Like many Jews, I’ve experienced anti-Semitism. But the Ilhan Omar backlash deeply troubles me

Ilhan Omar, the representative for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, made a public apology on Monday after Republicans and Democrats criticised comments she made – especially a tweet in which she said that criticism of her position on Israel was “all about the Benjamins” (meaning money) – as having been anti-Semitic.

Like most Jews, I have spent my life navigating the subtle nuances that denote anti-Semitic behaviour and thought. I worked security at my synagogue on the High Holidays. I have experienced anti-Semitic abuse first-hand. I spent several years at the Guardian writing about 4chan and the internet’s darker places. I have seen anti-Semitism in many different forms.

But the controversy around Omar’s tweets troubles me, because it feels like the accusation of anti-Semitism is being wielded here in a way that actively does damage to legitimate discourse not only about the behaviour of the state of Israel, but about the very real dangers of true anti-Semitism, too.

Omar, one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress, has long been a critic of the state of Israel. “Israel is an ally of the United States and I think as much as you would look to your neighbour to your friends to live out the same values as you are, we want to make sure that our allies are living out the same values that we push for here,” she told CNN early in her term.

Early this year, a Republican representative from New York dug out an old statement by Omar from 2012 during the war in the Gaza strip between Israel and Hamas that saw six Israelis killed and 200 wounded by Hamas rocket attacks. According to the Gaza health ministry, more than a hundred Palestinian civilians were killed and almost a thousand wounded (Israel claims the number of civilian dead was 57). In her statement, Omar said that “Israel has hypnotised the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

At the end of January, in an interview with Yahoo News, Omar returned to the question of Israel, criticising a controversial new law there which explicitly stated that only Jews have the right to self-determination in Israel. Criticising the US for not having an “equal approach” between the two sides, she said that “if we see [that kind of law] in any other society we call it out.”

Then the controversy kicked into higher gear. Re-tweeting a missive by US lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald hitting out at McCarthy for attacking her free speech rights, Omar added “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” (referring to Benjamin Franklin on the 100-dollar bill, rather than Benjamin Netanyahu, presumably, though if she also meant the latter that strikes me as quite a good pun).

When a journalist tweeted at her “Would love to know who @IlhanMN thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, though I think I can guess. Bad form, Congresswoman. That’s the second anti-Semitic trope you’ve tweeted,” Omar responded “AIPAC,” referring to the lobbying group which pushes for hardline US support of Israel.

Yes, much of the criticism comes from people who have legitimate reasons to feel hurt, and the “hypnotised the world” comment does have particularly uncomfortable rhetorical connotations. Anti-Semitic violence is on the rise, as is vandalism in Jewish cemeteries. The neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville in the first year of Trump’s term chanted “Jews shall not replace us” as they walked with tiki torches in the dark. In October 2018, eleven people were murdered by a gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The attacker had previously posted anti-Semitic comments to social media.

With this backdrop, Jewish congressmen like Max Rose are well within their rights to say that Omar’s words were “deeply hurtful”. The image of Jews as stingy money-lenders, obsessed with the “pound of flesh”, is an old one. Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, of course, is its ne plus ultra, though he is also, granted, possibly Shakespeare’s greatest rhetorical appeal to common humanity in his “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

But the wider response to Omar’s comments feels overblown to me, and has put pressure on some uncomfortable ideological schisms both within the Democratic Party, and within the Jewish community.

Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, said that Omar had used “the anti-Semitic trope of ‘Jewish money’.” But, as a Jew myself, I feel that it simply cannot be automatically anti-Semitic to suggest that any mention of Israel and lobbying money is de facto an anti-Semitic trope – that would mean all pro-Israel lobby groups would automatically be able to act with impunity.

To me, it is not a priori anti-Semitic simply to mention a Jew in the context of money – if anything, to assume it would automatically be so is where the real anti-Semitic pressure-point lies. The history is, of course, complex and tangled, and many are understandably sensitive about anything that even carries faint echoes of anti-Semitic linguistic tropes. Engel is well within his rights to express his opinion on the matter. But I disagree with his interpretation of Omar’s position.

Others who have piled in on the controversy do not have Engel’s standing or life experience. Former House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, who tweeted on Sunday that “anti-Semitic tropes have no place in the halls of Congress,” adding that it was “dangerous” for the Democratic leadership to stay silent on such “reckless” utterances. Of course anti-Semitic tropes have no place in Congress, but McCarthy’s hypocrisy is extremely notable: last October – just three days before the Tree of Life shooting – he had tweeted that “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg,” all Jewish, “to BUY this election!”

The tweet was later deleted, but the invocation of George Soros especially puts his missive in much more potently anti-Semitic territory than anything Omar wrote. Soros has become an analogy for “Jews” in anti-Semitic dog-whistles much more than simply the mention of Israeli lobbying money – more, he has become the subject of a wide anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

President Trump, too, piled on to Omar on Monday. “I think she should be ashamed of herself,” he told reporters on Air Force One. The hypocrisy here is even more jarring than McCarthy’s: Trump’s anti-Semitic tropes are much less ambiguous than anything Omar wrote. After the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville – at which a counter-protester was murdered – Trump famously and shamefully said there were “fine people on both sides”. During the campaign, he had said that Jews would not support him because he didn’t “want their money.” He has claimed that Soros was paying protesters at his rallies, and told a group of Jewish Republicans in 2015 that he is a negotiator “just like you folks”.

Given that backdrop, Omar’s statements that the AIPAC lobby are funding America’s unquestioning support of the state of Israel seem eminently defensible. Though she may be well-advised to be more cautious in her language in the future, it absolutely does not strike me as anti-Semitic to point out that this support is not just organic and grassroots, but the subject of a powerful and well-funded lobbying operation as well.

It’s time to put cards on the table. Many Jews, myself included, find the question of Israel’s behaviour towards Palestinians deeply uncomfortable, and find the aggressive stance pushed by lobby groups like AIPAC counterproductive and even wrong. I am proud of my heritage, but do not see much of it reflected in Israel’s gung-ho militarism – a militarism enabled by the unquestioning support of the American political establishment, which is in turn activated by the lobbying of AIPAC.

When an Israeli sniper shot a Palestinian journalist wearing a clear press vest last year, for example, my feelings were a complicated mix of disgust and shame – a combination many Jews I speak to also feel when confronted with the actions of a state nominally set up in our name, and in the name of the brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers my grandparents lost in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.

Her words may have been clumsy, but I believe Omar actually, to a certain extent, has a point. If anything, to me, it is the automatic conflation of criticism of Israel and AIPAC with anti-Semitism by people like McCarthy and Trump – who use George Soros and “globalists” as literal dog-whistle codewords for Jews – that whiffs of anti-Semitic assumptions.