Why Are Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren Defending Ilhan Omar?

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar dominated news stories last week by her tweet accusing Jewish Americans of dual loyalty, a classic anti-Semitic accusation.  What is concerning is not just her tweet but that individuals on the highest levels of her party are defending her or excusing her.  Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders said that attacks on Representative Omar were intended to make it impossible to have a serious discussion of Israel and the Palestinians, while presidential candidate Kamala Harris suggested that Omar was the real victim and that Ms. Harris was concerned that the spotlight being put on Omar may put her at risk.  These presidential candidates recently voted against a bill that affirms that states have the right not to do business with companies that boycott Israel, claiming that the law raises constitutional free speech issues.  However, Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, has pointed out that the law does not prohibit or penalize any kind of speech.  It just says that the government can refuse to do business with a company if it doesn’t agree with that company’s behavior whether the company boycotts the State of Israel or whether it discriminates against someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.   It seems, then, that their opposition may have had less to do with free speech and more to do about Israel.

Why is the progressive left so unfairly critical of Israel?  About seven years ago, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center, wrote a book entitled, “The Promise of Israel,” and in this book he argues that what divides Israel and the international community is the idea of the ethnic nation-state, namely a country created around a shared cultural heritage.  Progressives don’t like nationalism.  They believe that the nation-state is a 19th century paradigm that should be forgotten.  After all, nationalism led to the tyrannical Soviet Union, the apartheid state of South Africa and, worst of all, Nazi Germany.  This philosophy asserts that that universalism trumps particularism and when we assert our differences, that’s when the fighting begins.  This is what is behind the recent behavior of people like Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.  They must single out criticism of Israel because its very existence goes against their core beliefs.

Rabbi Gordis argues that after the Holocaust, it would have made sense that the Jews would have embraced the vision of universalism since it was their differences that condemned them to death, but we disagreed.  Our mission is not merely survival, but our mission is to celebrate our differences.  The Jewish state of Israel is proving all the universalists wrong, that we can assert our differences, that we can be a nation-state, and that we can thrive and be light unto the nations.

In fact, the argument in favor of celebrating our differences has its origins in our holy Torah.  We never believed as Jews that we were going to convert the entire world to Judaism so that everyone would be the same.  After all, in Parshat Va’etchanan the Torah states, “Lo mai’rubchem mikol ha’amim chashak Hashem bachem v’yivchar bachem” – “it is not because we are the most numerous of peoples that God set His heart on us and chose us;” rather, “ki atem ham’at mikol ha’amim” – “we are the smallest of all peoples.”  We are a small nation and yet, because God chose us, we will play such a central and important role in world affairs throughout history.  We will follow the directive that God issued to Avraham of “l’ma’an asher yetzaveh et banav v’et baito acharav v’shamru derech Hashem la’asot tzedakah u’mishpat” – “that he may instruct his children and household after him to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right.”  The enduring existence of a tiny Jewish nation after all these years defies conventional wisdom.  The rebirth of the State of Israel after so many years of exile defies conventional wisdom.  The assertion that nationalism can be a source of pride and not a source of hatred and violence defies conventional wisdom.  And yet, we exist, our state has experienced a rebirth and we are thriving.

Certainly, the State of Israel makes mistakes, especially in trying to define itself as being both a Jewish and democratic country.  But the defense of Congresswoman Omar by leading presidential candidates points to an aversion to the very existence of a particularistic State of Israel.  However, we must never waver from our vision of a Jewish nation that celebrates difference and purpose.  Hopefully, with the help of God, we will continue to prove the universalists wrong and maybe even convert a few of them to the Torah’s version of the nation-state.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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