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The Left Is Making Jews Choose: Our Progressive Values Or Ourselves

In the past three weeks, Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar attempted to discuss the U.S.-Israel relationship three times. And each time, her words descended into anti-Semitic tropes.

“It’s all about the Benjamins!” She wrote in a now deleted tweet, misconstruing the Israel Lobby in a way that evoked the anti-Semitic trope of Jewish money controlling the levers of power.

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she said at a town hall meeting, evoking the anti-Semitic canard of dual loyalties.

“I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country,” she tweeted, since “our democracy is built on debate,” again evoking the idea that there are sinister forces at work demanding allegiance to Israel that undermine U.S. democracy.

Omar apologized for the initial tweet and acknowledged the hurt she had caused. But she only seemed to double down on the very sentiments that had offended Jews in the first place.

Almost as upsetting as having a member of Congress repeatedly say things that evoke the most horrific episodes in Jewish history was the response to Omar’s words on the progressive left. Instead of expressing support for American Jews horrified that a sitting Congresswoman – a person with access to state power who has a vote on whether the most powerful military in the world goes to war – they started a hashtag on Twitter: #IStandWithIlhan.

Omar, a refugee and one of the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress, has been repeatedly and deplorably targeted by bigots with ugly, anti-Muslim sentiments and even threats to her life. Every decent human should vigorously oppose these kinds of attacks.

But her supporters went further. They based their defenses around a bizarre, self-contradictory combination of denying that her words evoked anti-Semitic stereotypes while implicitly admitting her words did evoke those stereotypes with elaborate deflections and whataboutisms. (“Don’t throw the book at a Muslim woman of color while ignoring the many, many white Christian members of Congress who’ve trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes and tell me you’re doing it to protect Jews” was a typical sentiment.)

The whataboutism ramped up after House Democrats announced they would be bringing a resolution against anti-Semitism in the wake of Omar’s comments.

“Dems doing more to ‘confront Omar’ than Donald Trump,” tweeted Symone Sanders of CNN. “Where is the resolution about the president?”

Of course, House Democrats did call for censuring President Trump for his remarks defending the White Supremacists who marched in Charlottesville; it was blocked by Republicans, who controlled the House. And just two months ago, Congressman Steve King was censured by name for defending white supremacy, and stripped of all his committee memberships.

Still, it’s true that Republicans like Kevin McCarthy and Jim Jordan have not apologized for their own deeply anti-Semitic tweets, just as the President has never apologized for pushing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory cited by the murderer of 11 Jews at prayer in the Tree of Life Synagogue. And for now, the Democrats’ resolution about anti-Semitism appears to be on hold, with members of the Black and Progressive Caucuses reportedly not wishing to distract from fighting President Trump.

Fair enough. But a more disturbing rationale emerged among some of Omar’s other supporters on the progressive left: a kind of resentment towards Jews over the fact that House Democrats would come to our defense.

And it’s this resentment that has replaced the “intersectional” ideal of fighting all forms of bigotry together. For when it comes time to fight anti-Semitism, there’s always a more pressing issue.

Thus, Linda Sarsour on her Facebook page raged against years of “blatant anti-Muslim racism, islamophobia, propaganda against Muslims” which “Democratic leadership were never swift to condemn.” “You want a resolution?” she wrote. “Condemn all forms of bigotry. All forms of bigotry are unacceptable.”

All but the one Omar waded into, apparently. “We stand with Representative Ilhan Omar. Our top priority is the safety of our sister and her family,” Sarsour concluded.

By comparing what Omar said to Islamophobia, Sarsour was implicitly admitting that her words were hurtful to the Jewish community. And yet, this didn’t make them worthy of censure. The opposite; Sarsour was enraged that members of the U.S. government would stand up for Jews. The outrage that there are no resolutions protecting other vulnerable people was seamlessly melded into the outrage that there might be one protecting Jews.

By Tuesday, these sentiments had spread to New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter feed.

“One of the things that is hurtful about the extent to which reprimand is sought of Ilhan is that no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about Latinx + other communities (during the shutdown, a GOP member yelled “Go back to Puerto Rico!” on the floor),” she tweeted.

Ocasio-Cortez, too, seemed to implicitly admit that Omar’s words were racially problematic by comparing them to a racist remark against herself. And yet, instead of concluding that it’s wonderful to see racist language attacked full on — she claimed to be “hurt” by seeing Congress stand up for Jews.

Ocasio-Cortez went on to suggest that Jews “call in” Omar instead of calling her out, apparently unaware that Omar’s Jewish constituents have been unsuccessfully trying to do just that for a year now, thanks to yet another anti-Semitic tweet from 2012 accusing Israel of “hypnotizing the world.” “To jump to the nuclear option every time leaves no room for corrective action,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote, apparently forgetting that this week was the fourth time Omar invoked an anti-Semitic stereotype.

“It’s not my position to tell people how to feel, or that their hurt is invalid,” she wrote. “But incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’”

But do these incidents, actually, beg the question? And why do these questions only come up when Jews are seeking redress for harm?

Ocasio-Cortez, like Sarsour, has bought into the notion that is prevalent on the left and the right: that it’s Jewish safety or Muslim safety; Jewish self-determination or Palestinian self-determination; Jews can thrive or black people can.

And above all, when Jews hear racist stereotypes, the onus is on us to not go “nuclear” and to stay silent, to reach out to the offender privately (again and again and again and again) and if that doesn’t work, to never, ever involve the authorities.

This, too, is familiar to us. Resentment against Jews for seeking the protection of a sovereign – and for the rare times that we got it – is just as much a staple of our history as the ugly tropes Omar seems incapable of refraining from using.

Are Jews supposed to stay in a progressive movement that resents us for standing up for ourselves? That has leaders who are “hurt” when they see Congress defend us? A movement that is lionizing a woman for the fact that she has offended us?

Just because the Republicans are weaponizing Omar’s repeated gaffes in problematic ways while hypocritically ignoring the anti-Semitic remarks of their fellows doesn’t mean that the Democrats — or Jews — should be silent about anti-Semitism, especially after repeated attempts to “call in.”

America — and its progressive wing — will surely be worse off if Jews can no longer find a political home there, and it’s for the soul of this country that we are fighting as much as for ourselves. Because Jewish safety and sovereignty and the safety and sovereignty of others in need of justice are not a zero-sum game.

We can vigorously oppose the disgusting bigotry against Omar while also demanding that she not demean us. We can vigorously oppose the Occupation of the Palestinians while also demanding that people join us in this endeavor without reverting to anti-Semitic tropes.

Anti-Semitism is still much more dangerous on the right. But it’s the progressive left that is asking Jews to choose between our progressive values and ourselves.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward. Her email is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @bungarsargon.

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