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Dear Rep. Omar: Can We Talk About Anti-Semitism?

Her words enter a public sphere that is already populated with ideas and agendas and history

Over the past two weeks my newsfeed has been taken over by Ilhan Omar stories. And just as it has divided the left of the political spectrum, it has also divided my carefully curated cohort of lefty friends. But something about the back and forth has felt very off to me. On the one hand, the criticism seems disingenuous and unfair (accusations of hate speech, and even comparisons to Trump!), but on the other the defenses seem irrelevant (She herself is the victim of hate. She is of a different generation. She does not understand what these words mean to the world and to Jews).

I watched the video of her comments at the Busboys and Poets event and found myself impressed by how she agonized in real time to find the words to convey her frustration and offer her critique in a more credible way. It was heartfelt and empathetic, and I commend her for her continued engagement. But then I got to the line about foreign allegiances, and it made me cringe. To be sure, it has been taken out of context in the media in ways that make it more inflammatory. But even in context, I found myself wishing she had refrained from that specific framing.

Maybe it is that I am currently knee deep in research for a book on Weimar Germany. With each successive chapter, the country descends further into incivility and xenophobia. Nationalist, socialist, and racists agendas readily intermingle. And anti-Semitic parties openly question the allegiance of the Jews (and the socialists, and the gypsies, and many others) on the floor of the Reichstag.

The historical perspective in some ways actually obscures things. This is not Weimar Germany, and while anti-Semitism persists throughout the world, the dangers present at that time no longer operate in the same way. In other respects, however, the historical comparison serves to sharpen the focus on what is actually unsettling about this: How is it that this anti-Semitic trope still finds its way into our discourse? With all that has changed between 1919 and 2019, how is it that this idea persists?

The power of such ideas is that they have an existence independent of their specific time and purpose. They intermingle with various agendas and pop up in unexpected places. It is this aspect of her utterances that Ilhan Omar has to be most worried about. I do not doubt what is in her heart. But I also do not think it matters. She is on a national stage now. When she speaks, her words enter a public sphere that is already populated with ideas and agendas and history. It is not good enough to say “I didn’t know this was an anti-Semitic trope.” If you are going to wade into this debate, you need to examine your own ideas and where they come from. Why has this argument against AIPAC gained such currency? Do we really think they are promoting allegiance to a foreign power? In the event of an armed confrontation between the U.S. and Israel, do we really think AIPAC will call on American citizens to take up arms against the U.S.? Every part of that hypothetical is preposterous.

And there are much better arguments that can be offered. AIPAC is an organization that promotes an unethical and racist foreign policy. Its propaganda whitewashes the Israeli occupation and erases the suffering of Palestinians. It promotes the agenda of populist rightwing leaders that do not represent a majority of Jews in Israel much less elsewhere.

I cut my teeth in the political world of Palestine activism, and have heard both good and bad arguments, fair and unfair criticisms, and occasionally ones that inadvertently stumble into racist tropes such as the point about foreign allegiances. For a long time it did not seem to matter much because no one was listening. All arguments against Israel hit a discursive brick wall that felt insurmountable: either a refusal to engage, or an endless whataboutism, or the conversation-stopping accusations of anti-Semitism used to silence dissent. But things have changed. People are listening now like they have not before. And for those of us who care about the Palestinian cause, it is our responsibility to examine our own ideas and question where they came from and sort out the legitimate from the illegitimate.

And for Ilhan Omar, you are a ray of hope for so many. Keep up the pressure and hold your head high. But remember that your words are not only your own. They enter a centuries long discourse that you cannot escape because you are ignorant of it. Criticize Israeli policy. Criticize the role of AIPAC. But get serious, get specific, and choose your words carefully. This opportunity is too important to squander.

Amel Ahmed is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Academic Equity and Inclusion Initiatives, Office of the Chancellor.

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