How Ilhan Omar and Her Critics Can Save America

A republic with democratic dreams is at stake.

[Photo: Two individuals stand side by side in front of green flames. They each carry a load of refugees on their backs.]
Another generation of Palestinians continue to live in a U.S.-backed and -funded perpetual military siege, where 2 out of 5 people in the West Bank and Gaza are 14 years old and younger, and non-Jewish Israelis live every day with 66 discriminatory laws just for them. Rafael Shimunov

In our misogynist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic nation, Americans are going to do and say misogynist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic things until we learn to be anti-misogynist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-anti-Semitic. This means not simply willing to be better, not simply intending to do so, but realizing we must actively pursue justice, starting with examining our own perceptions and acting to unlearn them. Not doing so puts Americans at even more risk of violence in our own country, and puts those we advocate for at risk, in this case, Palestinians.

A newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar could have practiced anti-anti-Semitism by pausing before tweeting “It’s all about the Benjamins,” when responding to what motivates a Republican supporter of the policies espoused by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, suggesting that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the primary motivator of that support behind the scenes.

AIPAC, a horribly racist, right-wing lobbying group that advocates daily for the erasure of Palestinian human rights, deserves to be dragged for its outsized influence in a nation whose Jews and non-Jews overwhelmingly reject its values. But it’s simply inaccurate to claim the motivation is primarily one about money.

It may surprise some readers, but AIPAC, like the NRA, spends only between $3 million and $6 million per year lobbying. In fact, J Street, the more centrist alternative to AIPAC, outspends them. For scale, consider that energy and pharmaceutical lobbies each spend hundreds of millions. That’s because these groups don’t have the constituency AIPAC has to provide human connections. For example, AIPAC will pair you, a legislator or influencer, with a volunteer organizer as their one-on-one contact with you, flipping the populist grassroots model of organizing into a corporate “treetop” model.

AIPAC’s power, much like the NRA’s, operates on free resources more powerful than money. It leverages race, identity, fear, and… votes. AIPAC weaponizes historical Jewish trauma, the lack of popular U.S. education about race and power, and often most importantly, powerful, anti-Semitic Christian Zionists who will gladly cheer and fund Jews on a long walk off a short cliff to fulfill their genocidal End Times fantasy. And as we know with President Trump, politicians who leverage race, identity, and fear have a solid 35 percent to 45 percent constituency.

This is not to say money can’t be used strategically in powerful ways. The AIPAC lobby represents a constituency that follows through with individual contributions, including those by Sheldon Adelson, who spent over $30 million to save vulnerable Republicans from the blue wave of Democrat wins in the House last November. It is just a reminder that the anti-Semitism that permeates our nation has even many Jews misunderstanding how AIPAC operates.

Rep. Ilhan Omar’s detractors, like Chelsea Clinton, who accused Omar of not just missing anti-Semitism of her tweet, but instantly accused her of “trafficking” in anti-Semitism, assigned Omar the accusation of willfully profiting off anti-Semitism for her goals. Clinton and many others jumped to criticize Omar, as did the House Democrats, which quickly forced Omar to apologize. They could have practiced anti-racism by pausing and realizing that they are now contributing to a rapidly growing number of white people policing Black American women leaders on Israel, including attacks on civil rights icons Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander.

They could have paused and realized that the congresswoman isn’t from a Jewish or Jewish adjacent neighborhood or culture; she was a refugee from Somalia, a nation that is statistically entirely Muslim. And even among the small amount of Yibir communities with Jewish history, I’m betting combatting the 1900s Russian pogrom propaganda about mysterious Jewish influence isn’t the primary concern in Mogadishu if it wasn’t even a priority in New York City public schools. They could have paused and realized Omar moved to Minneapolis, home to only 40,000 Jews, about the same as Mexico City and fewer than Melbourne, Australia.

From the other side of her initial public education about anti-Semitism, in 2012, when she tweetedIsrael has hypnotized the world” and referenced its “evil doings,” she emerged apologizing multiple times. More recently, during a compelling interview with Trevor Noah, she brilliantly compared herself to white people who deny their privilege because they are individually hit by capitalist brutality and how she denied anti-Semitism because she is individually targeted by racism and Islamophobia. She went on to say that both racism and anti-Semitism are systemic issues and need to be unlearned on individual and institutional levels, a bold show of vulnerability that was as powerful as it is rare in a Congress filled with bigoted leaders crafting white supremacist policies since Congress was founded.

What is a private education for us is a public one for her. What we learn—as she and other women and leaders of color, especially hijab-wearing Muslims, receive endless racist attacks and threats through every channel, at every hour—is that we are asking more of them than from anyone else. And yet while under fire, and enduring daily threats, they are still realizing their role in actively pursuing justice—starting with themselves. How do we follow their lead?

Let’s urge new electeds to seek out truly progressive Jewish leaders and learn about what makes anti-Semitism work. And, at the risk of promoting a false equivalency when I am not, let’s also urge fellow white and non-Black Jews to reach out to progressive Black leaders and learn what makes racism work. A republic with democratic dreams is at stake. The safety of Muslims and Jews inside it is at stake.

And the now swept-aside issue that was supposed to be at the center of all of this inhabits only the final sentence of this and many pieces like it: Another generation of Palestinians continue to live in a U.S.-backed and -funded perpetual military siege, where 2 out of 5 people in the West Bank and Gaza are 14 years old and younger, and non-Jewish Israelis live every day with 66 discriminatory laws just for them. And even worse, zero characters devoted to Palestinian human rights at the root of this in the demand by Democrats for Rep. Omar’s apology, a shamefully one-sided statement calling for more status quo.