Omar, Trump, and Anti-Semitism

As an American and a Jew, I find President Donald Trump’s recent comments on anti-Semitism unwanted and wrong: Unwanted because the racist and xenophobic Trump is in no position to comment on the alleged anti-Semitism of others; wrong when he claims “the Democrats hate Jewish people.”

Trump has a long history of flirting with anti-Semitism. His “America First” slogan invokes the pro-fascist, pre-World War II movement led by Charles Lindbergh, a notorious anti-Semite. During his presidential campaign, Trump failed to condemn anti-Semitic hate directed by his supporters against Jewish journalists who wrote critically of him. In a speech in Washington in 2015, Trump engaged in stereotypes when he told a Jewish group, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.” The Trump campaign ran a TV ad in which the candidate refers to “a global power structure that is responsible for economic decisions that have robbed our working class” over images of prominent and wealthy Jews. And, he tweeted an image of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, with a Star of David over $100 bills. As president, Trump notoriously blamed “both sides” for the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Finally, at CPAC earlier this month, Trump referred to House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff as “little shifty Schiff.”

Jews know Trump’s history, which may be why only a quarter of the Jewish vote in 2016 went to Trump. To be sure, Jews historically have voted Democratic, but Trump’s share of the Jewish vote was six points lower than Mitt Romney’s in 2012. In the 2018 midterms, the Jewish anti-Trump vote increased, with exit polls showing that as many as 79 percent of Jews voted for Democratic candidates while only 17 percent pulled the Republican lever.

Trump is nothing if not an opportunist, which is why he has seized on the controversy over Minnesota Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar’s recent comments about Israel and pro-Israeli American lobbying groups to tar the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic. While Trump’s opinions on the subject are easy to dismiss, Omar’s remarks require scrutiny.

Omar started a controversy with her reference to “allegiance” to “a foreign country.” Because her comment was seen by some as anti-Semitic while others defended it, reprinting the full quotation may be helpful: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. And I want to ask, why is it okay for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby?”

Representative Ilhan Omar, Minnesota Democrat

The representative certainly is correct that pro-Israeli lobbying groups influence American policies toward Israel. Many hurl the charge of anti-Semitism at any critic (of which I am one) of Israel and the current policy of its government to immunize Israel from criticism. Jews who criticize Israel often are called anti-Semitic. What chance does a black, hijab-wearing Muslim have?

The problem is not so much Omar’s meaning but her choice of words. Omar employed charged language, suggesting by her use of the term “allegiance” that Jews cannot be loyal Americans because they are devoted to Israel. This notion, in turn, derives from old European anti-Jewish stereotypes that Jews were not citizens of any country but a rootless, cosmopolitan people engaged in a vast conspiracy to subvert Christian countries to benefit Jews. Such notions lay behind the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which seeped into this country in the anti-Semitism of Henry Ford and Lindbergh. The modern version of this old trope is the use of the words “global” or “globalism” and “Jews” in the same sentence, as in the Trump campaign ad cited above.

Unfortunately for Omar, only her first sentence — “allegiance to a foreign country” — is most often quoted, leaving out her references to other lobbying groups, such as the NRA and those who act on behalf of the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries. But, anti-Semitism is such a fraught subject — an ancient hate that led to the murder of six-million Jews in the Holocaust — that care must be taken to avoid using language that may be misconstrued. “She may think she is only criticizing Israel and its policies,” says Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University professor and leading scholar of anti-Semitism. “But one cannot ignore the fact that she is relying on traditional anti-Semitic tropes to do so.”

Omar has skirted anti-Semitic language before. In February, in a since-deleted tweet, Omar suggested support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins baby” — a reference to $100 bills featuring an image of Benjamin Franklin. It is also — in Omar’s defense — a reference to a song by rapper Puff Daddy. But, again, to link Jews with money is explosive, and shows an insensitivity, at the least, on Omar’s part.

The first-term member of Congress has tried in the past to defuse accusations of anti-Semitism. In 2017, while serving in the Minnesota House of Representatives, she cited the “particular connection” between Muslims and Jews based “on our shared space in history.” Referring to recent instances of anti-Semitism, she added, “I have been part of a community [Somali refugees] that has been raising funds to support the Jewish community in this time of need, because as my community is struggling… the Jewish community has been side by side fighting with us.”

Omar has been the victim of anti-Muslim prejudice much more virulent than anything she has said. An anti-Muslim hate group recently displayed a poster of the hijab-wearing Omar linking her to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This past weekend, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro said this about Omar’s conformity to Islamic tradition: “Think about it. Omar wears a hijab, which according to the Koran 33:59, tells women to cover so they won’t get molested. Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?” Fox has condemned Pirro’s comment, but millions of viewers heard it.

Words matter. And, some words carry historical baggage users may not realize. Omar should choose her words carefully if she wants to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism. It is possible to criticize the policy of the current Israeli government without utilizing language that has meanings not intended by the speaker. 

Posted March 12, 2019




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