Barely a month after being sworn into office, U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has thoroughly reinforced her reputation as a staunch opponent of establishment politics, particularly relating to foreign policy. The controversy erupted when Omar tweeted who she believed to be influencing American policies in Israel’s favor.
According to The Hill, she responded with “AIPAC”, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying organization. Almost immediately, she was inundated with several accusations of anti-Semitism even from her own party’s leadership.
After a few hours, she apologized for any hurt that her words caused, but reaffirmed her criticisms of lobbying influence in Washington, including AIPAC. Ironically, the backlash against Omar’s tweet only reinforced her original point.
When supporters of Israel casually accuse their critics of anti-Semitism, they make it far more difficult to fight actual bigotry and racism by muddying the waters. There is legitimate criticism of the way and context in which Omar tweeted, but the immediate charge of anti-Semitism was unwarranted and highlighted many problems with the discourse on the subject within this country.
It is highly problematic when the discourse is so one-sided that people can freely criticize the role of other lobbies such as the NRA, Big Pharma, the Gulf Countries and Big Labor, but are subject to uniform condemnation when they dare criticize Israel. Such reaction highlights the problematic assumptions that somehow a particular nation state can be representative of a people and religion even though both the Jewish religion and people existed long before the state of Israel. Omar may have been flippant in making her point, she did a great service to us by shining a light on a highly problematic aspect of our public policy and discourse.
Even though she apologized for anyone she hurt, she reinforced her reputation through events that week. To begin, Omar’s apology was not a surrender in that she did not defend AIPAC, which was the intended target of her criticism contrary to the subsequent slander against her. This is crucial because she did not simply echo the standard mantra conflating opposing Israeli actions to anti-Semitism and lumping critics of Israel with violent terrorists.
According to CNN, she pushed back strongly against suggestions from Donald Trump that she resigned by pointing out that he “You have trafficked in hate your whole life—against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, immigrants, black people and more.” That’s not to mention the fact that he tolerates openly bigoted members of his own party such as Representative Steve King (R-IA).
Furthermore, her exchange with Elliot Abrams, the State Department’s new Special Envoy representative on Venezuela, concerning his problematic history regarding Latin America. When Abrams testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Omar took the opportunity to grill him on human rights violations he was involved in during the Reagan administration.
Abrams testified in his capacity as special envoy to Venezuela, and Omar impugned his credibility by saying, “I don’t understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.” She went on to highlight his role in backing the Salvadoran military which was responsible for a massacre of hundreds of civilians and asked if he supported that.
Abrams avoided answering, claiming that such a question was ridiculous. All in all, Omar’s actions over the past week have been a welcomed addition to an often monotonous and problematic public discourse.
We should be thanking her for highlighting problematic aspects of the public discourse. The vitriolic reaction to Omar’s tweets ironically highlighted the one-sided nature of public discourse. Even though she apologized for any hurt caused by her tweets, she did not renege on her initial point about the problematic nature of lobbying in the country.
It also highlighted the double standards of those who overlook the bigotry and anti-Semitism of from the right-wing, which has led to actual violence such as the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.
While people like Trump bend over backward to deny any connection with their vitriol to such violence, their attacks on Omar unmask them as the hypocrites they are. For that reason, we should support fresh voices like Omar who make such an important contribution to the public discourse.