When the right and left fight over anti-Semitism, Jews are caught in the middle

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(JTA) — I lived in Minnesota for five years. My wife is from there; her family still lives there.

When we return to visit, we have to reckon with a frightening reality: My in-laws’ newly elected congressional representative is deeply implicated in anti-Semitism.

We are not dealing with minor missteps that can be overlooked. We’re dealing, after all, with a person who, when asked what motivated Sen. Joe Lieberman’s vote for the Iraq war, boiled it down to a simple question: “Jew or Arab?” We’re dealing with a person who ran campaign ads stating that the opponent was “owned” by wealthy Jewish financial backers. When the representative was elected last November, we could no longer avoid confronting anti-Semitism from the elected officials in Congress tasked with representing our family.

I’m referring, of course, to Rep. Jim Hagedorn – a Republican representing Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District.

Was that not the lawmaker you thought I was talking about? Of course it wasn’t. You thought I was talking about Rep. Ilhan Omar, who recently came under fire for claiming that attacks on her by GOP leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy regarding anti-Israel statements that allegedly crossed into anti-Semitism were actually motivated by “the Benjamins” (that is, big money) and “AIPAC!” (She has since apologized.)

Like any elected official, Omar absolutely deserves to be held accountable for her statements. We must call out politicians on both the left and the right who twist ancient anti-Semitic tropes to win votes and vilify our own.

But it’s important to notice the fundamental hypocrisy in allowing those who have a terrible track record on anti-Semitism or any other form of bigotry to co-opt the conversation. We can’t allow the loudest voices on both sides of the political spectrum shout over the vast majority of Jews.

For Jews who are Democrats (which is to say, the vast majority of Jewish Americans), it’s been hard to keep track of where Omar stands on Israel and anti-Semitism.

In August, she went to a synagogue and expressed her opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – only to flip-flop after the election and endorse BDS. Then, rather than acknowledging the switch, she insulted everyone’s intelligence by insisting that saying the BDS movement is “not helpful in getting that two-state solution … I think that pressure really is counteractive” did not actually preclude her from endorsing BDS.

An old tweet accusing Israel of “hypnotizing” the world was dug up, and for a while Omar dug in. But then she apologized with one of the single best responses to anti-Semitism allegations that I’ve ever seen from a non-Jewish politician. And yet, too soon after that, she was “chuckling” at how we can call Israel a democracy when we attack Iran for being a theocracy.

And then came the “Benjamins” comment. She asserted that McCarthy, who has threatened to take action against her and Rep. Rashida Tlaib because of their positions on Israel, was only making a fuss because “AIPAC!” is paying him to do so.  

Others have explained succinctly how the last comment raises anti-Semitic tropes (and for that matter misrepresents how AIPAC operates). I have no quarrel with their analysis, and I have little patience with those who seek to minimize what Omar did as anodyne “criticism of AIPAC.”

But that is only half the story. Even those of us who have been sharply critical of Ilhan Omar also see that many of her critics are not exactly equal opportunity in their attentions. Few politicians implicated in anti-Semitism receive the torrent of scrutiny and the ceaseless pile-ons that Omar endures from the right.

Examples of mainstream right-wing anti-Semitism abound. The central play in the 2016 Republican campaign playbook was to cast the Democratic Party as in the pocket of Jewish financiers pushing an agenda of “globalism,” open borders and foreign invasion. President Donald Trump himself pointed out that the neo-Nazi marchers included some “very fine people” in Charlottesville and used “sheriff’s stars” that looked suspiciously like Jewish stars to vilify Hillary Clinton on his campaign literature.

Indeed, a bevy of Republican politicians – including Rep. Matt Gaetz, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Rudy Giuliani, as well as the aforementioned Hagedorn – have all promoted Soros-centered anti-Semitic dog whistles and have received nowhere near the attention that Omar gets. Gaetz even brought a Holocaust denier to the State of the Union.

Among such stiff competition, there’s not a lot of mystery as to what makes Omar stand out in the crowd.  

There is a familiarity to Omar’s case – of needing to acknowledge genuine wrongs worthy of critique, but also needing to acknowledge that the obsessive focus on these wrongs stems from baser instincts. The real parallel of how we talk about Muslim women like Omar is to how we talk about Israel itself – where real misdeeds and wrongdoings nonetheless cannot explain or justify the never-ending torrent of abuse, opprobrium and conspiracy theorizing.

The aforementioned McCarthy may not be scrutinizing Omar’s behavior based on the promise of financial reward, but what right has he to accuse anyone of anti-Semitism after tweeting that George Soros was trying to “buy” the 2018 elections just days after a bomb was planted at Soros’ house?

Other Republicans seem similarly inclined to cast stones at liberals while ignoring the literal Nazi apologists in their midst. Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is Jewish, has been almost singlemindedly harassing Omar in demanding that she condemn random bits of anti-Semitic conduct with which she had absolutely no association, including asking if she “disagreed” with a hate-filled anti-Semitic voicemail that lamented the failure of the Nazis to finish their extermination of the Jews.

Say what you will about Omar, but she’s never said anything that could be remotely construed as expressing sympathy for Hitler. Yet in Zeldin’s own party, from Trump’s praise of “alt-right” protesters to Rep. Steve King’s endorsement of a far-right nationalist party founded by a former SS member to, most recently, Candace Owens’ declaration that Hitler would’ve been fine if he’d contained himself to Germany, Nazi sympathizing remains a decidedly Republican phenomenon.

The entitled demand that Omar must nonetheless answer for literal Nazi apologists smacked of Islamophobia and racism. Omar’s graceful reply to Zeldin’s unreasonable haranguing was even more impressive when you remember that Zeldin was a public backer of Trump’s nakedly Islamophobic Muslim ban. Those in bigoted glass houses should not throw stones.

Of course, the bigotry and anti-Semitism of these conservative politicians does not excuse Omar’s. But the fact is we are, in effect, excusing a lot of anti-Semitism and a lot of bigotry – and the distribution of who gets a pass or a day’s worth of bad press versus who remains forever under the microscope is clearly neither random nor innocent.

To be clear, some have been calling out the double standard. Rep. Max Rose, a Jewish Democrat who was among the first to condemn Omar’s anti-Semitism, lit into the media for gobbling up the Omar story while displaying no interest in covering analogous anti-Semitism by McCarthy and other Republicans. Leah Greenberg of the progressive Indivisible group leveled a similar critique. The fact is, Omar apologized and has been responsive to Jewish concerns. McCarthy and his ilk remain unrepentant. So who really deserves more ire?

Yet there is palpable frustration within the Jewish community over how little our efforts on this score seem to matter. Our public discourse about anti-Semitism seems almost immune to being influenced by what the actual Jewish community wants to talk about.

As noted, the majority of the Jewish community is politically left of center. We welcome a more robust and nuanced conversation about Israel entering American politics – including the need to mobilize to counteract Israel’s increasingly right-wing drift. Yet we do not endorse those who wish to wipe Israel off the map, and we see the trap when Jewish efforts to participate in American politics are cast as “proof” that we exert a nefarious sway over the polity.

When liberal members of Congress evoke anti-Semitic tropes, we have no desire to let them go unchallenged. But neither do we have any interest in having our criticisms lumped in with cynical and hypocritical denunciations emanating from the political right.

We understand that the most tangible threats to Jewish lives and livelihoods in America – the anti-Semitism that sheds actual blood in America – emerges from the political right, including (especially via Soros conspiracies) the mainstream Republican Party. But we also claim special pain at anti-Semitism coming from inside our home and our political community – an anti-Semitism that hurts us directly precisely because it comes from those we are in coalition with.

There is no conceptual difficulty in holding to these positions together. A great many of us are wholly comfortable in our own skins on these issues. But to the extent these distinctions are impossible to maintain in practice – to the extent that “criticism of Omar” simply is encoded as part of a right-wing campaign, to the extent that “supporting Omar” simply is an endorsement of extreme-left anti-Israel politics – the net effect is that most Jews are silenced. We may speak the words, but they go unheard.

For all the talk about the Israel Lobby this and Jewish Power that, the clearest takeaway from this whole ordeal is the striking disempowerment of the Jewish community. Spoken about and spoken over, the Jewish community is being systematically stripped of our ability to contribute to the dialogue happening over our own lives. We are “represented,” if you can call it that, by Glenn Greenwald on the one side and Lee Zeldin on the other (surely, this is the definition of Jewish hell), both of whose elevated stature in public discourse about Jews is almost exclusively a feature of gentile, not Jewish, interests.

Indeed, in a real way, Omar’s conservative critics and progressive defenders stand in a symbiotic relationship: They are united in their desire to silence the message most Jews want to send. The right insists on condemning the Democratic Party and any progressive conversation about Israel as institutionally anti-Semitic, never mind that most Jews are committed Democrats and often share the progressive critique of Israel’s rightward drift that Republicans are so eager to tar. Many of Omar’s progressive defenders, for their part, are happy to simply dismiss all talk of left-wing anti-Semitism as conservative agitprop; they are content to rely on the usual assortment of fringe voices who – so long as Israel is on the docket – will offer to kasher even the clearest instances of anti-Semitic discourse.

It makes for a crushing feeling of powerlessness. The nation is having a conversation about Jews virtually impervious to the input of Jews themselves.

This, above all else, is what makes so many Jews want to scream in frustration. The right loudly proclaims it’s standing up to anti-Semitism – but Jews know their 24/7 Omar coverage does us no favors, and that in any event, conservative solidarity with Jews runs out precisely at the point it requires challenging the sort of anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering that gets Jews shot.

The left self-righteously insists that it is saving its ammunition for combating the “real anti-Semitism” – but Jews have long seen that for too much of the left, cases of “real anti-Semitism” beyond the most obvious murderous varieties seem almost as elusive as O.J.’s “real killer.” Both sides are silencing Jews in the guise of allyship. Both sides need to step back and knock it off.

We need to break this pattern at its root. That means taking Jewish testimony seriously and resisting the impulse to dismiss efforts to combat anti-Semitism – including anti-Semitism related to Israel – as hasbara. And it equally means calling out those who purport to be allies in the fight against anti-Semitism, but in reality use anti-Semitism for political purposes while further marginalizing the Jewish community the moment we’re inconvenient to the ideological narrative.

In short, we need to have a conversation about anti-Semitism. But we also need to have a conversation about how, when we talk about anti-Semitism, we seem to always talk about Ilhan Omar and never about Jim Hagedorn.

is a lecturer in law and senior research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. He blogs regularly at The Debate Link. Follow him on Twitter @schraubd.

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