Last Friday afternoon, as the Sabbath approached, groups of young Jewish activists showed up at Rep. Ilhan Omar’s district office in Minneapolis and her congressional office in Washington, D.C. At the end of a week in which the freshman representative had been sharply criticized by Democratic House leadership over a tweet deemed by many to be anti-Semitic, they weren’t there to protest or question her apology.
Instead, they bore loaves of freshly baked challah and signs emblazoned with the words: “We stand with Rep. Ilhan Omar.”
The activists visited the congresswoman’s office as representatives of IfNotNow, a Jewish activist organization founded to influence the Jewish establishment “to end their support for the Occupation,” according to its website. (The group has staged provocative, publicity-grabbing walkouts from Birthright Israel trips.) While much of the organized Jewish community was condemning Omar, IfNotNow activists defended her, pointing to anti-Semitism among white supremacists on the right as the more significant threat to American Jews.
It’s an argument the organization has been making since the 2016 election of Donald Trump and which has taken on increasing urgency since the October attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue in which 11 Jews were killed.
“In this wave of rising anti-Semitism and white nationalism, the real threat to American Jews doesn’t come from progressive leaders like Ilhan Omar criticizing Israel’s military occupation,” wrote Emily Mayer, an activist with IfNotNow, in an email to the group’s supporters. “It comes from Trump and the growing white nationalist movement that put him in the White House.”
The controversy over Omar erupted last week when she implied in a tweet that money, specifically distributed or directed by AIPAC, was behind U.S. support for Israel. Critics quickly denounced her tweet as anti-Semitic, arguing that it played on stereotypes about Jewish money and Jewish control of governments. Omar apologized the following day.
While acknowledging the anti-Semitic stereotype used by Omar, some activists with IfNotNow supported her criticism of AIPAC. A petition in support of Omar organized by the Twin Cities chapter of IfNotNow stated that “Omar’s outspoken criticism of AIPAC is the type of bold moral clarity we need in Congress.”
The visit to Omar’s offices were indicative of the appeal that younger, more progressive members of Congress hold for younger Jewish voters.
“After a week of really difficult conversations in the media and obviously tension in our community, [we] wanted to demonstrate a show of love and support to Rep. Omar,” Leah Soule, an organizer with IfNotNow Twin Cities, told The Jewish Week. “We saw her really quick apology, so I think we want to move forward and say look, this happened, we appreciate her willingness to grow… and that we support her and we’re really appreciative of her speaking out against the occupation.”
As a member of the most diverse class of representatives — and perhaps the most progressive — in history, Omar has been the subject of close scrutiny. She is a Somali-American refugee and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, and she had previously come under fire for a 2012 tweet in which she wrote that Israel had “hypnotized the world,” a comment for which she later apologized.
“The major reason that this became a major news story was not just about the tropes, but was about her being a Muslim woman of color in Congress speaking out,” said Soule, noting that Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) has criticized Israel’s actions in the past without the backlash that Omar received. “I’m hoping that IfNotNow can continue to be a presence that speaks out against that and that really clearly identifies a definition of anti-Semitism that can’t be used to divide us but reminds us that we are in a collective struggle with other marginalized groups.”