Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

The Hypocrisy Of ‘Microaggressions’ On The Left – And The Right

Ilhan Omar has recently been in the spotlight for comments that played into long-standing anti-Semitic tropes. In tweets and at a town hall, Omar expressed her belief that support for Israel is only a reflection of Jewish wealth (“It’s all about the Benjamins, baby”.

As Michelle Goldberg aptly put it at the New York Times, what Omar did was tantamount to a microaggression against the Jewish community, utilizing “inadvertent slights that are painful because they echo whole histories of trauma.” This is exactly right: Omar did not openly say she hated Jews or thought they were evil; in fact, she apologized for some earlier comments, and has said she never intended to “offend [her] constituents or Jewish Americans”.

What’s interesting is that the left — usually so quick to denounce microaggressions and their conveyors — rushed to defend Omar.

While the Democratic leadership in the House put forth a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, the progressive left jumped to Omar’s defense, insisting that she was only trying to start a conversation about US-Israel policy, that criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, and that she was being silenced for questioning Israel.

And many also argued that since the Republicans haven’t condemned openly racist comments by many of their own leading figures — including the President — there is no reason for Democrats to get in a major huff about some potentially, and purported unintentionally, offensive comments by a young woman of color, who has herself been subject to significant abuse.

This is a significant departure from the left’s modus operandi, which usually entails aggressively calling out microaggressions, denouncing offenders even if their intent was not to harm, or if they’ve apologized for damage done.

Recent examples include controversies over a drawing of Serena Williams; a New York Times editor tweeting “Immigrants: they get the job done,” with a video of Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu, who was born in California; and a U.S. Air Force Academy officer sending an email to cadets about proper haircuts and also saying that Michael Jordan was never seen with “gaudy” jewelry or sagging pants.

What the brouhaha over Omar’s words revealed was a double-standard when it comes to microaggressions. Offend a person belonging to a minority group with a microaggression and you will be cancelled — unless that person is a Jew.

This is an unfortunate situation for the progressive left to find itself in, and its members have, as far as I can tell, four options.

First, they can continue to insist that “microaggressions” are a serious offense, and comments invoking racist tropes or stereotypes are hurtful and must be confronted. This would mean a sharp pivot towards openly condemning Omar for her remarks.

Second, they can drop the concept of microaggressions entirely, no longer focusing so much attention on unintended or minor offenses and taking “purported perpetrators” at their word that no racism or bigotry was intended.

Third, they can continue to defend Omar and the idea of microaggressions by arguing that Jews are not worth the same consideration as other minority groups and that anti-Semitism is simply not as grave an offense as other forms of bigotry.

Or fourth, they can avoid these hard choices and simply be intellectually inconsistent — which most people would call hypocrisy.

So far, they appear to have chosen path number four, a disappointing choice to say the least.

But if the Omar controversy revealed a certain amount of hypocrisy on the left, it raises further questions about the motives, sincerity and honesty of the right.

Republicans have long claimed that those offended by “offhand comments” or unintended slights should just stiffen up and move on, and that when the left labels people as racists and bigots it shuts down conversation. Yet when it comes to Jews, their thick skins disappear, and they’re more than willing to throw around “anti-Semite” as a way to smear opponents.

Thus, Republicans were only too quick to label Omar a virulent anti-Semite. And yet, the Republican party is led by a President who claimed there were “very fine people” among the Nazis at Charlottesville, demonized immigrants as criminals and rapists, flirted with white supremacists, and made openly sexist and racist comments, as well as comments very similar to Omar’s about Jewish money buying elections.

And of course, Trump is not the only prominent Republican to display blatant bigotry; only recently was Steve King sanctioned and Omar was herself subject to several openly racist attacks, including one linking her to 9/11 simply on the basis of her religious background.

Republican attacks on Democratic “bigotry,” in short, are at best hypocritical and more likely just disingenuous.

Moreover, Republicans have been very selective in what they accept as offensive overall, claiming, for example, that when women get offended when called sluts, or black people offended when African nations are called “shithole countries” they are simply being snowflakes, unable to take a joke, fully engulfed in PC culture. Of course those comments weren’t racist!

By this logic, Jews, too, should not be offended by Omar’s comments since they were not openly racist, in which case, the GOP’s attacks on Omar and the Democratic party make no sense at all.

The Omar controversy should give both sides an opportunity to reflect, and to think carefully about where the logic of their current positions might lead.

For the left, ignoring the offense Omar’s comments have induced and simply pointing their fingers at the Republicans has not only made many Jews uncomfortable, but it has left the Democratic party open to charges of anti-Semitism, of double-standards with regard to various minority groups, and of hypocrisy.

But Republicans should reflect on the bigots and bigotry tolerated within their own party. And they should reflect on their own views on “microaggressions,” too.

There should be one standard across the board.

If we want to be able to have productive discussions about difficult issues in this country like anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and more, both sides will need to think carefully through the logic and consistency of their own positions. Both sides have points, but neither is willing to accept the validity of the others’. And when confronted with issues within their respective party, Democrats and Republicans alike tend to harden and protect their own, at the cost of intellectual honesty.

As the Jewish proverb goes, “locks only keep out the honest.” And politics has never been a game for the honest. But the least we can hope for is more consistency.

Isaac Rose-Berman is a freshman at Brandeis University.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.