One almost feels badly for Ilhan Omar. The first term Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota tried to be anti-Semitic, but also revealed herself as woefully ignorant about US support for Israel. Her Tweets suggesting that Jewish money was behind that policywere rightfully condemned as anti-Semitic, but they also revealed how little she knows about Republican support for Israel. It is not Jews, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, or even a small handful of very wealthy and influential conservative Jews, like Sheldon Adelson, who drive GOP feelings for the Jewish state. Rather it is evangelical Christianswhose intense feelings about Israel are behind the hawkish policies of today’s Republican Party.
Evangelical Christians far outnumber Jews in the US. The former have more votes and, anti-Semitic Tweets notwithstanding, more money and influence, particularly in the Republican Party. Jewish Americans, on the other hand, vote solidly Democratic and, with regards to Middle East policy, are much less hawkish than Evangelicals. This is not exactly a new finding, but when sentiments like Omar’s rear their ugly heads, these facts bear repeating.
Omar’s comments almost immediately drew criticisms from Republicans, but also many of her fellow Democrats in Congress. It was not just Jewish Democrats like like Eliot Engel (D-NY) who criticized the Tweets, but also several non-Jewish Democrats. Most notably, the entire Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives issued a statementcondemning the Tweets and calling for an apology from Omar.
The response from leading Democrats to the Tweets by a first term member of the House stand in stark contrast to what we have seen from Republican members of Congress when confronted with a President of their own party who has hired known anti-Semites, used deeply anti-Semitic themes in his campaignfor the White House, referred to Israel as “your country”when speaking to a group of Jewish Americans and has looked the other way when overt anti-Semites have appeared at his campaign events. In the face of this, Republicans in Congress, to a person, have said nothing. Instead they have cowardly hidden behind assertions of their support for Israel and the religious beliefs of the President’s son-in-law and daughter. The former defense is irrelevant; the latter borders on the surreal.
It is not just silence on the part of Republican leadership in congress that is the problem. Tweets like this onesent by Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), shortly before the 2018 election, suggests a lack of understanding of what anti-Semitism is that is jarring. Suggesting that shady Jewish billionaires are trying to steal the election from the American people has now become a talking point for Republicans in the last days of elections. In fairness, under pressure, but not from his fellow Republicans in Congress, McCarthy, now the leader of Houser Republicans, removed the Tweet after about a day.
Democrats were right to criticize Omar, who has since offered an apology, but this episode is another example of how the political class in the US is so woefully unable, and unwilling, to discuss bigotry with the kind of rigor and thought that one would encounter in a good high school history class.
This is the same dynamic that is now occurring in Virginia where many national Democrats have, rightly, called for the resignation of Governor Ralph Northam who wore blackface as a medical student, suggesting he was in some respects a thinking adult at the time, in the 1980s. Wearing blackface is racist, just as asserting that Jewish money is determining American foreign policy is anti-Semitic, but when Americans reduce our understanding of bigotry to these types of actions, we make it possible for less clumsy, but often more destructive, forms of bigotry to fester. It is not good that the governor of Virginia wore blackface or that a backbencher from Minnesota sent an anti-Semitic Tweet, but it is a much bigger problem that the President of the United States, rose to national political prominence by questioning the citizenship of our first African American President, has suggested that white nationalists and those that protested against them are moral equivalents and that his closing argument to the American people was that Jewish billionaires were subverting the will of real (read Christian) Americans.
While recent events are a reminder that racism and anti-Semitism are problems that do not know partisan boundaries, the faux earnest concern about anti-Semitism from Republican leaders who have quietly sat through the festival of intolerance that is the Trump administration are not just hypocritical, but offensive. Those who see the anti-Semitism in Omar’s Tweets, but not in actions, associates and messages of the Trump administration, care about settling political scores, not about ridding America of this ancient, but sadly persistent, hatred.
Photo: cc/ Fibonacci Blue