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Ilhan Omar’s Words Hurt. But We Can’t Let Our Pain Be Weaponized Against Her.

The first time the accusation of “Jewish money” hurt me, I was in ninth grade. I sat in the cafeteria as classmates — people I’d thought of as friends — taunted me by snarling the word “Jew,” and pelted me with pennies and nickels.

After sitting through what felt like an eternity of this, the bell rang, and I tried my best to compose myself as everyone else rushed to class. But I never really felt safe again in that building, even after receiving apologies from many of the students involved.

Every time I hear references to “Jewish money,” I am once again the humiliated, terrified 14-year-old sitting in that cafeteria.

I won’t deny that reading Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar’s tweets and statements that U.S. support for Israel is “All about the Benjamins” and that U.S. politicians have “an allegiance to a foreign country” alarmed me. It was the phrasing, reminiscent of tropes of Jewish money and control, that evoked my reaction.

Omar apologized for some of her remarks. But she must listen to Jewish communities and leaders, and work to better understand how to maintain her sharp and legitimate criticism of the relationship between the United States and Israel without inspiring the legitimate reactions from Jews we’ve seen.

She hasn’t been perfect at this, but it’s clear that she’s putting forth a real effort to learn from Jewish leaders, meeting with groups across the spectrum.

This is why it’s crucial that Jewish leaders refrain from referring to her as an anti-Semite, despite her misstatements. When the assertion that Omar is an anti-Semite becomes unquestioned in mainstream discourse, Jewish claims of anti-Semitism are mobilized by the right, silencing her legitimate concerns about Israel.

The hypocrisy is, of course, astounding. For unlike Omar, right-wing politicians have been even more blatant in their anti-Semitism and even more brazen in their lack of apologies. Neither President Trump nor Kevin McCarthy have apologized for their own peddling of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and the Republican Party has failed to censure them, though 11 Jews were murdered by someone who believed those conspiracy theories.

And based on their past behavior, it’s clear that the right doesn’t care about anti-Semitism or working with Jews at all, which, again, is far from the truth for Omar.

Worse, the accusation that Omar is an anti-Semite, rather than a well-intentioned leftist who misspoke, is clearly being weaponized against her. Take Fox News host Jeanine Pirro’s comments condemning Omar. In the opening segment of her show on Saturday, alongside a caption warning of the dangers of anti-Semitism, Pirro said of Omar, “She’s not getting this anti-Israel sentiment doctrine from the Democrat Party.” Rather, per Pirro, “Omar wears a hijab, which according to the Quran 33:59, tells women to cover so they won’t get molested. Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?”

In the context of the larger threats to Omar and the myriad attacks she faces, our voices need not supply any justification to those like Jeanine Pirro, who weaponize Jewish pain to further Islamophobia and racism, and others on the political right, who have specifically threatened her life.

I understand the hurt Jews are feeling because of Omar’s statements. I feel it too. But, as frustrating as it may be, we have to put them in context, both in the context of much larger, more dangerous anti-Semitism from the right, as well as in the context of Islamophobia and Palestinian oppression.

We have to assert powerfully that our voices, our pain, our trauma, and our well-intentioned desire for Omar to learn and grow from her mistakes will not be used to fuel attacks upon Omar and upon Muslims more generally.

We must take into account that when we repeatedly rehash Omar’s comments that we are allowing our pain to be coopted.

We must learn that our callouts of Omar don’t happen in a vacuum with Jews on one side and Omar at the other.

There’s a third party, deeply resentful of both Jews and Muslims, foaming at the bit for the chance to pit the two against each other.

Bentley Addison is a sophomore studying sociology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University. Follow him on Twitter, @ashkenegro.

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