What Is Anti-Semitism? Ilhan Omar Comments Prompt Resolution and Bitter Fight Over Israel Criticism

A series of controversial comments made by Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has prompted Democratic lawmakers to propose a House resolution condemning anti-Semitism, thrusting a debate over the very definition of the term back into the spotlight.

Over the past several weeks, Omar, a freshman Democrat who is also the first Muslim woman to wear a headscarf in Congress, has been accused of promoting anti-Semitic "tropes," themes or analogies, in her condemnation of Congress's unwavering support for the state of Israel.

Critics say that Omar has perpetuated anti-Semitic stereotypes by arguing that Jewish groups purchased Congress's allegiance to Israel, with some arguing that Omar had suggested that Jewish people have dual allegiances.

"I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country," Omar said during a town hall last week. The comments quickly drew a firestorm of criticism.

Critics have argued that Omar's statements resemble anti-Semitic tropes that began in 19th century Europe, when some questioned whether Jews could be sufficiently loyal to a nation-state. The Dreyfus Affair, for example, erupted in France in the late 19th century when a French-Jewish artillery captain was falsely convicted of treason, accused of having dual loyalty. Dreyfus was marched through the streets of Paris in disgrace while onlookers called out "Death to Judas, death to the Jew." Lawmakers and commentators have warned against the dangers of slinging such accusations again in the 21st century, even unwittingly.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks during a press conference in the House Visitors Center at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on November 30, 2018. Representative Ilhan Omar stands at her left. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Rebecca Kobrin, associate professor of American Jewish History at Columbia University, argued that Omar's critique of Israel's role in U.S. politics missed the mark.

"American support of Israel has to do with Christian America's vision of itself and America's place in the world, and how Israel fits into that. Even if Jews were not in Congress, Christian Evangelical America would be supportive of the state of Israel," Kobrin told Newsweek. "America supported the state of Israel before AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] existed."

And aside from AIPAC, other powerful lobbies in Washington, including the Christian right and the national security establishment, have a vested interest in maintaining U.S. support for Israel, experts pointed out.

Omar has defended her comments and said she has been attacked for being insufficiently pro-Israel, and many progressive Jews have defended her.

Prominent Jewish commentators like the writer Naomi Klein, singer Sarah Jaffe and Jewish Voice for Peace Director Rebecca Vilkomerson, among many others, signed a petition to say "there is absolutely nothing anti-Semitic about calling out the noxious role of AIPAC, which spends millions each year to buy U.S. political support for Israeli aggression and militarism against the Palestinian people."

Other pundits, such as the Intercept's Mehdi Hasan, argued that the criticism of Omar was hypocritical because many on the political right, including President Donald Trump, had invoked similarly anti-Semitic tropes without receiving similar backlash.

"I think the right has zero credibility on this subject, given their embrace of anti-Semites like Representative Steve King," Talia Lavin, a researcher who tracks anti-Semitism online, told Newsweek.

Democracy Forward, a legal and public policy organization, is currently suing the Trump administration for withholding information about how anti-Semitic content demonizing Jewish-Hungarian billionaire George Soros was aired on government-funded television programs.

Still, some argue that it's important to call out public figures when they use language that has roots in anti-Semitism, which has a long history as one of the world's most persistent and noxious conspiracy theories.

"Everybody needs a lot more education, and that need for education concerns both the history of certain terms and tropes and references that may produce unwanted and unexpected reactions," Jonathan Boyarin, a professor of modern Jewish studies at Cornell University, told Newsweek.

"Like racism and sexism, hostility and suspicion toward Jews has deep roots. Jewish resistance to Greek culture sparked early notions of Jews as proud and standoffish. Centuries of demonization in Christian society were 'updated' in 19th-century Europe, when racial 'anti-Semitism' became a political movement. Nazi rhetoric famously blamed both communism and capitalism on Jews, the worst example of Jews being treated as a convenient scapegoat for the problems a society can't solve on its own," Boyarin continued.

Worryingly, he added, such discrimination has been thrust back into the spotlight by recent events.

"In recent years, memory of Nazi genocide has faded and public expressions of white nationalism have grown in the United States. Now, Jews and all concerned for everyone's well-being are rightly worried by an increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric," he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she believes that Omar was unaware of how people would interpret her comments.

"I feel confident that her words were not based on any anti-Semitic attitude, but that she didn't have the full appreciation of how they landed on other people where these words have a history and a cultural impact that might have been unknown to her," Pelosi said Thursday.

Some critics, however, also argued that the use of anti-Semitic tropes, whether wittingly or unwittingly, confuses legitimate conversations about foreign influence and the role of money in politics.

"It is perfectly acceptable to critique and discuss particularly foreign influences on U.S. policy and politics. It's not acceptable to accuse any community of dual loyalty," Eric Ward, the executive director of the Western States Center and an expert in anti-Semitism, told Newsweek.

"We have seen this historically with the Irish immigrant community in America being accused of being puppets of the Catholic Church in the 1800s. We saw it recently with Donald Trump accusing Judge Curiel of not being able to be an honest broker because he was of Mexican descent, and we have seen the Muslim community experience Islamophobia with accusations of serving two different functions, not being able to be loyal Americans," Ward continued.

"And it is no different to accuse the Jewish community of being dual loyalists as well. It is offensive, it is not accurate, and in this case it certainly is an anti-Semitic trope."

But as Congress prepares to issue a sweeping rebuke of anti-Semitism this week, many will be looking at whether the resolution is a genuine stand against bigotry or an excuse to sideline a freshman congresswoman and suppress legitimate critiques of U.S. support for Israeli policy.

"We agree with and support the sentiments expressed in the resolution which House Democratic leadership plans to introduce this week in opposition to anti-Semitism," the organization J Street, which advocates for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, said in a statement.

"At the same time, we are concerned that the timing of this resolution will be seen as singling out and focusing special condemnation on a Muslim woman of color—as if her views and insensitive comments pose a greater threat than the torrent of hatred that the white nationalist right continues to level against Jews, Muslims, people of color and other vulnerable minority groups in our country."