I’m Jewish, and I’m ashamed of how we’re treating Ilhan Omar

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is being accused of anti-Semitism not because criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic, but because the pro-Israel lobby has done a great job of making the American public and Congress believe that story.

By Scott Brown

U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. (Leopaltik1242/CC BY-SA 4.0)
U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. (Leopaltik1242/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The House of Representatives is set to bring a resolution to the floor on Thursday to confront Ilhan Omar’s comments on the influence of Israel and the Israel lobby in American politics, a controversy that has escalated rapidly since her Tweets about AIPAC’s influence on certain Congress members on February 10.

At the same time, most Democratic leaders have been deafeningly silent about a poster connecting Ilhan Omar to the 9/11 attacks that was posted at a Republican celebration in West Virginia last weekend.

But just as silent have been mainstream Jewish institutions. In response to Omar’s comments, organizations claiming to stand against hate and defend Jewish people, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Weisenthal Center, have written assertive public letters addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for another condemnation of Omar’s comments, and even for her to be stripped of her role on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Meanwhile, their response to the Islamophobic poster? Silence. Or a singular tweet.

I am deeply angered and ashamed at the response of Jewish institutions to Ilhan Omar. As a white American Jew who has simultaneously experienced hate and enjoyed white privilege, I believe I cannot claim to stand for things like safety and justice for all without both understanding and showing up in solidarity with the struggles of others. To my fellow Jews, I say if that feels true for you too, then ask yourself: what does it say that the mainstream Jewish community is attacking people like the first black Muslim woman in Congress for criticizing Israel?

Have we taken the time to learn her story of escaping the Somali civil war and surviving refugee camps as a child? Have we looked at her impressive record as a state legislator, human rights activist, and advocate for women and children? Have we taken into consideration how all of these experiences may have actually given her a deep understanding of what oppression and injustice looks like, including for Jewish people?

Or have we reactionarily condemned black leaders as Jew-haters because we’re unable to differentiate between critique of Israel and anti-Semitism?

A few weeks ago, I was at a dialogue group I’ve been participating in for the past six months that brings together black and Jewish DC residents to increase understanding and confront tensions between our communities. After one discussion about the lack of trust between our communities, one friend approached me and asked: “Are there any prominent Jewish leaders at all that speak out against Israel?” I’m a white Jew; he’s black and not Jewish.

His question hit me in the gut because it shed light for me on how some people outside the Jewish community perceive Jews: unapologetic supporters of a state with a record of egregious human rights abuses and violations of international law. This is a perception that we as a Jewish community have enabled by accepting and advocating the idea that being Jewish means embracing and defending Israel, and conversely, that criticism of Israel is the same as anti-Semitism.

That same misunderstanding is at the root of the ongoing controversy around Ilhan Omar’s statements, the public attacks on Professor Marc Lamont Hill after speaking on Palestinian liberation at the UN, and Angela Davis having a human rights award revoked due to her support of Palestine.

Jewish people do not become safer when we divide ourselves from people like Ilhan Omar, Marc Lamont Hill and Angela Davis. All we do is further endanger these leaders, who are already putting their livelihoods — and lives — at risk for taking controversial political stances as black public figures. Condemning those who criticize Israel in the name of safety for Jews, as many white Jewish leaders do, while failing to say a thing about Islamophobic attacks like those on Omar, is shameful and deeply hypocritical.

I, too, once thought that part of being Jewish was loyally supporting Israel. In the hall where we worshipped at my synagogue, there was an American flag on one side of the stage and an Israeli flag on the other. We sang Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, as part of our Hebrew school singing lessons.

That experience is not uncommon in American Jewish communities. And much of that Israel-centric education is facilitated by institutions with similar aims as the political lobbies like AIPAC that Ilhan Omar is criticizing. Their goal is to build strong relationships between Americans and Israel, not just on a political level, but also within our communities. In Jewish communities, that means creating a deep, unquestioned sense of loyalty to Israel as a part of Jewish identity.

One example is the educational programs that organizations like the Jewish National Fund (JNF) bring into American Jewish communities. As a the self-declared largest provider of Israel education in America, the JNF states it believes “investing in education is critical to creating the next generation of Israel supporters.” At the same time, large portions of the millions the JNF raises in donations in the United States are directed to projects in illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine.

So it’s not much of a surprise that when someone like Ilhan Omar pushes back against the pressure for American politicians to support Israel, that so many, Jews and non-Jews, would condemn this as anti-Semitism. But how do these condemnations look when we investigate and see that Eliot Engel, who publicly demanded Omar apologize for her statements, was the 5th highest recipient of donations from the pro-Israel lobby in 2018? Or when we look closer at the Democratic House members who signed the last statement condemning Omar, and find that every single one of them except Nancy Pelosi received money from pro-Israel lobbies in 2018 too?

AIPAC is not the only one doing this lobbying; Evangelical Zionist groups like Christians United for Israel and the U.S. defense industry that makes untold amounts off of Israel military contracts do the same. AIPAC is just doing it really well. The fact that so many Congress members came running to defend them when they were called out by Omar shows just how effective they’ve been at their work. Whether or not these politicians truly believe that criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic, it is in their interest and their donors’ interest to buy into that narrative.

Omar, Hill, and Davis were attacked with accusations of anti-Semitism not because criticizing Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, but because the pro-Israel lobby has done a great job of making both the public and Congress believe that story.

So as I stood there, looking into my friend’s eyes as he asked me if any prominent Jewish leaders speak out against the actions of Israel, the only honest answer I could give is “not enough.”

Scott Brown is a queer, Jewish organizer in Washington, DC passionate about justice, community-building and glitter. He organizes with Jewish Voice for Peace-DC Metro and Occupation Free DC. Find him on Twitter: @scottbrown545.