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Wednesday, August 12

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Congresswoman Omar and conservatives’ weaponization of anti-Semitism

First-term Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first Muslim-American women to serve in Congress, has been harshly criticized from both sides of the aisle in Congress for her suggestion, via Twitter, that U.S. politicians’ staunch support of Israel is motivated by monetary donations they receive from a Jewish lobbyist group. Democrats and Republicans have accused Omar of blatant anti-Semitism for allegedly exploiting the trope that Jews use money to influence international affairs.   

Undoubtedly, Omar’s tweets were immoral and erroneous. The U.S. political establishment’s predominant support of Israel has little to do with the supposed financial influence of Jewish lobbyists. Rather, the unbreakable American-Israeli alliance stems primarily from U.S. national security interests in the Middle East and the Christian right’s self-interested promotion of Israeli supremacy in the region. Consequently, many U.S. politicians have whitewashed Israel’s brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories.   

In short, Omar was wrong to propagate a heinous anti-Semitic trope. But her congressional colleagues’ stern condemnation of Omar is disproportionate to her wrongdoing, and it confounds the fact that the Trumpian alt-right itself has consciously peddled anti-Semitic conspiracies.  

President Trump reportedly once said: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” The incident is one of many documented examples of Trump’s virulent anti-Semitism. Hence, Trump’s call for Omar to resign is laughable. If anyone should resign over promoting anti-Semitic tropes, it should be the president. 

Likewise, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has cryptically promised to take punitive “action” against Omar for her tweets. Yet McCarthy once tweeted that three rich Jewish men were trying to sway the 2018 midterm elections, writing: “We cannot allow [George] Soros, [Tom] Steyer, and [Michael] Bloomberg to BUY this election!” 

Beyond Republican hypocrisy, the wholesale, disproportionately severe condemnation of Omar reflects the increasing and dangerous conflation of anti-Jewish hatred and legitimate criticism of Israel’s militarism. Such conflation, often consciously deployed by cynical conservatives, serves to chill any hint of pro-Palestinian political discourse. 

On college campuses especially, a free, productive, respectful, and yet provocative exchange of ideas regarding the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is essential. Substantive academic examinations of Palestinian grievances mustn’t be confused with anti-Semitism.  

Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, has been castigated, including by Temple’s board, and fired from his contributory position at CNN for a statement he made while giving a speech at the United Nations about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Hill asserted: “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” which some erroneously interpreted as an anti-Semitic call to wipe out the state of Israel.  

The fact that Hill’s statement supposedly warranted vehement condemnation, and even loss of employment, is deeply disturbing. Condemning the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians and its sociopolitical exploitation of Jewishness to justify this oppression is decidedly distinct from leveling hatred against Jewish identity and culture. In the same way, it isn’t anti-Catholic to criticize the Catholic Church for covering up pedophilia or Islamophobic to criticize the brutality of the Saudi Arabian government

As students and scholars, we must be able to differentiate anti-Jewish hatred and discrimination from a legitimate intellectual assessment of the Israeli government’s policies; condemning harmful policies and ideologies of religiously affiliated institutions — the Israeli and Saudi governments and the Catholic Church, for example — is separate from attacking an individual’s religious identity.  

Of course, for many, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for better or worse, transcends the intellectual. The conflict is decidedly emotional, as it has raised fundamental questions about the destiny and self-determination of two historically oppressed populations. 

I understand this emotionality firsthand. My dad was raised Jewish; my late grandfather, a Romanian Jew, was a Holocaust survivor; and the Nazis slaughtered my great-grandparents at Auschwitz-Birkenau. My dad has explained to me that my grandfather was staunchly pro-Israel, believing that Israel, which was established after the Second World War and the Holocaust, was the Jewish people’s final chance to live free of ghettos and genocide. 

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I am proud of my Jewish heritage and have been shaped in part by the knowledge that I come from a lineage that has been butchered by Nazi anti-Semitism. In fact, I feel indebted to my ancestors for their existential sacrifices. Needless to say, Auschwitz is a long way from Princeton. 

My Holocaust-terrorized ancestry compels me to fearlessly confront hatred and oppression wherever it is sourced, including from the Israeli government. And the emotional and religious significance of Israel must not blind people — especially those of us at institutions of intellectual responsibility — to Israel’s increasing, cruel occupation of Palestinian life, and the de facto funding of such occupation by the United States.   

While actual anti-Jewish hatred of all forms, and from all sources, must be condemned, the existence of anti-Semitism doesn’t change the reality of — or excuse — Israel’s violent abuse of Palestinians.  

Samuel Aftel is a junior from East Northport, N.Y. He can be reached at