On February 10, Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar came under fire for a few tweets. Omar was responding to a comment by journalist Glenn Greenwald, which was itself about Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy’s attacks against Omar and Michigan Rep Rashida Tlaib for their pro-Palestinian stances. Greenwald saw these Republican attacks as a manifestation of US political support for the Israeli government.
It’s all about the Benjamins baby 🎶 https://t.co/KatcXJnZLV— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 10, 2019
When pressed for further comment by Forward Opinion Editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, Omar seemed to attribute the phenomenon to funding from AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group.
AIPAC! https://t.co/UdzaFUEfrh— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
The tweets set off a flurry of controversy, with some commentators claiming that Omar had invoked anti-Semitic stereotypes of “Jewish money” controlling US politics. One of Ungar-Sargon’s follow up tweets seemed to draw comparisons between the words of Omar and her supporters and “a cartoon octopus with a hook nose.”
If your “criticism of AIPAC” can be replaced with a cartoon octopus with a hook nose, you need a lesson in Jewish history. And if you’re out here saying “Yeah, using the word Benjamins was bad BUT” you’re abetting the normalization of anti-Semitism by an elected official.— Batya Ungar-Sargon (@bungarsargon) February 11, 2019
This highly inflammatory response set the scene for a massive punchdown where Omar’s tweets were taken increasingly out of their original context. Over the course of a day that began as Omar’s joking response to an islamophobic Republican campaign to silence her, quickly became a situation where she was roundly condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Omar was quick to issue an apology, saying “[m]y intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans.”
Listening and learning, but standing strong 💪🏽 pic.twitter.com/7TSroSf8h1— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
Still, the controversy continued to grow, culminating in Vice President Pence tweeting out a call for Omar to face “consequences” and President Trump demanding that she resign.
While Omar’s tweets did not mention Jews, and were made in specific reference to a smear campaign led by a conservative Christian politician, her critics read between the lines and created an association between AIPAC and the entire Jewish community that Omar herself clearly did not intend.
Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way. Sincerely, American Jews. https://t.co/qo3BU2Pqgn— Batya Ungar-Sargon (@bungarsargon) February 11, 2019
The rush to publicly condemn and punish Omar reflects a long-standing pattern in which Black leaders who show solidarity with Palestinians find their words twisted by critics portraying them as inherently hateful, ignorant, or having hidden intentions when they advocate for the rights of Palestinians and themselves.These anti-black stereotypes further entrench white supremacy, instead of fighting against it.
Many in the Jewish community and beyond have pushed back on the claim that Omar was engaging in anti-Semitism at all, asserting that her words simply describe how lobbying works for AIPAC and many other similar groups. This included an Israeli-American former democratic campaign staffer who described in detail AIPAC’s use of indirect political funding to push their desired policies.
But there is no need to stretch the words of many of Omar’s right wing critics to understand them as anti-Semitic. Rep McCarthy, who launched the islamophobic silencing campaign that Omar was responding to, has long trafficked in blatantly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish billionaire George Soros, including on Twitter, and has never issued an apology for his tweets.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy posted this tweet AFTER a bomb was sent to Soros’ house. Up until a couple of minutes ago it was pinned to the top of his profile. pic.twitter.com/FEeKoPolHL— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) October 24, 2018
Trump has mainstreamed far right extremists throughout his presidency, saying there were “good people on both sides” when pro-confederate protestors took on Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” and killed an anti-fascist counterprotester. He also created the political climate that saw the worst anti-Jewish terror attack in US history at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, which killed 11 Jews worshipping on Shabbat.
Despite the Jewish blood on his hands, Trump has never faced any real consequences for his anti-Semitism, and is instead hailed by groups like AIPAC as a friend of Israel while remaining the most powerful person in the world.
Given the rapidity with which Omar was condemned and asked to resign, despite heated debate in the Jewish community about whether her comments were even anti-Semitic, it’s clear that once again, consequences reserved for the marginalized even when the powerful are the clearest offenders.
For many Black activists in solidarity with Palestine, the rush to condemn Omar and make a public spectacle of her punishment, along with the twisting of her words well beyond their intended scope, is all too familiar. Marc Lamont Hill lost his CNN job after comments calling for justice and equality for Palestinians and Israelis “from the river to the sea.” Like Omar, Hill’s comments became the subject of wild projection that reflected the racist stereotypes of those speaking more than his own intentions.
Omar’s comments came in response to Rep McCarthy’s campaign to treat her support of Palestinian human rights as somehow equal to Rep Steve King’s open endorsement of white supremacy. The uproar has followed a similar pattern where many of Omar’s detractors seem unable to distinguish what could at best be characterized as an unclear comment that left room for confusion from systematic racism. This resulted in ugly false equivalencies between her tweets and actual white supremacist hate groups that have long targeted Black people in the United States with violence.
Congratulations, @IlhanMN - you have won the approval of the KKK. https://t.co/3jIFEsYXvI— Batya Ungar-Sargon (@bungarsargon) February 11, 2019
While white supremacists often take advantage of controversy to garner attention, drawing any comparison or connection between Omar’s tweets and the KKK callously minimizes the history of anti-black lynchings and terror in the US. It also erases the systems of power and oppression central to the entire conversation. A Black Muslim woman like Ilhan Omar will never be “approved” by the KKK, who ultimately want nothing more than her complete subjugation, meanwhile Donald Trump has given their ideology the legitimacy of the White House.
These conversations have consequences for the Black figures targeted and those they represent. The accusations against Omar are having a ripple effect as she continues her job as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This week Omar questioned disgraced neo-conservative diplomat Elliot Abrams on his support for Central American death squads in the 1980s and previous convictions of lying to congress at a committee hearing on Venezuela. Far right commentators are already using the controversy to suggest that she did this out of anti-Jewish animous, rather than an interest in simply doing her job or her own experience as a refugee impacted by US foreign policy.
The delight she takes in trying to humiliate Abrams, who is a well know Israel supporter and Jew, and her rage and contempt, the evil smirk — this woman is a bigot. Stop calling on her to apologize, she knows exactly what she’s doing. https://t.co/brHYQos1jp— Noah Pollak (@NoahPollak) February 13, 2019
The truth is what has happened in the wake of Omar’s initial comments has become the opposite, an anti-black punchdown that treats her as little more than a hunting trophy. This is nothing to celebrate.
Holding our political leaders accountable for anti-Semitism, or any other form of prejudice, is vital for the broader struggle against white supremacy. But our processes of accountability fail if they reflect the same systems they purport to challenge and punish the marginalized while giving the powerful a pass.
Worse, they can become a mechanism for silencing critical voices that challenge the status quo.
Far from reflecting, many of those involved have celebrated this as an achievement when it should be a source of shame. We have to do better, and even more importantly, hold ourselves accountable.
Rebecca Pierce is an African-American and Jewish filmmaker, photographer and journalist. Her work highlights racial justice issues from the United States to Israeli and Palestine, with a focus on issues affecting African Asylum seekers.
This story "Attacking Ilhan Omar Isn’t Fighting Anti-Semitism. It’s Upholding White Supremacy." was written by Rebecca Pierce.