My heart has been deeply troubled this week by the situation with my representative, Ilhan Omar. I’ve been a supporter of hers since 2016, when her campaign for the Minnesota House took off. Her story is in a very real way a story of what is possible in America. A young, female, Muslim immigrant from Somalia rising to serve in public office with a bold and (I think) prophetic voice is a beautiful story, regardless of your politics. If you can’t appreciate it at its most basic level, even if you hate her politics, your political allegiances are blinding you. When Keith Ellison chose not to run in the fiercely Democratic 5th congressional district in Minnesota, she was primed to step in, and I was proud to place her sign in my front lawn as a resident of MN05.
But then things got complicated. It began with her reversal on BDS, and then things really blew up this week with her “It’s all about the Benjamins” tweet. She has been accused of antisemitism pretty much since she ran for the state office in 2016. And let’s be clear, she’s got a history of tweeting out antisemitic tropes. She just does, and she needs to (and has) owned that (contrary to what I heard on Fox News, she has apologized for the “hypnotized” tweet). Her carelessness in this regard is a problem. But I still believe that Ilhan Omar is not antisemitic, and I still believe that not only is she a valuable presence in Congress, but she’s also an important and even a necessary one.
After the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last November, my heart broke. I had to do something. I headed to a vigil held at a synagogue in St. Paul and it was overfull. Standing room was at a premium to the extent that people were “saving seats” in standing room only spots. Two women came in looking for somewhere to stand and were told that a spot they found was “saved” (can you do that?!?). I had some room by me, I waved them over, and one of them was Ilhan Omar. Yes, she was in the middle of a campaign, and, yes, it was a week out from the election, so, yes, we could argue that she was only there for political gain. I don’t believe that’s why she was there.
Ilhan Omar was a Somali refugee. She knows violence. She knows genocide. As of 2016, she is a young, female, Muslim immigrant in public office. She knows hate, she knows racism, and sexism, and ageism. She is a hijab-wearing Muslim immigrant in post-September 11th America from one of a few countries which our President has characterized “shit-hole countries”, and from which he has attempted to ban people from coming to the United States. Ilhan Omar knows what it’s like to be hated and marginalized because of her religion, her sex, her skin color, and her nationality. She knows what it’s like to be afraid. I believe that’s why she was at that vigil that evening.
That said, I also think that we have seen that Ilhan Omar has a lot to learn about antisemitism and the ways in which it has played out in the West and in the US specifically. And her apology, which I know at least one Rabbi in her district has accepted, spoke to that learning. The history of antisemitic tropes in this country is very real, and every time those tropes rear their ugly heads, many Jews get nervous, and rightly so. They simply should not be tolerated.
However, while Rep. Omar has some work to do in this regard, we all do too. While antisemitism is alive and well, and our Jewish friends were right to sound the alarm, Islamaphobia and xenophobia are also alive and well- and I would say more so. Ilhan Omar is going to question Israel’s role in the conflict with Palestine. She just will. How she does that matters, but she will raise questions. And we need her to.
The reality is that Israel’s hands are not clean in this conflict. Israel needs protection, to be sure, but its hands are also not entirely clean. Ilhan Omar brings an important voice to America’s role with and protection of Israel, and I fear that anything she says with a critical eye toward this conflict will be seen as merely antisemitic. We must do better in entering the complexities of these issues. And though she has made some real mistakes this week, I believe much of the response to her mistakes are deeply rooted in fierce Islamophobia and xenophobia. We need to come to grips with this reality.
It comes down to one of the biggest struggles in American dialogue today: Multiple things can be true. That is, Ilhan Omar has some work to do in her work and language and understanding around matters concerning Israel, but also, we as a nation have even greater work to do in our abject fear (and sometimes straight-up hatred) of Muslims, especially ones who look, dress and identify as Rep. Omar does.
In my defending her, I have been labeled a “Jew hater”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. My love and admiration of the Jewish faith is deep and goes back decades. As I said, antisemitism is a very real thing and Ilhan Omar has to be more careful in her rhetoric on matters concerning Israel. But I also think what we’ve seen this week is a lot of (not entirely, but a lot of) answering antisemitic rhetoric with Islamaphobia. When my Jewish friends speak out about this, I really listen, because I too still have much to learn. But I also think the vast majority of us also have a lot to learn from Ilhan Omar.
I stand by Ilhan Omar. I want her to do better, and I believe she will. But I stand by her, and I stand by guarding the worth and dignity of all humans, just as I believe she does. Friends, let’s stop with the tribal mentalities, the polarizing rhetoric, and the inability to enter into the complexities that come with this so-called “melting pot”. America continues to grow in its vast array of identities. It’s beautiful. But that beauty is going to come with tension, because this thing called “difference” is hard. But it is that “difference” that could make this country step into a true greatness beyond its wild American dreams.