Being Ilhan Omar
Of the highly celebrated new intake to Congress, there is no doubt it is Omar who is most determined to change her country’s foreign policy establishment.
The new Democratic representative Ilhan Omar refuses to be silenced. Two weeks after drawing condemnation for a remark that Israel and AIPAC’s involvement in US politics was led by money and “all about the Benjamins”, attention has returned to the young congresswoman. Speaking at an event, to a question that – it should have been but mostly wasn’t noted – was not specifically about Israel, Omar said that being a political figure in the United States should not oblige ‘allegiance to a foreign country’. In no time at all, Omar again became the subject of sustained attack and accusations of anti-Semitism, although on this occasion the Democratic Party elite backed-down to pressure not to censor Omar. In an encouraging victory for the Party’s grassroots, we perhaps also saw the beginning of a change in policy.
In the period between the two controversies, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Omar also took evidence from Donald Trump’s envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, questioning his role in the Iran-Contra affair, and US culpability for massacres in El Salvador during the 1980s. Of the highly celebrated new intake to Congress, there is no doubt it is Omar who is most determined to change her country’s foreign policy establishment.
The recent dispute, concerning whether ‘allegiance’ to Israel is an anti-Semitic trope, has been said to hinge on the concept of Jews as a community with “dual loyalty”. Under scrutiny, the accusation falters. By the same standard, AIPAC – the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee – could in its very name be regarded an anti-Semitic trope, clearly invoking as it does the desired closeness of the relationship. If under the standard of “dual loyalty” it is anti-Semitic to condemn a closeness in US-Israeli relations, is it by the same logic anti-Semitic to endorse close relations, as is political commonplace? While the debate proceeds, non-white voices (many of them Jewish) in the US are growing more vocal against the forensic interrogation of a tightly-policed register of anti-Semitic tropes, while more overt racisms seem to go unchecked.
The bipartisan severity and stifling of debate, seen in the criticism of Omar seems only to make her point. In questioning the US-Israel relationship, a black Muslim woman, a public figure with least latitude, is taking on one of the most dominant paradigms in the country’s foreign policy establishment. To look at her only in these terms, however, is to do Omar the disservice of seeing her exclusively through her demographic bracket. Raised by her father, living four of her earliest years in a refugee camp on the Kenya-Somali border, it is maybe no surprise that Omar has faced sterner threats in life than AIPAC, and has not come so far only to quieten now. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, most prominent in the new intake of Democratic representatives, said recently of attacks upon her, “when you decide you want to be just brave it opens up way more possibilities than being perfect”. Omar seems to share the sense that in an environment of near-certain hostility, bravery becomes the best option.
Regardless of the strength of her convictions, Omar is – it seems no great stretch to say – in danger. Republican lawmakers in West Virginia this week staged a demonstration in the statehouse, using an image of Omar beside the burning World Trade Center to suggest that the United States had forgotten the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At a lower level, but more sinister, was the appearance of graffiti in a Minnesota bathroom, the state Omar represents, with the command ‘assassinate Ilhan Omar’. The FBI is investigating, but establishment figures in the Democratic Party – including Nancy Pelosi and influencer Chelsea Clinton – were slow or silent in support for a congresswoman they recently found themselves alongside white nationalists in criticising.
At the core of the issue is the presence of two intangibles: trauma and privilege. If the legacy of the Holocaust is often used to support pro-Israel positions, there are new questions as to whether that emotional weight, especially concerning secondary trauma in the Jewish community, is to be given priority above the trauma of a US politician whose own life has been part-formed in web of US foreign policy entanglements. Should one suffering be valued higher than another? Where privilege is concerned, it has attracted less attention that GOP House Leader, Kevin McCarthy – an advocate of anti-Semitic conspiracies against George Soros – received little censor when instigating concern about Omar’s off-hand remark concerning “the Benjamins”.
It is interesting to watch how this debate of anti-Semitism and foreign policy is playing out on the two sides of the Atlantic. While figures in and close to the UK Labour Party have struggled to control the debates on anti-Semitism, foreign policy, and support for Palestinians, voices on the American left have asserted themselves more forcefully. 75% of US Jews voted for the Democrats in the 2018 midterms, and closeness between Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu has cast the Palestinian question in a new light. Black and Arab Jews in the US, groups almost entirely absent in the UK, have been well-placed to question the overlap between discourse on anti-Semitism and the incidence of white fragility. The reality of Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban has also made clear the very real need to offer support for Ilhan Omar.
Of one thing we can be sure, the debate is shifting. It has long been a recognised tactic of lobbyists for Israel to conflate anti-Semitism with opposition to Israeli policy. Through hesitation and confusion, the method has been intended to secure a silencing effect; the goal is to stifle criticism of Israel, not provoke genuine scrutiny of what constitutes anti-Semitism. Although this perhaps remains a prudent policy under the stewardship of political figures regarded as centrist, progressive movements in the UK and US are beginning to cause the opposite outcome. Where charges of anti-Semitism are concerned, false-positives are now having the consequence of more outrage, volume, and attention on the correct deployment of the term, double-standards in concerns about racism, and illegalities in Palestine.
In its straightforwardness, Omar’s off-the-cuff remark about money in politics opened a discussion on the role of lobbyists and saw some political figures come out about instances in which AIPAC money, in return for support on obscure legislation against Iran and for Israel, had indeed secured influence. With a renewed argument about allegiance and ‘dual loyalty’ so soon afterward, the strategy of putting anti-Semitism alongside criticism of Israel now seems to be working against rather than for Israeli interests. Although the high stakes and sensitivity of the issue still require politicians, activists, and journalists to tread far more carefully than on other issues of global justice, amidst the controversy a path is slowly being found through which debates over Palestine, Israel, and anti-Semitism might, after seventy years, finally be allowed to diverge.