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Opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Ilhan Omar’s stunning lack of introspection

Representative Ilhan Omar. J. Scott Applewhite.AP/Associated Press

REP. ILHAN OMAR simply doesn’t get it — and neither, it seems, do her progressive allies.

Twice over the past few weeks, the freshman congresswoman has created a political firestorm by using anti-Semitic language. Twice, Jewish commentators and groups have criticized her; and twice, her liberal supporters have dismissed the offense she’s caused and defended her.

In the process, they are sending a clear and disturbing message to American Jews: anti-Semitism doesn’t rate.

Last month, Omar took to Twitter to reduce the support for Israel in American politics as being “all about the Benjamins” (i.e $100 bills, i.e money).


When questioned about this, Omar gave a one word answer, “AIPAC,” a reference to the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

Omar’s comments activated a long-standing anti-Jewish stereotype: that Diaspora Jews use money to exercise influence and political power.

While it’s true that AIPAC strongly influences congressional debates on Israel, the ties between America and the Jewish state are grounded in long-standing cultural, historical, and political values. Ironically, the loudest and most uncritical supporters of Israel are evangelical Christians. In utilizing painful and obvious anti-Semitic tropes, Omar crossed a line.

Under pressure, she issued an apology and said we must “always be willing to step back and think through criticism.”

But last week, at an event in Washington DC, she’s made clear she has learned nothing.

Omar referenced the “political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country” — a charge that raises the specter of dual loyalty, an accusation that has long been hurled against Diaspora Jewish communities.

But the real story to me was her stunning lack of introspection. She complained that “Jewish colleagues,” and some of the “constituents” and “allies” of her and fellow Muslim congresswoman Rashida Tlaib jumped to the conclusion that “everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim . . . we get to be labeled something. And that ends the discussion.”


So much for thinking through the criticisms levied against her.

Omar clearly sees herself as the victim in this whole situation — and she has the backing of an amen chorus of liberals who are not only defending her but exorcising those who are trying to hold her accountable.

Those bothered by her words are trying to silence a voice critical of Israel and AIPAC; they are singling her out because she’s Muslim (and there’s no doubt that Omar has been crudely and bigotedly attacked because she is Muslim); what about Republicans who have anti-Semitic language, or so the arguments go.

The latter point is almost certainly true. Watching President “fine people on both sides” Trump criticize anyone for anti-Semitism is nauseating. But none of this excuses Omar’s comments.

But the many Jewish organizations that have condemned Omar’s comments have a long track record of speaking out against Islamaphobia and the racism of this administration.

Contrary to Omar’s protestations — and those of her backers — it’s certainly possible to be critical of Israel and the US-Israel relationship without using anti-Semitic language.

Indeed, the defenders of Omar are deflecting.

The bigger issue here, it pains me to say, is that on the left there is a hierarchy of hate, and anti-Semitism is low on the list. When Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory was criticized for her close relationship with Louis Farrakhan and when British Jews raised concern about UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of anti-Semitic comments their defenders used many of the same arguments.


It’s worth asking: would the same people favorably parsing Omar’s words be doing so if they were directed at African-Americans, immigrants, or Muslims? Would they demand, as is the case now, that we consider the larger context? Why are things different for invocations of anti-Semitism?

Indeed, the lesson that Omar is likely to take from this latest incident is that she can say things that are offensive to Jews, show no contriteness, and progressives will come to her defense rather than demand she be more respectful.

In a different political context, Omar’s comments might not carry as much weight. But at a time when anti-Semitic hate crimes against Jews are rising — when Jews were slain in a synagogue in Pittsburgh and when the president is bothsiding neo-Nazis — this is no time for equivocation.

A sitting member of Congress, who is also a Democrat, should be able to use language that isn’t offensive to Jews, and liberals, of all people, should be the one demanding that she does.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.