I’m a Jewish Republican. Ilhan Omar is a dear friend.
I’m Jewish. I’m a Republican. And Ilhan Omar is one of my close friends, even though we agree on very little politically.
I know this may sound surprising to people who have only heard the version of Ilhan portrayed in the media. But I have known Ilhan for almost a decade, and I can attest to her strength of character, her love for our country and her acceptance of all people regardless of their faith.
As fellows at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, we shared a mutual passion for fiercely debating thorny policy issues. Ilhan’s astute political instincts and fluency in policy areas ranging from nutrition to higher education, healthcare and U.S.-Africa relations made those policy debates all the better. We both shared an abiding faith in American democracy’s ability to solve our major challenges.
We come from very different backgrounds. I grew up upper-middle-class. I have argued at the legislature and the city against increasing minimum wage, strongly support right to work laws and protection against forced union dues collection, and the elimination of prevailing wage laws.
These are not views Ilhan shares, and her life experience as a refugee who fled war is very different from mine. But our friendship transcends these differences.
Like any human being, Ilhan is not perfect. And there is a lot of fair criticism of her. But, as her friend, it’s been difficult to see Ilhan called names rooted in xenophobia and Islamophobia. I was pained by the latest attack against her — this time in a Tucker Carlson segment the Lincoln Project accurately pointed out as racist.
Just put on a white hood and save us the energy. pic.twitter.com/eSlPOqCpVh
— The Lincoln Project (@ProjectLincoln) July 8, 2020
The most painful accusation though is that Rep. Omar is anti-Semitic. I know Ilhan feels deeply that all forms of hate are connected. She has said repeatedly that she cannot speak out against Islamophobia if she is not also speaking out against the dangerous rise of anti-Semitism. In fact, the first op-ed she wrote after being elected was on the dangerous rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S. “Like members of the Jewish community, I know how it feels to be hated because of my religious beliefs,” she wrote. “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are two sides of the same bigoted coin.”
As someone active in the Minneapolis Jewish Community, I was one of the first to speak with her last year after her now infamous “all about the Benjamins” and dual loyalty remarks. Once she learned her tweets — including a response — were ugly anti-Semitic tropes, she was horrified, quickly apologized, and sought to be a better ally.
I will never forget the look on her face when she was walking down the hall at the U.S. Capitol less than 48 hours after those tweets. When she welcomed me with a hug, she genuinely said how sorry she was for the pain she caused me and the Jewish community.
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While I personally felt her remorse, I understand that the Jewish Community still questions the authenticity of her apology and subsequent actions. Only Ilhan can fix this.
I implore her to do more, but she has taken some important steps. She has been in regular communication and held multiple roundtables with the Minnesota Jewish community. She voted in favor of both House resolutions condemning anti-Semitism and in the wake of the Poway shooting, and she joined with her colleague Jan Schakowsky to write about the dangerous rise of anti-Semitism and propose solutions. And when the House held a hearing on the threat white nationalism poses to Jews and Muslims alike, Rep. Omar joined to listen and ask questions even though it was not her subcommittee.
Of all the issues I disagree with Ilhan on, Israel may be where our most spirited discussions occur. I would be remiss if I did not mention the hurt Ilhan caused many in the Jewish community when she expressed her support for BDS after she earlier stated that the BDS movement makes peace harder to achieve.
Ilhan maintains that her policy goal is still a two-state solution and that her support is for the first amendment rights of BDS supporters, not all the aims of the movement itself. Wherever her heart lies — and I hope it is not in favor of BDS — I continue to push her to help heal the wound among those in the Jewish Community who feel misled given the nuanced explanation.
However, unlike some on the left who hold Israel to an impossible standard and are critical of Israel obsessively and without fail — which I personally believe has roots in anti-Semitism — Ilhan has never held Israel to a different standard. She routinely criticizes other countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, for what she believes are gross human rights violations. In fact, her willingness to call out the grossly undemocratic killing of Jamal Khashoggi led the Saudi foreign minister to say she is not welcome there.
Have there been times when she was her own worst enemy? Yes. Should she work harder to mend the divide I see with her Jewish constituents? Absolutely! But nothing justifies the dark character attacks we all witnessed.
I know Ilhan and I will continue to discuss and disagree on issues big and small, but I also know the person she is — a fierce advocate for the ideas and the country she loves.
I am under no illusion that whoever represents the Minnesota 5th will align with my political values. As a friend and constituent, however, should Democrats give Ilhan the chance at a second term, she should strengthen her representation of the Minnesota 5th by continuing to engage, thoughtfully, with constituents like me — with whom she may not agree.
Benjamin Gerber is a former Director of Labor and Energy Policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. He has lobbied on mining and taxation in North Dakota and is currently an Energy Regulatory Attorney.