The Inescapable Roots of Rep. Omar’s Antisemitism

This article represents one view on a complex issue. For a different perspective, see American Jews Are Facing Serious Threats But Not From Rep. Omar.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., sits with fellow Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee during a bill markup, on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trump is weighing in on the most recent controversy involving Omar, retweeting video edited to suggest that the Minnesota congresswoman was dismissive of the significance of the Sept. 11 attacks. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”  

George Santayana

We live in an age of instant communication.  Between the Internet and cable news, stories rise and fall with dizzying speed, causing the narrative and focus to change on an almost daily basis.  Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) has recently been the subject of attacks by President Trump due to her remarks regarding 9/11. This attack has anti-Muslim implications and is part of an attempt by Republicans to make Rep. Omar and several other minority women members of the U.S House the face of the Democratic party.  She is being defended by major Democrats due to the nature of these attacks. This should not, however, cause us to lose sight of her prior pronouncements regarding American Jews and Israel. These remarks have been the subject of a great deal of commentary and criticism, much of which misses the point. The tweet “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” presents a picture of Israel’s supporters in Congress being bought by Jewish money and influenced by pro-Israel lobbyists.  Also, there is the underlying theme that Jews are not loyal to the country but to some nefarious foreign interests.

She has been defended in several ways.  One thread is that the government of Israel could be criticized without the criticism being anti-Semitic.  Another thread is “whataboutism” the idea that people on the other side have done worse, for example, Rep. King of Iowa. The latter can be disposed of easily.  Something bad has to stand on its own regardless of the existence of other bad things. Republicans have certainly pounded this meme for years in defense of Trump in the face of many investigations.  What about Hillary’s emails/Benghazi?

The other defense is that one can criticize the government of Israel without being anti-Semitic.  That is true but misses the point of what was actually said and how it echoed more than a century of anti-Semitic themes.  Anti-Semitism has a much longer history but this essay focuses on times after the religious persecution in Europe by the Catholic Church and other Christian elements.

A thread of anti-Semitic attacks has been based upon the themes of money and national loyalty.  The Dreyfus affair in France in the 19th Century gave rise to a great deal of rhetoric regarding the suspect loyalties of Jews.  Likewise “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a forgery, pushed the same themes, money, and lack of loyalty to the nation. Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest” of the 1930s sounded much of the same message.  In the Soviet Union, after World War II, Stalin attacked his nation’s Jews for “rootless cosmopolitanism” and lack of patriotism.

What is significant about Rep. Omar’s comments is that they are based upon a casual anti-Semitism that should be absent from the US in 2019, that Jews have dual loyalty and value money over everything else.  They are also based upon the geographical and generational origins of Ms. Omar. She was born in Somalia in 1981. What she may have been taught in her native land is open to speculation as well as to what are the prevailing beliefs of her Muslim community in the US.  What is not open to speculation is that people coming of age in the 1990s might see Israel in a different light than have earlier generations. Of course, this is not to say that earlier generations did not contain those who believed what Rep. Omar believes, but her world view is shaped by what she has seen and heard.

When Israel was founded in 1948, the world was just becoming aware of the Holocaust and of the attempt by Hitler and company to exterminate the Jewish population.  Israel, for many, was a beacon of hope and safety for a people who had just suffered history’s worst atrocity. As soon as the state of Israel was declared, Arab armies from larger surrounding countries invaded and were defeated by heroic efforts of an under-equipped armed force.  That victory expanded the borders of Israel but did not prevent subsequent wars and other attacks. Israel created buffer zones after the 1967 war but that did not prevent attacks by Egypt and Syria, aided by other Arab forces, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

That war was followed by the Camp David Accords with Egypt, after which Israel did not face a serious military threat from Arab states, although terror attacks continued. For a person whose view of history began more than a decade after this agreement, Israel appeared to be an occupying power in the captured territories with no countervailing sense of Israel’s past efforts to survive in a region where it was outnumbered by hostile forces.  

A person’s view of events and the state of things is determined by many factors.  What experiences shaped a view of the world? What prejudices and assumptions are present? What are the prevailing beliefs of family, community, and schools? There can be no argument that people can look at the same facts and reach different conclusions.  Rep. Omar’s conclusions were clearly shaped by growing up in her various communities. Her criticisms of the current policies of the Israeli government went beyond the policies and morphed into a repetition of the standard anti-Semitic themes, long refuted by responsible voices, but still viewed as valid in certain communities. That, coupled with a myopic view of history, resulted in comments deserving of condemnation.  Understanding the reasons for her comments do not excuse them. As an elected representative of a diverse community of hundreds of thousands of people, she should have known better.

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