representative Omar of Anti-Semitism have been long defendants of anti-Semitic actions and have made unacceptable anti-Semitic statements. Recently, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio tweeted an anti-Semitic trope when talking about Tom Steyer he spelled Steyer with a money sign instead of an 'S.' Kevin McCarthy, the GOP Leader who also condemned Representative Omar for her tweets, tweeted an Anti-Semitic trope about George Soros after a bomb was sent to his house in 2018, accusing him of trying to buy the 2018 midterm election.

These two anti-Semitic tweets are not isolated incidents, Donald Trump is also known to often defend Anti-Semitism and use Anti-Semitic language himself. Like others, Trump has used anti-Semitic tropes accusing Jewish people of trying to control politics and the world with money. He also defended the incident in Charlottesville, Virginia where Neo-Nazis marched carrying Nazi flags and shouting anti-Semitic slurs. The march ended with many people injured and one dead. In his response to the incident, Donald Trump claimed there were good people on both sides referring to the Neo-Nazi marchers and the counter-protesters. Donald Trump refused to accept Ilhan Omar's apology despite his long history with anti-Semitism on a grand scale. Not only are many Republicans responsible for using anti-Semitism, they are also responding to Representative Omar's mistakes with hate fueled by Islamaphobia. One of the most prominent examples of Islamaphobia recently is the West Virginia Republicans that posted an Islamophobic poster linking Representative Ilhan Omar to 9/11 simply because she is Muslim.

Regardless of your opinions on Israel or Representative Ilhan Omar, it is important to think critically about both issues and especially how they are portrayed in mainstream United States media. It is also imperative to recognize that prejudice or hate to combat another form of prejudice or hate is wrong and harmful to the country. If you want to learn more about the Israeli-Palestine conflict check out this article from Vox. 

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