Democrats in the United States House of Representatives spent this week trying to manage the fallout from the anti-Semitic remarks of Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. By midweek they had been unable to heal the rift in the party. Progressives rallied to Omar’s defense, yet Democratic moderates were determined not to allow the party to accept Omar’s broadsides. After the latest incident in which Omar accused Israel supporters of practicing dual loyalty to a foreign country, and last month when Omar claimed Congresspeople supported Israel only because of Jewish money, one thing is clear. Ms. Omar has little understanding of American history.
From the earliest European immigration, Americans have considered themselves the “New Jews”. Both the Pilgrims and Puritans who landed in Massachusetts in the early 1600’s saw themselves as successors to the ancient Hebrews. To quote the Jewish Virtual Library, “New England was to be their New Jerusalem, a society based on the covenant between God and Abraham.”
17th Century America has its share of people named John, William and Samuel, but it also featured many with historically biblical names. That wasn’t by accident. A statesman named Josiah Bartlett signed the Declaration of Independence representing New Hampshire.
One of the world’s leading universities, Yale, was founded in New Haven, Connecticut in 1701. Its crest features two Hebrew words, “Orim Ve Tumim”, which at the time was thought by scholars to mean “Light and Truth”. The words are written in Hebrew characters.
American history is filled with anti-Semitic acts, but it is Philo-Semitism that runs most deeply through the American experience. In 1790 George Washington wrote his famous letter to the Touro Synagogue. “Happily,” Washington wrote, “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Abraham Lincoln felt a particular affinity for the Jewish people. He quoted the Old Testament three times more often than the New Testament. During the American Civil War in 1862, Lincoln cancelled General Ulysses S. Grant’s pernicious General Order No. 11, which would have expelled Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.
But it was another piece of 19th Century history, almost completely forgotten now, that best expressed historical American support for Jews and for the nascent concept of Zionism, even before anyone had heard of the word.
In 1890 William Blackstone, a Chicago businessman turned preacher, organized a “Conference of Christians and Jews on the Past, Present and Future of Israel.” This was four years before the Dreyfus Affair, six years before Theodore Herzl published “Der Judenstaat” and 27 years before the Balfour Declaration. On March 5, 1891, Blackstone presented President Benjamin Harrison with the “Blackstone Memorial,” a petition signed by over 400 dignitaries demanding that the American government do all in its power to ensure that Israel, then under Turkish rule, be turned over to the Jewish people.
Among the 400 signers of the Blackstone Memorial were future President William McKinley, nine members of Congress, the editors of every major newspaper in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Chicago, and business leaders like John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan. The Zionism of Rockefeller or Morgan was not based on their need for Jewish money. They had plenty of their own. It certainly wasn’t “ all about the Benjamins” as Ms. Omar claims.
Zionist roots in American society run even deeper. As Michael Oren wrote in his book “Power, Faith and Fantasy”, famed American novelist John Steinbeck’s great uncle and grandfather went to Turkish-ruled Israel in the 1850’s to work for a Jewish homeland. Arabs murdered Steinbeck’s great uncle and severely wounded his grandfather. Is it really possible to understand the almost biblical imagery and themes in “The Grapes of Wrath” or other Steinbeck classics without appreciating that?
Congresswoman Omar likely knows none of this. She is a product of a modern generation which values “progressive thought” and identity politics above all. Modern progressivism vilifies Israel as an oppressor without context. It was with this lack of understanding of the American character that Omar came to Washington. She, and progressives like her, expected to just pile on the anti-Zionism with anti-Semitic references and be glorified. Clearly she is taken aback by the intensity of the reaction against her, especially within her own party.
For Democrats, the Omar affair truly now is a litmus test. They can’t go too far and try to choke off any criticism of Israel as some have suggested. Not only is it the right but indeed the obligation of every American citizen to be able to criticize Israel and every other country. But they also can’t be swept along by the current anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism so popular in the universities and other bastions of the American cultural elite that forms much of the Democratic base. Should they do that, they will pit themselves against four centuries of American identity, and they will rip the Democratic party to pieces.