Students discuss the Rep. Ilhan Omar controversy

Anjali Jha

By David Villani

My opinion: why criticisms of Israel aren’t anti-Semitic

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has had an eventful first term in Congress. Since her election, the freshman congresswoman has been under near-constant attack for anti-Semitism. After her comments last month questioning the political influence that forces people to side with a foreign country—meaning Israel—critics have accused her of singling out Jews and playing into old racist tropes.

But despite widespread condemnation, Omar’s comments did not criticize Jews or Judaism. She was only criticizing the pressure that members of Congress are forced to support Israel. Earlier comments from Omar about how U.S. support for Israel is dependent on money and lobbying power merely denounced a state that is increasingly violent, corrupt and racist.

Backlash to Omar’s comments points to a larger, far scarier trend in American political discourse regarding Israel. As an increasingly right-wing Israeli government alienates Jewish Americans—traditionally one of its strongest bases of support—journalists and politicians are shutting down criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic. The Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act represents another ominous, impactful example. It empowers authorities to use legal action against boycotters of Israel, effectively shutting down discourse. The bill was widely criticized by civil liberties groups like the ACLU as an affront to the First Amendment.

In response to the bill, Congresswoman Rashida Talib tweeted a statement defending the right to protest. Like Omar, critics called her anti-Semitic.

It might be uncomfortable to point out the similarities between the stories of Omar and Talib, but it’s noticeable that both cases are progressive women of color under attack for criticizing Israel. When Omar was elected to office, controversy erupted over her choice to wear a hijab.

It’s not difficult to imagine that  racial resentment toward a Muslim and female face in Congress underpin some of these criticisms. Rabbi Fred Dobb of the Adat Shalom synagogue in Bethesda said he viewed Omar’s comments as unwittingly over the line—though he felt they made sense within her frame of reference, and was glad she apologized—but also added that the condemnation of a Muslim woman of color with somewhat extreme views was much stronger than condemnations of white nationalist anti-Semitism, which seems the greater threat.

Not only is shutting down discourse dangerous for freedom of speech, but it’s also just illogical. Imagine that criticisms of Saudi Arabia, like rebukes of their brutal campaign in the Yemeni civil war, were denounced as Islamophobic. Such a label would be absurd; the Saudi government isn’t representative of the Muslim population as a whole. Condemning a state doesn’t equate to condemning a people.

But this distinction is increasingly ignored in discussions of Israel. Support of Israel is conflated with support of Jews. More and more, criticism of Israel—no matter how mild—is labeled as anti-Semitic. As a result, any politician concerned with re-election will stay quiet. The real problems with Israel are swept under the rug.

Shutting down dialogue harms the state of Israel as well. Thorny discussion, protests and even boycotts might be uncomfortable, but any state that doesn’t accept criticism is doomed to shun any sort of alternative for a better future.

That’s not to say that all criticism of the Jewish state is legitimate. Acts of anti-Semitism are on the rise not just around the country, but in our community as well. There are real anti-Semites in Congress—unlike Ilhan Omar, congressman Steve King has retweeted statements from neo-Nazis and met with former SS officers. Now more than ever, we must be vigilant against acts of intolerance and racism.

All this is worth discussing because we as Americans have a real possibility to shape the direction Israel takes. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, and without us, they are incapable of operating. The discussions we make impact the decisions they take.

We have the power to speak out. We shouldn’t be attacking those that choose to do so.

Watch an extended version of the video, featuring students’ thoughts on being Muslim and Jewish at Whitman, here.