A whole weekend, plus a couple of days, has elapsed since the House Democratic majority dealt with the controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) allegedly anti-Semitic statements by passing a generic resolution condemning bigotry and hatred.
The calm, however temporary it may be, provides a chance to reflect on the affair and to be clear about precisely what was, and was not, troubling about it.
The first misconception, spread by some media and political figures, is that Omar faced a vehement negative reaction because she offered “criticism of U.S. policy toward Israel” (the Wall Street Journal) or “legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel” (Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.).
Incorrect. In recent weeks, Omar offered no new criticism of U.S. policy or what she has called “the apartheid Israeli regime.” What she did was to attack Israel’s supporters in the United States, and specifically in Congress. She did so by suggesting their motives were corrupt: either to enforce “allegiance to a foreign country,” or to accumulate political cash from pro-Israel lobbyists — “the Benjamins.” (She apologized for the latter.)
Many understandably considered these phrases loaded with anti-Semitic imagery. Less noted was the fact that, even if they had not been susceptible to that interpretation, Omar’s comments violated important norms. Ad hominem is demagogic.
It’s especially objectionable where, as here, Omar lacked the fortitude actually to name anyone in Congress who has been cowed or bought off.
In other words, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could be right that Omar did not intend her comments “in an anti-Semitic way” and Omar would still be wrong to have spoken as she did.
Admittedly, accusations of bad faith are depressingly common in politics, in the Trump era especially. As many have noted in Omar’s defense — or in mitigation of her offense — the president does almost nothing but attack people in ugly personal terms, including racist and sexist terms, thus degrading American political culture, with the complicity of many of the same Republicans who shed crocodile tears over Omar’s expressions. Omar, too, has been the target of bigotry, such as Fox News commentator Jeanine Pirro’s ugly insinuations about the representative’s loyalties.
It is also true that Israel’s supporters in the United States, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have forged a tight alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has little use for peace talks with Palestinians and who sowed partisan ill will in the United States by heavy-handedly opposing President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and embracing President Trump since then.
For all that, it is simply not the case that support for Israel in a country where 59 percent of the public favors Israel over the Palestinians is merely a function of AIPAC’s influence.
And it should have been possible for Omar to point out what’s wrong with some or all of U.S. and Israeli policy without questioning the good faith of those who think differently.
Omar has made clear several times she’s not about bridging ideological differences within the House, let alone within her party.
She wants, it seems, to heighten the contradictions, in part by calling out supporters of Israel and bracketing AIPAC with the Republican-leaning National Rifle Association or the fossil fuel industry.
The tea party and the Freedom Caucus it spawned in the House turned into a nightmare for Republican leaders, making it nearly impossible for them to legislate. Omar seems to see these ideological purists of the right as role models — for her, and for the progressive “squad” that also includes Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).
“We look at the negative aspects of the tea party and not really at the part of them that spoke to the American people, that made them feel like there were people actively fighting for them,” Omar told Politico’s Tim Alberta. “There’s a resemblance there. A lot of us are not that much different in our eagerness to want to come here and fight for our constituents, fight for the American ideals we believe in.”
Nothing about this drama, which began with Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) decrying Omar for “a vile anti-Semitic slur” and ended with Pelosi’s apologia, would discourage Omar — or any progressives who also feel that the time has come to fight fire with fire. We can expect her future attacks to be more carefully phrased, but we can expect them to continue.
These are not mere questions of decorum. Opposition to Trump consists, or should consist, of two parts: substance and process. It must articulate decent alternative public policy and model decent alternative political behavior.
At least that is the form opposition will take if the goal is not just to beat Trump, and reverse his policies, but to redeem U.S. politics.