Wissot: You can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic (column)
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar did it the wrong way. She conflated her disapproval of what she views as a one-sided U.S. Middle East policy which favors Israel over the Palestinians with her disparagement of organized Jewish lobbyists, and by inference American Jews, who advance and support that policy.
Being against U.S. foreign policy in support of Israel and/or Israel’s treatment of Palestinians isn’t anti-Semitic. Drawing upon the symbolic language from the long history of hateful accusations about Jews being global Shylocks, international moneylenders, malevolent conspirators in a Jewish plot to dominate the world is anti-Semitic. For context, there is the slanderous book, “The Protocol of the Elders of Zion,” first published in Russia in 1903, and then serialized in the 1920s by the virulently anti-Semitic Henry Ford in his Dearborn Independent” newspaper.
Elie Wiesel said of this work, “If ever a piece of writing could produce mass hatred it is this one. This book is about lies and slander.” (“A Dangerous Lie: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, “ Holocaust Encyclopedia, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Omar initiated the controversy in February when she pushed back against criticism of her anti-Israeli stance by saying, “it’s all about the Benjamins, baby” — implying that Jewish money was driving America’s foreign policy in the region. The “Benjamins“ was an allusion to the face of Benjamin Franklin on the one hundred dollar bill.
She was more inflammatory in a second denunciation of Jews which triggered a recent House resolution condemning hatred in all its manifestations. Omar wondered why it was “OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” It doesn’t take much imagination to know who the “people“ and “foreign country” were. It is one thing to say that Jewish-Americans are supporters of Israel. It’s quite another to question their loyalty to this country. That’s not just anti-Semitic, it smacks of McCarthyism.
The House resolution gave Omar political cover for her intolerant remarks. Originally intended as a condemnation of anti-Semitism, that message became lost in a resolution that condemned hatred in general. It’s not that anti-Semitism is worse than Islamophobia or homophobia, or any other group phobia, it’s simply that’s what Omar was guilty of doing. Broadening the resolution prevented us from having a conversation about how criticizing Israel as a country and blaming Jews as a people are not the same.
Let’s be clear here. Representative Omar, a Muslim immigrant from Somalia, who represents a congressional district with a large Muslim population in a state, Minnesota, that has the largest Somali diaspora (80,000) in the United States, has every right to take up the political cause of the Palestinians in their efforts to gain nationhood. But she needs to do it without resorting to anti-Semitic language.
There are legitimate causes for concern regarding the Israeli government’s rapid expansion of settlements in the West Bank. They have grown under every Israeli government for the past half-century despite consistent international opposition. When peace talks first began in 1993 there were 100,000 settlers in the West Bank. In late 2016 there were 400,000. The expansion does diminish the possibility of an eventual two-state solution. That’s an issue Omar is certainly entitled to address from her seat in the House.
If, however, she is serious about removing barriers to peace in the region she needs to also address issues like the refusal of both Fatah leadership in the West Bank and Hamas’s terrorist leaders in the Gaza Strip to recognize the “right of Israel to exist,” and the fact that Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas to head their government.
The desperate plight of Gaza, where the unemployment rate is 50 percent and the economic boycott imposed by Israel has created shortages of food and medicine, is also worthy of Omar’s attention. In the process, however, of doing that she should not restrict her criticism to the Israeli government but also include the failure of the Palestinians’ oil-rich Arab neighbors to lend financial support and contribute to political solutions.
Our different viewpoints need to remain political. Trafficking in deplorable racial, cultural or religious stereotypes does not advance anybody’s cause. Representative Omar needs to remember that the next time she legitimately objects to American support for Israeli policies but in a manner that doesn’t resort to anti-Semitic tropes to accomplish her objectives.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.