In a swift rebuke of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s repeated use of anti Semitic tropes, the House of Representatives has passed a bill condemning hate speech. While Ilhan Omar was not motioned by name, it is clear that this was a warning to her to change her ways.
The problem is that Ilhan Omar is not an anti Semite. Critics point out that since she served as an advisory board member for the Minnesota Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) she was probably influenced by them. But CAIR has never been found to be espousing anti Semitic rhetoric, nor is the organization anti Semitic by nature. The U.S. government has found no evidence connecting them to any extremist organizations and they have gone so far as to work with the FBI in the past by providing evidence of radicalization amongst individuals found within their organization. According to the CAIR website they are an advocacy group for Muslims in America and most of their activity involves civil rights lawsuits, the most popular being fighting for women to be able to wear their hijabs at work.
The reason Ilhan Omar doesn’t like Israel is built in to her core. It has nothing to do with her religion, or CAIR, but rather because she was a refugee during the most formative years of her life. Congresswoman Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia and fled the city during the Somali Civil War in the early 90’s. In an interview with the Guardian she talked about how when leaving the city with her family she walked over corpses lining the streets. While living in a refugee camp she would have to walk to a nearby city to get wood and fire. On the way there she would see young children playing and going to school and not understanding why she couldn’t join them. No doubt this left an impressionable scar on her. We have to play armchair psychologist, but it’s likely that when she looks at Israel and Palestine she looks at the Palestinian refugee camps and remembers the horrors of her own past. For her global politics matter less than the humanitarian needs of refugee children. That is whom she relates to.
One might assume that this anger at Israel and unfairness towards the Palestinians has compounded to a hatred of Zionism or the Jewish people as a whole. But there’s no smoking gun indicating that she’d be prone to making anti Semitic slurs intentionally. She’s not part of, or has expressed support of, any hate groups. She doesn’t have a connection to people known for making anti Semitic remarks such as Louis Farrakhan. She apologizes immediately and unequivocally after making an offensive statement. Her own congressional district is young, liberal, and extremely progressive in regards to social issues, a place unlikely to produce someone publicly using Jew hating language.
She enjoys the support of many Jews and Jewish groups who have rallied to her side. Immediately after denouncing her, Representative Max Rose D-NY, accepted her apology, calling her a “friend,” and considered the matter settled. Liberal Jewish group If Not Now even defended her criticism of AIPAC, and in a recent New York Times article many of her Jewish constituents, when asked, say that they still support her and didn’t find her comments to be intentionally anti Semitic.
Many within her own party might hope that by aiming this resolution at her it will scare her in to backing down from the Israel issue. This is unlikely. She’s a self-proclaimed testament to the fortitude and willpower of women in general. She’s an admirer of politicians like John Lewis, a staunch liberal and civil rights activist of the 1960’s who marched with Dr. King and is known for being unmoving from his own personal beliefs. Omar reportedly broke in to tears of joy when first meeting him, hard to picture a resolution from Eliot Engel and Nancy Pelosi having anywhere near the same effect.
Perhaps the best way to bring her to discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict in a less heated way, and hopefully saving herself from accidentally using another anti Semitic trope in the future, would be for her to have an emotionally impactful experience that helps her to connect to the Jewish story. According to the New York Times, a rabbi from her district, Rabbi Olitzky, consulted with her aids suggesting that she participate in a bipartisan trip to Israel or visit the Holocaust Memorial. Hopefully she will take the opportunity so that something good comes out of this mess.