How Ilhan Omar’s tweet provided a teachable moment

The Democratic congresswoman's seemingly heartfelt apology flies against those expecting more political division and bigoted language

February 12, 2019 17:52

Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar was in hot water again over the weekend when she tweeted out an antisemitic comment in response to activist-writer Glenn Greenwald’s note on her Israel stance.

But, encouragingly, after a quick and seemingly heartfelt apology, the outcome seems to have led a teachable moment.

And that’s a relief at a moment where we might have expected a cementing of political division and bigoted language in the Israel debate.

In a double-barrelled comment, the representative from Minneapolis tweeted on Sunday about Jewish money influencing American politics.

Her first comment — “It’s all about the Benjamins baby”, referring to the $100 note featuring Benjamin Franklin — was in response to a tweet that said she could be punished for her critical stance on Israel.

Then Ms Omar suggested the lobby group Aipac was paying politicians to be pro-Israel.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to use its full title, is a registered part of the large Washington lobbying system that is focused on Israel policy. As such, it specifically does not and cannot pay politicians for their support.

Presumably this was pointed out to the congresswoman, along with a brief history of how antisemites have blamed all manner of ills on Jewish money, most forcefully by the Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

The apology came early on Monday in a tweet accompanied by the comment: “Listening and learning, but standing strong…”

She should have known better and the mea culpa from the Somali American — one of two Muslim women in congress — was thorough.

“Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” she began, before apologising.

Then she provided — not as an excuse, but as a corollary to her initial tweets — reasonable criticisms of the American political system, in which lobbying and finance do play an overly significant role.

“At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

The response to her initial tweets was outrage, not least because in a missive from 2012 she had said that “Israel has “hypnotized the world”.

Hypocritically, some of that outrage came from the political right who have been trafficking in antisemitic tropes since March 2016.

Among them was Kevin McCarthy, minority leader for the Republican party, who was quick to condemn Ms Omar despite his own lack of response to a disgraceful antisemitic tweet he sent before the midterm elections in October 2018.

For some in the American Jewish community, this is the typical behaviour of an American Muslim who would use Israel in an antisemitic way rather than address US support of the corrupt, murderous Saudi regime or those millions of Muslims being killed by Muslims in Syria and Yemen.

But for most, including Batyar Ungar-Sargon in The Forward, Yair Rosenberg at Tablet and Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times, Ms Omar has provided a teachable moment.

Israel’s policies are eminently criticisable, as are American and British policies toward Israel.

Similarly, the systems that have been legally set up to reward money and lobbying in politics urgently need to be reevaluated.

Perhaps it is more incumbent on politicians who are avowed anti-racists, but leaders of all political persuasions need to be responsible for the way that they raise questions of governance and policy and not fall into divisive, racist tropes.

February 12, 2019 17:52

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