TTN Debates Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Tweets

Ilhan Omar, the Somali-American immigrant newly elected to the US House of Representatives from Minnesota, has reopened a can of worms with her “It’s all about the Benjamins” tweet, especially when she responded to the opinion editor at The Forward, Batya Ungar-Sargon, that she was referring to AIPAC buying support for Israel.  Reminding people of age-old antisemitic tropes about Jewish money and power, Omar was severely criticized by the Democratic leadership in Congress, including, most importantly, Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Omar quickly apologized.  This post summarizes The Third Narrative’s email discussion (no comments by TTN members are included without their authorization).    

Our discussion was initiated with this Faculty Lounge blog post by TTN’s Steven Lubet, a professor of law at Northwestern U. We quote:

. . .  It took less than 24 hours for Omar to issue an apology — her second one since taking office in January — in which she acknowledged “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”

Even so, some of Omar’s supporters continue to deny that the “Benjamins” tweet was anti-Semitic in the first place. The journalist Glenn Greenwald, for example, claimed that Omar’s tweet was nothing more than criticism of Israel.

Claims about the influence of “Jewish money,” however, have a long and sordid history in the U.S., making it impossible to consider Omar’s tweet in a vacuum.  . . .

Omar was born in Somalia and did not immigrate to the U.S. until she was 15, after spending four years in a refugee camp in Kenya. It is understandable that she would be unaware of some classic anti-Semitic tropes, although a U.S. representative ought to make a point of educating herself. Greenwald has no excuse.     

In our email discussion, this is a version of what Prof. Joan S. Friedman of the College of Wooster had to say:

I think conversations about antisemitism and the use of antisemitic tropes need a bit of updating.  We have always experienced and treated modern antisemitism as an outgrowth of the same ground where Christian anti-Judaism flourished.  Anti-Judaism, as David Nirenberg shows, really is at the heart of Christian civilization; Muslim anti-Judaism had a different dynamic (see Mark Cohen).  The modern adaptation of anti-Jewish and antisemitic tropes to the Islamic context is inseparable from the opposition to Zionism and Israel.   

My concern is the growing number of comments not dissimilar to what Rep. Omar said about AIPAC — variations on “Jewish power” and “Jewish money” — from students from south and east Asia who are neither Muslim nor Christian, and had no idea that their comments would be construed as antisemitic.  For anyone under the age of 50 — and certainly for millennials — who did not grow up having lessons about the Holocaust in school, and who understand nothing about the theology behind Christian Zionism, ideas of Jewish vulnerability are laughable.  After all, what they see is that the US backs Israel’s occupation to the hilt; that AIPAC itself boasts about its lobbying success; that a right wing, racist, Islamophobic US president stuffs his SOTU address with blatant sops to the Jews; and that when a (black) US president tried to challenge Israel, he lost the fight. 

Furthermore, the very fact that antisemitism continues to be a cultural issue makes it hard to ignore the visibility of Jewish names in finance and financial institutions.  There are hundreds of millions of people out there who do not share the cultural context that gives antisemitism its infamy, and to whom it appears obvious that Jews show up in significant, “powerful” roles wildly disproportionate to their percentage of the world’s population.  In other words, just because someone draws the conclusion that Jews appear to have surprising political power, we can’t label them an antisemite.

So there is a narrow and very hard to define line between antisemitic and not-antisemitic references to the disproportionately prominent and influential status achieved by Jews in western countries; staying on the right side of that line is even harder for people who do not have the cultural context to understand the intertwined phenomena of Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism.  The conversation with those folks has to start from premises other than a reflexively horrified “You should know better!”  

This prompted Dr. Marcia Kupfer, an independent scholar, to comment as follows:

David Nirenberg has maintained that his argument applies in cultures in which Jews have had no historical presence whatsoever and in societies from which they have been essentially eradicated. He makes the case succinctly in “A Brief History of Jewish Enmity,” the epilogue in a book I edited, The Passion Story: From Visual Representation to Social Drama (Penn State, 2008), 217–34. I think the essay still holds up today, and addresses some of your concerns.

The problem is not that some of your students among many others (e.g., Rep. Omar) lack the requisite background that might prepare them to be sensitive to antisemitic tropes. The problem is that power and wealth are “judaized.” 

The following response is from Dr. Nigel Paneth of Michigan State University:

It has always surprised me, as an immigrant to this country, how quickly we successful American Jews have managed to forget that for most of our history our people were poor, dirty and half-starved.  We, and not just the anti-Semites, seem to see the Rothschilds and the Schiffs first, and forget the ordinary shlemazls who populated the great ghettos of Europe and the Middle East until not so long ago. 

For example, there’s George Orwell’s description of the ghetto of Marrakesh in the 1930’s.  The extreme poverty of Moroccan Jews did nothing to quell the standard view that the “Jews are the real owners of this country.”  Let not the relative success of Jews in the Goldene Medina permit us to provide some outs or excuses for anti-Semitism.  The antisemitic trope has never required actual material success, and non-Jewish ethnic groups with material success in the US do not get tarred with the same brush. 

And this is from a doctoral student who requests anonymity for this discussion being posted online:

Joan Friedman’s analysis is interesting, informative, and nuanced.  Still, the concerns about sensitivity and crossing fine lines and context would make sense if someone well-intentioned made a well-meaning comment that we found offensive, for historic reasons. Rep. Omar wasn’t making an ill-considered joke she thought benign; she was taking a direct swipe at the organized American Jewish community and at Israel. She was calling those of us who support Israel corrupt and/or treacherous (recall the context of the tweet by the newly ‘patriotic’ Glenn Greenwald).  I don’t care if people like her ‘play nice’ with our sensitivities. In fact, I prefer they do not; that at least can backfire. 

And this take is from Ralph Seliger, TTN’s web editor:

I very much appreciate what Joan Friedman said.  Still, given Rep. Omar’s track record, I have trouble trusting her on our issues, but I do think it speaks well for her that she immediately apologized.  It also is in her favor that she maintains friendships and political relationships with Jews.  It’s useful and important for Jews to maintain their lines of communication with her.  I do not believe that she’s truly antisemitic, but she’s a hard sell when it comes to Israel; and given the reality of what Israel is like today, I’m not surprised. 

Alan Weisbard, emeritus professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was “trying out some thoughts” as follows:

For those raised in a largely Arab or Muslim surround, whose principal political commitment is to the Palestinian cause, and who think Israelis before they think Jews as a diasporic people, I wonder if we are talking about the same phenomenon as Christian/European antisemitism? Their negative feelings about Jews in the diaspora, which we identify as antisemitism, may flow from their anti-Zionism, rather than the other way around. This is a somewhat different way of thinking about the relationship of antisemitism and anti-Zionism than that which tends to (mostly) exist in the Christian West, where antisemitism long preceded the advent of Zionism in its modern form. Indeed, we can imagine that for a subclass of Europeans, their antisemitism bred support for a Zionism that would rid their continent of Jews. My sense is that there was less of this expulsionist antisemitism  in North Africa and the Middle East prior to the coming of Zionism and the establishment of Israeli statehood.

Jeff Weintraub noted that “one of the distinctive features of our era is that anti-Zionism can often promote anti-semitism as much as the other way around.”  Steven Lubet concurred and offered his assessment of the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments: 

There are those whose expression of anti-Semitism is inspired by antagonism toward Israel: Ilhan Omar and Linda Sarsour are in this category.  Those whose antagonism toward Israel is inspired by anti-Semitism: Tamika Mallory probably goes in this category (along with David Duke and Louis Farrakhan). 

I would say that the former are likely well-meaning and not essentially bigoted. But the latter . . .!

Then there was some further discussion by TTN participants on instances of anti-Jewish violence in the Muslim world prior to the emergence of political Zionism. 

P.S.  Here are links to posts and articles from American-Jewish commentators you may have missed:

Blogger Mitchell Plitnick carefully discusses the nuances of AIPAC’s role and money on the I/P debate with “Ilhan Omar, AIPAC, And Denial.”  He was co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace a number of years ago, when it still tolerated left-Zionists; his views have mellowed since then and he attended TTN’s New York conference a few years ago. 

Writing at The website, J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami laments the partisanship that seeps into the I/P issue, “Stop Alleging Anti-Semitism Just to Score Political Points,” subtitled “The conversation about Israel has become a toxic partisan firefight, bereft of insight or vision.”

And there’s this unabashed defense of Omar by Jewish Current’s news & features editor, Noah Kulwin: “Where’s the Lie?”  Kulwin argues that AIPAC peddles its influence by encouraging its supporters to bundle contributions to candidates it endorses as pro-Israel, and is well known for organizing carefully-tailored junkets to Israel for members of Congress and the press.