Je Diffame: The Case of Ilhan Omar

Here’s the text of a letter I sent to Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) on the Ilhan Omar controversy and (then) pending legislation intended to censure her. I sent a similarly-worded letter to my own congressional representative, Tom Malinowski. I’ve listed some useful readings on the controversy after the text of the letter. Here is a useful backgrounder to the controversy, from The New York Times. Here is the draft of the congressional resolution I had in front of me as I wrote the letter below. This is the IHRA “Working Definition of Antisemitism” referenced in the draft resolution, and criticized in the fourth paragraph of my letter. 

Dear Rep. Sherrill:

I no longer live in the 11th Congressional district, having moved to the 7th district last year. But I was an avid supporter of your congressional campaign when I lived in Bloomfield, and remain a supporter from afar. Though I’m technically not a constituent of yours, I write as a fellow New Jerseyan and a fellow American.

I would like to urge you very strongly not to vote for the pending legislation, supposedly intended to condemn anti-Semitism, but widely regarded as targeting Rep. Ilhan Omar for supposedly “anti-Semitic” comments she’s made about Israel. As of this writing, the resolution lacks an identifying number, but it’s been widely reported on.

First of all, it seems to me dishonest and cowardly to pass legislation obviously aimed at the censure of a particular individual by way of legislation that overtly does something else. But that’s what this legislation does.

Second, the definition of anti-Semitism invoked in the resolution is laughably vague and inadequate. No form of racism can properly be defined indefinitely as “a certain perception,” followed by a conspicuous failure to specify the type of perception involved.  As a former prosecutor, the failure of legislative craftsmanship involved should be patently obvious to you. Further, the definition seems to imply (without quite saying) that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism, but that is a highly contestable claim. Beyond that, it is a blatant contradiction to adopt, as a legal resolution, a definition that explicitly describes itself as not legally binding. Finally, the resolution is superfluous: it’s widely known that Congress passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism a few weeks ago. Why the need for another one? Does Congressional intent really expire every two months?

Third, it is telling that Congress has adopted no comparable resolution condemning the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Rep. Omar’s comments, no matter how ill-considered, cannot remotely be compared, in terms of harm done, to a military occupation and a discriminatory state-sponsored settlement/expropriation enterprise over millions of people that has lasted now for 52 years. The double standard involved is breathtaking, and seems to suggest a callous indifference to human rights at odds with the spirit of the pending resolution.

I understand that the newest version of the House resolution includes a condemnation of Islamophobia, but a condemnation of that sort is vague enough, and meaningless enough, even to command the assent of a Donald Trump. The more pressing imperative is to pass judgment on 52 years of state-sponsored repression by Israel, a supposed democracy. A historical parallel is instructive: our own revolutionary war was provoked by a two-year military occupation imposed, essentially, on one state (Massachusetts) through four weakly-enforced acts of Parliament (the Coercive Acts). Is it too much to ask Congress to recognize that five decades under a far more brutal regime deserves condemnation?

Fourth, contrary to much reporting, Rep. Omar’s statement was not an ascription of dual loyalties to Jews, but an expression of resentment at the imposition of a dual loyalty on her. What she said is that she resented the equation of being pro-Israeli with being pro-American, as though loyalty to the American flag required support for Israel.

This is a long topic of its own, too long for a letter of this kind, but suffice it to say that I feel exactly the same way. Those of us who do not “support Israel” have been accused of being traitors or terrorists or worse for our lack of enthusiasm for that country. The equation of Rep. Omar with a 9/11 terrorist is just the tip of the iceberg of that sentiment. A more robust indication is the fact that Donald Trump got elected to the presidency after lyingly having defamed the Arab population of Jersey City for having celebrated the 9/11 attacks. My father was until recently a surgeon in Jersey City (at Christ Hospital, on Palisade Avenue), and spent 9/11 operating on injured members of the FDNY. It’s hard to understate the degree of resentment we feel for the fact that our electorate has seen fit to excuse such defamations, elect the person who gave voice to them, but has now seen fit to attack Rep. Omar.

Fourth, if Rep. Omar deserves censure, so do several other members of Congress, including  Reps. Meadows and Jordan, for their recent comments. And yet while Rep. Omar is implicitly being censured by congressional resolution, Rep. Meadows has gotten an apology from those who have pointed out his racism (!)

Rep. Omar’s statements may have been ill-considered and poorly expressed, but with all due respect, they are not clearly anti-Semitic, and do not justify a congressional censure. Please vote against it.

Here are some useful things to read or view on the controversy.

One issue raised by the controversy is the power of the Israel lobby. Both its power and its reliance on underhanded tactics have comprehensively been documented in John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2008). For a useful insider’s account, read M.J. Rosenberg’s “Sorry, Democrats: Your NRA Is Spelled AIPAC,” in The Huffington Post.

For a sense of how the Israel lobby acts, and the reflexive nature of its reliance on defamation and moral blackmail, read this piece from the Michigan Daily (University of Michigan), “Canary Mission Blacklists Students, Faculty for Pro-Palestine Views.” The lesson would appear to be obvious: as far as the Israel lobby is concerned, any rigorous, fundamental critique of Zionism, of Israel, or of the systematic connection between Zionism and injustice, is ipso facto anti-Semitism. The accusation of “anti-Semitism” has essentially lost its meaning.

A second issue is the alleged connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. For a very clear debunking of the common equation of the two, read Peter Beinart’s “Debunking the Myth that Anti-Zionism Is Antisemitic,” in The Guardian. Though very dated at this point, I’ve written on the subject as well. Readers accustomed to fixating exclusively on the sins of Islamist ideologues might want to read Jonathan Cook’s piece on settler ideology in Israel today, “‘Rule of the Rabbis’ Fuels Holy War in Israel.” Even apart from empirical questions about how typical such views are, the conceptual question is: do such views qualify as Zionist? I think it’s clear that many of them do. This isn’t to say that all Zionists share them. It’s to say that nothing disqualifies them from being accurately characterized as Zionist.

A third issue concerns “dual loyalties.” The confusions (and mendacity) on this subject would take more than a letter, blog post, or bunch of articles to unravel. My view is that Omar was complaining, not about the dual loyalties of Jews with respect to Israel, but the dual loyalties to Israel imposed on non-Jews, and generally, the dual loyalties of which Arabs and Muslims are suspected for having loyalties to players in Near Eastern conflicts who don’t usually elicit American sympathy (like the Palestinians).

Though I haven’t seen a fully satisfactory working-out of this argument, this article from Common Dreams takes a view that strikes me as being in the ballpark.  Also valuable is this piece by Amith Gupta at Mondoweiss on how “Muslims–not Jews–Are Being targeted with Racist Loyalty Canards.” To see demands for loyalty to Israel being imposed on Americans, read “Arkansas Newspaper Defies ‘Unconstitutional’ Law Banning Israel Boycotts,” along with Glenn Greenwald’s report on the case of Bahia Anawi, forced as a condition of employment to take an oath against boycotts of Israel (on a definition of “Israel” that includes the West Bank), and best of all, this piece from Vox about the Texas legislator who, back in 2015, demanded that Muslim Americans pledge allegiance to the American flag while displaying an Israeli flag that was sitting on a desk at the entrance to her office.

To get some clarifying perspective on the “dual loyalty” issue, it’s worth considering what American Jews have themselves said about it. This piece by Phillip Weiss at Mondoweiss collects the statements of prominent Jewish American intellectuals who candidly describe Jewish American life as involving dual loyalties. A companion piece canvasses Hannah Arendt’s views, and concludes (for reductio!) that in the current climate of opinion, Arendt would have to be branded an anti-Semite.

For more general defenses of Omar, I would suggest Tom Suarez’s “Ilhan Omar and the Anatomy of a Trope” (Mondoweiss), Joshua Leifer’s, “Ilhan Omar and the Weaponisation of Antisemitism” (The Guardian), as well as an earlier piece by Leifer in the Forward, James Zogby’s “The Shameful Attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar,” (Mondoweiss), Jordan Weissmann’s “Ilhan Omar Has a Point” (Slate), Steve Shalom’s podcast, “The Weaponization of Antisemitism” (temporarily unavailable), and Michael Lesher’s, “What the Mugging of Ilhan Omar Teaches Us” (ZNet). Finally, useful context on the anti-colonialist context for Omar’s claims from Juan Cole.

There’s undoubtedly more to be said. I’ll try to keep track of some of it, and post it here.

3 thoughts on “Je Diffame: The Case of Ilhan Omar

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. I would like to add that free speech is exactly that. We are free to express our thoughts openly without censorship. Does that mean we should say everything we think,hear, or read? The answer is no.
    We have influence peddlers all along K street in DC from many different countries and companies. Israel is one of them. The problem is not the influence peddlers but the politicians who have a price. They are all for sale, just different buyers and prices.
    This Freshman House member had people donate money to her campaign, expecting favors. They will get the favors and she will keep getting the money. It is a game of money and power in DC and she is a player, complaining about the system she is a part of. JMHO. I made a blog about this at my site if you care to read and or comment.


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