Judah Isseroff
Judah Isseroff

Ilhan Omar and Cornel West: Interpreters of Jewish tradition

Ilhan Omar’s name is popping up across Jewish newspapers. Again. Commence the debates about whether what she said — this time an intimation that Jews (or just Jewish Congresspeople?) have been conspicuously absent from the fight for justice—crossed the line into antisemitism. And then the debate about whether the antisemitism debate is laced with anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.

Once again, her comments were awkward but largely innocuous. But, as is so often the case, the crime is in the cover up. Rather than proffer an anodyne apology or just let the teapot tempest blow over, Omar — and presumably also the Jewish members of her staff — adopted a new strategy. They offered her Twitter followers a crash course in the Jewish justice tradition. It is this move — to single out the parts of the American Jewish community worthy of praise — that should set off alarm bells about antisemitism more than any of Omar’s “controversial” comments.

On Twitter, Omar named Henry Moskowitz (the Jewish co-founder of the NAACP), invoked Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as the patron saint of Jewish allyship, and linked to handful of progressive Jewish organizations including Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Bend the Arc.

In turn, Omar’s Jewish organizational allies praised her and extolled the virtue of solidarity.

Omar is far from the first to employ this strategy. In recent years, Cornel West has rarely published an article or spoken in public without at some point invoking Heschel. The dynamic at work with both of these lightning rod public figures is far from simple. Both Omar and West have levied strong criticisms of Israel. Many of these criticisms have made the “Jewish establishment” uncomfortable, often to the point of crying wolf on antisemitism. In turn, West — and now Omar — have not only cultivated relationships with Jewish organizations friendlier to their politics but also set out a Jewish tradition of justice activism with which they feel a special kinship.

Undoubtedly, part of West and Omar’s selective Judeo-philia — whether intentional or incidental — has been to inoculate themselves from charges of antisemitism. Their criticisms of Israel, as well as comments on the Jewish role in American racial justice issues, receive a kind of Jewish authorization. The implied counter is: how can my views be considered categorically antisemitic if there is a proud and important Jewish tradition that agrees with me?

The short answer is: their views, in and of themselves, are certainly not antisemitic. Moreover, it is quite possible that their invocations of Jewish justice traditions (especially West’s relation to Heschel) are far less calculated and transactional than I have depicted them.

So, what’s the issue?

The issue is that popular evaluations of American Judaism have become largely tied to contemporary political debates (and all their accompanying narrowness and presentism). In particular, the discourse around antisemitism promulgated by Omar — where it is “inextricably linked” to “racism, anti-Muslim hate, and xenophobia” — has rendered the Jewish experience of vulnerability entirely captive to a fairly novel discourse about the interdependency of all forms of oppression.

My contention is not that Omar is obviously wrong, but that she is callously indifferent to Jewish experiences and traditions with which she and her limited stable of Jewish allies do not immediately identify. Her arguments about antisemitism particularly stand out because antisemitism is so obviously not of American origin and because explanations of the various permutations of Jew-hatred — religious, racial, political, economic—can only occasionally be made to cohere with the logic of American white supremacy.

Again, the problem is not that Omar is wrong, or that her views are somehow illegitimate. Nor is it imperative that she be fully familiar or supportive of the varieties of Jewish experience and tradition.

Rather, it is that Omar (and West) have identified American Jews and the American Jewish relation to politics as ground zero for their views of morality and politics. For them, American Jews can make some of the best political allies and Jewish traditions can offer some of the most compelling reasons to engage in justice work. But, in turn, they portray those Jews and Jewish traditions that are differently situated as in flight from their own better angels. That is, West and Omar — with copious encouragement from their Jewish allies — intervene not only on the basis of their own particular experience but at the level of what’s better and worse in Jewish tradition.

To push the argument one last level further, even this move to “appropriate” Jewish tradition is not, in itself, problematic. On the contrary, I think it is worth celebrating the fact that Jewish traditions of whatever variety may be speaking to those inside or outside the Jewish people. That is a victory for Jewish tradition.

In a recent article in Jewish Currents about Heschel, West asks: “What and how do we remember?” In their construction of the “we” who is responsive to Jewish tradition, West and Omar leave out far too much. Their “we” is not the raucous, blood-pressure-raising bickering of the Jewish people. Their “we” does not include those Jews who continue to live more in their parents’ and grandparents’ memories of a haunted Europe than with racist overhang in all parts of American life.

Every time we interpret a tradition — Jewish or otherwise — we constitute it anew. Every interpretation is partial, often sectarian. Cornel West and Ilhan Omar have positioned themselves as, to varying extents, interpreters of Jewish tradition. They don’t need me to welcome them in. But, they should start taking note of who and what they leave out every time they construct the Jewish “we” in which they feel so at home.

About the Author
Judah Isseroff is a PhD candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Politics at Princeton University. His dissertation "Beyond Political Theology: Hannah Arendt's Jewish Theology of Givenness" gives a novel theological interpretation of Arendt's writings on Jewish politics and antisemitism. He lives in New York with his wife and their twins.
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