By Jack Rosen
With the 116th Congress, the American progressive movement is finally getting its day in the sun. Although Democratic Party leadership continues to uphold traditional Democratic policies, political news in 2019 has put progressives in the spotlight, and they are seen by many as the party’s inevitable future. The progressive far left is also permeated by a distinct anti-Israel bent that is only now entering mainstream U.S. politics.
But while the movement’s rising stars have had moments where they were celebrated, they have also been the center of controversy. In particular, freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) has come under fire for a series of anti-Semitic statements. These comments presented the Democrats’ far-left progressive wing with a unique opportunity to draw their moral boundaries and show Jewish Americans that, while some among them are outspoken critics of Israel, they are committed to holding the line against anti-Semitism. This could have been a shining moment for far-left progressives.
They missed it.
Far-left criticism of Israel is no stranger to controversy. Like many subjects pertaining primarily to a single religious, ethnic or racial minority, Israel warrants careful and nuanced discussion. As a result, in articles and conversations regarding Israel, it has become almost a tired line to clarify that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism.
And in many cases, this is valid; as a sovereign state and a democracy, Israel deserves to be analyzed by the media and others, and criticized when it does wrong. By the same standard, when Israel is held to a different standard than other countries on the world stage, that criticism deserves to be scrutinized as well. The same should be expected when Americans discuss any country whose majority population is a minority in the U.S.
In other words, progressives should expect that their criticisms are examined in turn. Then, in turn, they have every right to respond and defend their claims if they feel they are unfairly classified as anti-Semitic.
Enter Ilhan Omar. We are two months into Omar’s term in the House, and yet she has been at the center of controversy over three different anti-Semitic statements.
The first was a 2012 tweet accusing Israel of “hypnotizing the world.” She defended the tweet in a CNN interview in January 2019, but quickly apologized. The second, a tweet posted in early February, stated that Congressional support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins.” Then, in the same month, she made a comment that support for Israel constituted “allegiance to a foreign country.”
Certainly, all three statements are offensive and false in the context of Israel. Yet the reason for the backlash had nothing to do with Israel. What all three statements have in common is they all reference classical anti-Semitic tropes that have been used to justify persecution and violence against Jews for hundreds of years.
Respectively, these tropes are: 1) Jews control the world with mystical powers, 2) Jews control world governments by way of their wealth and 3) Jews cannot be fully loyal to their home countries because they have a “dual loyalty” to global Jewry. All of these tropes long predate the modern State of Israel, and appear in such places as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the most notorious anti-Semitic document every published, as well as the charter of the terrorist organization Hamas.
There is no way around it: Omar made statements that were blatantly anti-Semitic and greatly offensive to Jewish Americans. Regardless of whether she honestly misspoke — though that gets less believable with each new offense — her wording and implications have caused pain and outrage.
Given that American progressivism is heavily oriented around social justice and the defense and empowerment of minority groups, Omar’s comments should have yielded outrage from her colleagues.
The opposite was true. Although the Democratic establishment has been swift in condemning these comments, key far-left progressive figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib have all come to Rep. Omar’s defense.
Omar, meanwhile, has failed to stand by her own apologies. She used the AIPAC controversy for her own fundraising purposes, demonstrating that she did not genuinely believe she was in the wrong. She made comments on dual loyalty after Tlaib was criticized for similar statements, demonstrating that she was not honestly trying to learn about anti-Semitism.
What do we take away from this?
We now know that far-left progressives don’t actually draw the line at “anti-Israel, not anti-Semitic.” Omar has clearly crossed that line, not once but several times, and her allies chose to defend her anyway; if ever the movement had a chance to prove the truth of their words, it was this. Anti-Semitism has found a safe haven within the American progressive movement.
We also know that these politicians’ support of minorities in this country does not extend to Jews. If a U.S. representative talked about any other minority group this way, these outspoken politicians would be the first to criticize. Yet they applaud the invocation of stereotypes and conspiracy theories about the Jewish people. Even Sanders, who is Jewish, personally offered his support to Omar following the AIPAC controversy, saying, “We will stand by our Muslim brothers and sisters.” What about your Jewish brothers and sisters, senator? Do they not matter as well?
The organization I lead, the American Jewish Congress, has operated for the past 100 years on the principle that in order to create a better America for Jews, we must create a better America for everyone. By failing to treat anti-Semitism with the gravity it merits, far-left progressives showed me they do not share in our vision for this nation.
Rosen is president of the American Jewish Congress.