Rep. Ilhan Omar (D.-Minn.) has drawn attention — and criticism — for her statements about Israel. Many people, including top lawmakers, have condemned Omar’s comments as anti-Semitic and called on her to apologize.
But she has also received messages of support from members of the Jewish community, who are critical of Israel’s policies and worry that the blowback against Omar will stifle debate.
Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates for Israel to pull out of the West Bank, wrote that critiques of Israel like Omar’s are essential:
“It has never been more important to be able to distinguish between the critique — even the harshest critique — of a state’s policies (Israel,) and discrimination against a people (Jews)," she said. “Israel does not represent all Jews. Not all Jews support Israel. Speaking out for Palestinian human rights and their yearning for freedom is in no way related to anti-Semitism, though the Israeli government does its best to obscure that.”
Educator Jonah S. Boyarin wrote in Jewish Currents, a liberal Jewish magazine, that Ilhan’s comments shed light on broader concerns about U.S. foreign policy.
“Progressives hoping to effectively tackle the US-Israel relationship need to address the broader constellation of interests that drive US policy in the Middle East, including the national security state, defense companies, and the Christian right, all of which deserve similar scrutiny,” he wrote.
“Supporting Israel is, after all, only one facet of America’s strategy to promote its global interests, often at great cost to vulnerable populations across the world. Omar was drawing attention to this larger context, which might explain why Washington is so afraid of her,” Boyarin wrote.
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a liberal Jewish group focused on social justice, called accusations of anti-Semitism a distraction from actual threats of anti-Semitism coming from Republicans. “We won’t ignore incidents of antisemitism on the left. White Jews must unequivocally reject the racist, disproportionate focus on Black & Brown people in the fight against antisemitism,” the organization wrote in a tweet thread.
J Street, an influential liberal advocacy group, describes itself as “pro-Israel” and expressed in a statement disappointment in how some lawmakers have criticized Israeli policy but did not specifically name Omar. And while the organization expressed support for the resolution Democratic leaders are considering, it noted the optics of singling out Omar given far more harmful comments coming from the Right side of the aisle. They wrote:
“We are concerned that the timing of this resolution will be seen as singling out and focusing special condemnation on a Muslim woman of color – as if her views and insensitive comments pose a greater threat than the torrent of hatred that the white nationalist right continues to level against Jews, Muslims, people of color and other vulnerable minority groups in our country."
“It is also our view that the far greater threat to the Jewish community – to its security and its values – comes from the surge of ethno-nationalism and racism that forces on the right, including President Trump, have unleashed here and across the globe.”
Washington Post opinion writer Paul Waldman took things a step further. Waldman grew up in a Zionist family, but he said he has grown increasingly “dismayed” by developments in Israel and how conversations about Israeli policy are policed in the United States.
The “smearing” of Omar, he wrote, is less about anti-Semitism and more about stifling valid questions about American foreign policy.
“When this episode is over, Omar and everyone else will have learned a lesson. You’d better not step out of line on Israel,” he wrote. “You’d better not question AIPAC. You’d better not criticize members of Congress for the craven way they deal with this issue. You’d better not talk about how policy toward Israel is made and maintained. Because if you do, this is what you’re going to get.”
As #IStandWithIlhan was trending, some of the individuals most supportive of Ilhan’s critiques of Israel included prominent voices on the Jewish left. Among them was television producer Andrew Kimmel, who tweeted: “According to many non-Jewish right-wingers & establishment dems, it has come to my attention that I (as a Jew) must be anti-Semitic b/c I criticize Israeli policies like
Writer Sam Adler-Bell tweeted: “As a Jew, I am sick of politicians using my identity as fodder to smear young leaders of color. I know antisemitism when I see it. I’ve seen a lot of it lately. None of it from
Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been more circumspect in their defense of Omar. But some have criticized the Islamophobic threats that have come her way.
The responses to Omar highlight the appetite within the Jewish community for a robust conversation about America’s role in Israel. Many see value in the conversation she spurs and defend her right to freely raise these questions without enduring attacks herself.