Congresswoman Omar, Islamophobia, and the politics of Israel Shabbat| Apr 25, 2019
Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American Muslim woman, has received an onslaught of pejorative attacks from the far rights for a series of controversial comments she’s made about Israel and, more recently, the September 11 terrorist attacks.
On March 23, Omar, while speaking at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) banquet, explained: “CAIR was founded after 9/11, because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” (CAIR was actually founded in 1994.)
Thereafter, Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas castigated Omar on Twitter, describing her use of the phrase “some people did something” to presumably describe 9/11 as “Unbelievable.” Then, the New York Post featured a photo of the Twin Towers burning, after Al-Qaeda hijackers crashed two commercial airliners into them on September 11, with a headline addressed to Omar: “Here’s your something.”
And on April 12, President Donald Trump tweeted a graphic video of the Twin Towers collapsing and New Yorkers seeking refuge in Lower Manhattan amid the chaos and destruction that followed the attacks: the video featured Omar and contained the description: “WE WILL NEVER FORGET.”
Omar said that she received an increased number of death threats after Trump’s tweet.
Omar’s description of 9/11 — “some people did something” — was not per se the most sensitive or tactful. The phrase comes off as vague and evasive. But the first-term congresswoman was not trying to trivialize the attacks, and the idea that she is sympathetic to terrorism is as astoundingly inaccurate as it is Islamophobic. If anything, Omar, like all politicians at times, used an ill-advised choice of words.
The right’s anti-Omar outrage is predominately a synthesis of misogyny, racism, and Islamophobia that serves to provide Trump’s conservative base with white-nationalist red meat as the 2020 presidential election nears.
Accordingly, the promotion of Islamophobia works — or, at least, doesn’t register sufficient deterrent outrage — in American politics. This country elected a president who promised to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and who has attempted to follow through on that promise. During his presidential campaign, he’s also claimed, falsely, that Muslim Americans in Jersey City, N.J. — adjacent to Lower Manhattan — “were cheering” as the Twin Towers crumbled to the New York City pavement.
It’s no surprise that Trump, the ultimate, ruthless political cynic, would use Islamophobia to castigate Omar and galvanize his base.
Of course, other, less ideologically reckless politicians — both Democrats and Republicans — have been lukewarm to Omar for previous comments she made about Israel. Omar received stern bipartisan condemnation after she claimed American political support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” which invoked, perhaps unintentionally, the notion that Jews have obtained disproportionate influence over the American financial and foreign-policy sectors.
Omar received further criticism when she seemed to compare support for Israel to “allegiance to a foreign country,” an unfortunate — but, once again, perhaps inadvertent — invocation of the long-established stereotype that Jews are loyal to globalist entities.
Most of the attacks on Omar are displays of profound bigotry. And Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians deserves unequivocal condemnation — and robust diplomatic intervention – by the international community. But it’s crucial — especially in this white-nationalist political moment — to refrain from using rhetoric that could be construed as anti-Semitic, even if the intent of the rhetoric is not hateful.
I was disappointed by Omar’s choice of words and angered by the reactionary trivialization of anti-Semitism embedded in some leftists’ defense of the congresswoman; indeed, anti-Semitism has demonstrably increased on the American right and left.
While the far right has overwhelmingly and more frequently exploited anti-Semitism, extremists on the left reductively conceptualize Jews as “privileged,” white-passing, rich enough to stem the tide of hatred, or wholly protected by the state of Israel — thereby failing to acknowledge that Jews are subject to rampant, increasing levels of white-supremacist violence in Europe and in the United States. The dismissal of anti-Semitism also ignores the rise and increasing normalization of far-right, anti-Semitic — and Islamophobic — politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
Given the epidemic and sharply rising levels of anti-Semitism in the 21st century, it’s far from unreasonable for Jews, and others, to be deeply offended by the congresswoman’s language.
Yet there’s a crucial difference between sloppily offensive rhetoric and actual bigotry, just as there’s a difference between anti-Zionism and genuine anti-Semitism. Omar is not an anti-Semite, but Trump and his alt-right sympathizers are maliciously Islamophobic — and not to mention, wholly apathetic to Israel’s abuse of Palestinians.
There’s no qualification of the fact that the right’s criticism of Omar has reached the level of moral indefensibility and repugnance. Omar has made some rhetorical errors, but her overarching ideology, which emphasizes human rights and geopolitical justice, has rendered visible unsettling truths. Yes, the “all about the Benjamins” and “allegiance to a foreign country” statements were insensitive and careless. But, more broadly, her blunt promotion of Palestinian human rights and her exposure of the Israeli occupation of Palestine aligns with not only long-held leftist principles but also basic human decency.
In many ways, Omar’s remarks at the CAIR banquet were decidedly American — not least, for their aspiration and idealism. She told the Muslim crowd to reject the supposedly patriotic loyalty test forced upon them after 9/11. In fact, Omar’s speech is an essential ideological blueprint for religious minorities throughout American life. Omar encouraged Muslim Americans to assert their right to exist, to reject the “be a good Muslim” notion, and to “raise hell; make people uncomfortable.”
Appropriately, Omar’s speech had a rather somber tenor, conveying the existential violence and tragic destruction facilitated by Islamophobia. Her speech demonstrated the fundamental unattainability of the American dream for Muslims. As she explained, no matter how successful or respectable Muslims become, the importance of their very existence is still disregarded.
Furthermore, the dehumanization and marginalization of Muslim Americans intersect with Princeton’s sociopolitical environment.
Recently, members of the campus’s Jewish community have sparred over Israel Shabbat, an event organized by Tigers for Israel (TFI), a pro-Israel advocacy group associated with the Center for Jewish Life (CJL). In response, the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP) organized a counter-Shabbat protesting the Zionist connotations of the TFI event.
The Israel Shabbat conflict cannot be separated from the Islamophobic condemnation and pro-Palestinian advocacy of Congresswoman Omar. In theory, honoring Israel — or, of course, any nation or heritage — shouldn’t be problematic. But in the current political climate, where Israel’s critics, like Omar, are automatically branded as anti-Semitic or anti-American and the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has been blurred, hosting Israel Shabbat is an inherently political endeavor. And if Shabbat is generally meant to bring people together and to allow everyone a spot at the table, Israel Shabbat — given its unavoidable divisiveness — does the opposite.
Hence, the Islamophobic condemnation of Omar has not only marginalized a bravely outspoken Muslim-American woman but has also triggered further political division throughout American life.
In a more inclusive, democratically compassionate world, Israel Shabbat would not be an inherently polarizing event. Omar would not be defamed as an anti-Semite. And Palestinian rights would be valued as much as Israeli rights.
But, as the smearing of Congresswoman Omar demonstrates, we have yet to achieve that world.
Samuel Aftel is a junior from East Northport, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.