Congresswoman Omar and the Problem with Our Silence
To the dismay of a number of readers, friends, and family members, I have avoided talking about Representative Ilhan Omar’s controversial comments thus far, because it is a minefield, and I am honestly afraid of sticking my foot in it and offending people I care about or letting readers, friends, and family members down. But by not addressing it, I think I’m letting them down even more.
I don’t in any way want to conspire with those bad-faith actors against someone who has legitimate concerns with Israel, but what Congresswoman Omar has said is not OK. There’s been so much written about this, and so much distortion, that it actually takes a few minutes now to find the underlying quotes for which the Congresswoman has come under attack. Adding to the complexity, some of her words have been twisted and exaggerated, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (among others) has simply made up quotes and attributed them to the Congresswoman. So, let me lay out for you what she actually said, and the timeline of the statements:
“Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel,” the Congresswoman tweeted in 2012. Here, she was taking issue with how Israel was conducting itself in Gaza, and that is OK. But the use of the term “hypnotized” in that statement was not OK. It’s a dog whistle. As a friend of mine wrote, it is “textbook Anti-Semitism, in that it was probably in actual textbooks during the Nazi Era.” There are conspiracy theories that go back to ancient times about Jews using hypnosis to manipulate the world — it’s a well-worn anti-Semitic trope.
It’s possible that she didn’t know that. But we here at Pajiba have called out a number of people for less.
Here’s the second statement for which the Congresswoman is being criticized:
“It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she tweeted, in reference to Jews buying influence from Congresspeople through AIPAC, a pro-Israeli lobbying group. Again, there’s nothing wrong with taking issue with lobbyists, and as many — including the Congresswoman — have stated, taking issue with the NRA or fossil fuel lobbies wouldn’t have raised suspicions, either. But specifically tying Jews to buying influence again relies on old anti-Semitic tropes about manipulating the world through control of money and banks. Again, it is OK to criticize AIPAC, and that does not make someone anti-Semitic. However, as Emily Burack explains over on JTA:
When you focus on AIPAC as the example of money in politics, or link Jewish influence to deep pockets, that’s when it becomes a problem. As JTA Editor-in-Chief Andrew Silow-Carroll pointed out, “Invoking ‘AIPAC!’ as a metonym for the influence of money in politics was a minefield, and the idea that she doesn’t know that by now — coming only a week after she apologized for her 7-year-old ‘hypnotized’ tweet — is implausible.”
Her intent, obviously, was not to draw support from David Duke and other Nazis, but the dog whistle was heard loud and clear. To her credit, the Congresswoman very clearly recognized the problem with this tweet, deleted it, and rightfully apologized.
But not two weeks later, the Congresswoman stated, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” That is a super insidious anti-Semitic trope that has been used for decades in an attempt to other Jews. It’s a way of saying you can’t be American because your allegiances belong somewhere else, and therefore, you do not belong here. As Rahm Emanuel wrote in The Atlantic:
Whether consciously or not, Representative Omar is repeating some of the ugliest stereotypes about Jews—tropes that have been unleashed by anti-Semites throughout history. She is casting Jewish Americans as the other, suggesting a dual loyalty that calls our devotion to America into question … For centuries, this trope has been aimed at Jews in countries around the world.
Whether intentional or not, that’s three statements that recall anti-Semitic tropes. Once is a mistake. Three times is a pattern. Is there anyone we here at Pajiba have not called out for making three statements that are, at best, tone-deaf and at worst anti-Semitic dog whistles? As a good friend and reader of the site wrote to me, “Any whiff of racism, misogyny or homophobia is pounced upon by your writers, and rightly so, in most cases. But these blatant dog whistles are defended, and those who have a problem with them mocked.”
He’s not wrong.
And here’s what I want to stress and the biggest takeaway from this piece. We here at Pajiba really try and listen, and this issue has come up a number of times with sexism, racism, and homophobia, where a commenter might say, “Oh, well, Matt Damon didn’t mean it that way,” or there was no “homophobic intent,” behind that statement or, “You’re just being too sensitive or easily offended.” Do you know how fast commenters will turn on that person? HOLY SHIT. There’s usually a 50-comment thread within three minutes.
It’s the same thing here. We cannot discredit someone’s feelings because some people might not agree that they should feel offended. Are a lot of people making bad faith arguments against the Congresswoman? Yes! AND WE SHOULD CALL THAT OUT. Is Ilhan Omar unfairly piled on by Islamophobes because she is Muslim? Yes! Is she being singled out by racists? Absolutely. Are evangelical Republicans jumping in because she is progressive? Yes! Yes! Yes! Would a white male Republican come under the same scrutiny for making the same comments? Obviously not, because white male Republicans have said stuff like this and no one has demanded Republicans pass a resolution in the House condemning their language.
BUT we live in a very scary time for minority groups, and a lot of Jews are legitimately aggrieved and threatened by those comments, and we have to listen to them, too. We can’t ignore them because we’re excited about the progressive politics of Congresswoman Omar. We can’t ignore them because a bunch of right-wing Republicans who don’t give a shit about Jews are attacking the Congresswoman to score political points. We called out Zuckerberg for making anti-Semitic attacks against anti-Facebook groups (hell, I basically quit Facebook over that); we have called out Trump and so many Republicans for anti-Semitic imagery, statements, and beliefs. We can’t ignore it here because we agree with someone’s progressive politics, or even because we agree with their positions on Israel. Not five months ago, 11 Jews were gunned down in their synagogue. We have to call it out everywhere if only to educate people about what’s not OK. But it’s also on people like Congresswoman Omar to educate herself, because as we often say about men when it comes to the MeToo movement: Ignorance is not an excuse.
In short: If someone says, “Hey! That offends me and it might also put my life in danger,” it’s not up to us to decide whether we think their feelings are valid. It’s up to us to listen and act accordingly. The Congresswoman’s comments may have been unintentional, but as Seth notes, “Unintentional racism and unintentional anti-semitism are still racism and anti-semitism.”
The fact that we are all brought up in this country surrounded by racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and sexist language and ideas means that we all have to commit to actively changing. It is no longer enough to say “I misspoke.” Making sure that your message doesn’t threaten, target, belittle or malign a group based on historical or contemporary tropes is necessary to ensure that we are saying what we mean and signaling to minority and targeted communities that we stand in solidarity with them.
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