There’s an old joke about upper-class British anti-Semitism: It means someone who hates Jews more than is strictly necessary. Ilhan Omar, the freshman representative from Minnesota, more than meets the progressive American version of that standard.
Like many self-described progressives, Omar does not like Israel. That’s a shame, not least because Israel is the only country in its region that embraces the sorts of values the Democratic Party claims to champion. When was the last time there was a gay-pride parade in Ramallah, a women’s rights march in Gaza, or an opposition press in Tehran? In what Middle Eastern country other than Israel can an attorney general indict a popular and powerful prime minister on corruption charges?
But America is a free country, and Omar is within her rights to think what she will about Israel or any other state. Contrary to a self-serving myth among Israel’s detractors, there’s rarely a social or reputational penalty for publicly criticizing Israeli policies today. It’s ubiquitous on college campuses and commonplace in editorial pages. And contrary to some recent comments from Senator Elizabeth Warren, no serious person claims criticism of Israel is ipso facto anti-Semitic. My last column called on Benjamin Netanyahu to resign. Last I checked, the Anti-Defamation League has not denounced me.
Omar, however, isn’t just a critic of Israel. As the joke has it, her objections to the Jewish state go well beyond what’s strictly necessary.
“Israel has hypnotized the world,” she tweeted in 2012. “May Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Last month, she wrote that U.S. support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby.” A few weeks after that, she told an audience in D.C. that “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Confronted with criticism about the remark from her fellow Democrat Nita Lowey, she replied: “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.”
Under intense pressure, Omar recanted those first two tweets. But she’s standing her ground on her more recent comments. It’s a case study in the ease with which strident criticism of Israel shades into anti-Semitism.
For those who don’t get it, claims that Israel “hypnotizes” the world, or that it uses money to bend others to its will, or that its American supporters “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” repackage falsehoods commonly used against Jews for centuries. People can debate the case for Israel on the merits, but those who support the state should not have to face allegations that their sympathies have been purchased, or their brains hijacked, or their loyalties divided.
It’s also a case study in the insidious cunning and latent power of anti-Jewish bigotry— proof that anti-Semitism is not, after all, merely the socialism of fools. Omar, I suspect, knows exactly what she is doing. She pleads ignorance when it suits her, saying she was unaware that her references to hypnosis and “Benjamins” might be considered offensive. Or she wraps herself in the flag, sounding almost like Pat Buchanan when he called Congress “Israeli-occupied” territory. Or she invokes free speech, telling Lowey “our democracy is built on debate” — as if the debate she wants to force is as innocuous as a dispute over a spending bill.