If there is a single characteristic I could assign to the collective identity of “left” in America, everyone from the Democrats to the Stalinists, is their incredible ability to step on a rake and then get angry that someone hit them in the face. They’ll rage at the person who put the rake there, the person who made them step on the rake, and then the rake itself without realizing they’ve been alone with the rake the whole time. Everything eventually gets a turn being the rake — class, race, gender, sexuality, and this most current version, religion. Thanks to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s recent comments, we have the joy of dealing with a really nice rake and boy have we enjoyed stepping on it repeatedly.
Now, let me say this right now. I am not going to talk about the Israeli settlements, or Gaza, or the BDS movement, and I’m not going to talk about AIPAC. All of that deserves far more than a 1,000 word op-ed. Hell that’s not even enough to cover the introduction to someone’s doctoral thesis on just one of those subjects, so I’m pretty confident in saying someone’s Twitter thread on them is gonna be garbage. There’s way too much to get into and frankly, those aren’t the rakes we stepped on.
No, the rakes we stepped on here are the way we have dealt with Ilhan Omar, anti-Semitism, and our problems with discussing issues outside of our comfort zone. Let me say straight up that I don’t think Omar is an anti-Semite. I think she really cares deeply about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wants to do what she feels is best, but she ran into a problem that all of us do with much more frequency than we want to admit; she offended a lot of people. Omar said some things that a lot of Jews found offensive. Specifically, she insinuated support for Israel was "all about the Benjamins, baby." She later said she was referring to AIPAC, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. Now, this is the part where a lot of you say, “But the Jews I know weren’t offended,” “But it’s true,” and “You’re attacking a black Muslim woman.” And to all of you I just have to scoff and ask, do you even hear yourselves?
Sure, some Jews said they weren’t offended but that is not a goddamned excuse to ignore that a lot of Jews were. What that is, is the same thing a lot of white folks, or straight folks, or men say when they can drag out a minority or a woman who agrees with them when they said something a lot of people found offensive for very real reasons. Omar’s comments came close enough to some very old, very offensive, and very dangerous stereotypes of Jews. Even if it wasn’t her intent, it still angered a huge number of them. You can kick and scream and say that they weren’t dogwhistles all you want, but that’s how dogwhistles are designed to work. They’re meant to provide deniability to their users and to be able say that people are being overly sensitive or “politically correct.” They do this by being close enough to legitimate criticisms or terms that it’s often hard to separate the innocuous from the malevolent.
Rep. Omar tread into that dangerous water, and the minute she realized what she did with the first statement she made, she very publicly apologized. Her mistake was to follow up too closely with another one that got into suspect territory again, criticizing those who "push for allegiance to a foreign country." Again, I am not saying she used dogwhistles on purpose; I’m saying her statements came pretty damn close to ones that Jews hear all the time and were quite a bit upset by.
A lot of folks who waded into this debate — that should have ended shortly after Omar apologized — kept throwing gasoline on the fire. Many were eager to invalidate the legitimate offense felt by many, as well as deny the long history of maligning Jews as money-grubbing. Others also diminished the lived experiences of Jews.
Yet all of that revolves around silencing a minority’s actual, legitimate, historical and lived experiences with prejudice and discrimination because it complicated an ideological narrative they wanted to push regarding our nation's fraught relationships with Israel, Palestine, and lobbyists.
And the absolute craziest thing is that it seems the majority of people who are keeping this fight going aren’t black, Jewish, or Muslim, but very angry, shouty, woke white folks fighting very angry, shouty, evangelical Christians, neo-Nazis, and Islamophobes. There’s also the ones on the left who have taken this as an opportunity to attack Democrats. In defense of Omar, they ask why Democrats weren’t this upset about Congressman Steve King, when with just a little effort you can find years of criticism of not just King, but Steve Bannon, the alt-right, Soros conspiracy nuts, and Trump. How did we so easily forget the outrage and horror we all expressed at the alt-right inspired mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue just this past October as well as the Charlottesville rallies that included the chant, “Jews will not replace us.”
All of that is exactly why American Jews are on edge. They’re scared and jumpy, and many are highly sensitive to things they hear almost every day and when Omar strayed a little too close to that, Jewish people reacted. Yet, because Omar is part of a popular new wave of Democrats further to the left than the mainstream, many people saw it as an attack by the establishment under the influence of Jews being afraid of having their power over the American government threatened which is exactly what anti-Semitic conspiracies allege! This means in the defense of Omar they expressed what is one of the oldest and most insidious anti-Semitic tropes. They’ve gone further than anything Omar allegedly did.
At this point Ilhan Omar isn’t even the focus of the fight on the left anymore. It’s about individual ideologies and tribal attitudes that have tokenized Omar and her statements for their own ends. Many are letting themselves be manipulated by ideologues and movements more interested in their own pursuit of influence and power. Huge portions of the left have abandoned their own teachings and values and become the people they attack regularly online because they don’t see Omar as anything but a token to be used for an agenda, or they believe Jewish people don’t deserve a voice or agency.
Right now, Ilhan Omar just wants to walk down the halls of Congress without an army of reporters in her face, and many, if not most Jewish people aren’t even talking about her anymore. Meanwhile Republicans are sitting on the side and laughing, while we on the left just keep stepping on that goddamned rake.