Much Ado About Omar: What Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Fiercest Critics and Most Ardent Defenders Miss & How to Overcome the Toxic Discourse Surrounding Her

After the freshman representatives controversial remarks and the ensuing firestorm over Israel, anti-Semitism, and other forms of bigotry, there is room for improvement all-around

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981), March 7, 2019 (sad update March 8, see end of piece); reprinted in part by Al Bawaba March 10


AMMAN — Sometimes commentary about Minnesota freshman Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar reveals more about the biases of the people commenting than anything about Omar.  She is much like her freshman sister-in-arms Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (dubbed AOC), with her every move receiving a highly disproportionate amount of attention, and we could say that, after Ocasio-Cortez and perhaps Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she has become the most polarizing figure on the left, at least in Congress.

I have read people of color, women, Muslims, and others tweeting that they are sick of criticism of Omar because, they say and/or clearly imply, she is only criticized because she is black and/or a woman and/or Muslim, not addressing—or even dismissing—the idea that her statements are problematic.  I’ve seen plenty of extreme, overblown criticism, too, with people deriding her as anti-Semitic or worse just for questioning U.S. policy towards Israel, just for criticizing Israeli policy, for wearing hijab in Congress, and even for what color hijab she is wearing (apparently, black cloth is terrorist-y).

The Need for More Productive Criticism

The one other Muslim in Congress, another freshman named Rashida Tlaib, took advantage of a teachable moment during the Michael Cohen hearing with the head of the conservative extremist Freedom Caucus, Representative Mark Meadows.  She criticized what she saw as a racist act when he produced a black woman who worked for Trump to stand behind him as proof that Trump could not be racist, and a fierce exchange ensued.  Tlaib was careful not to call him a racist during the hearing but stood by her comment that the act of producing a human black prop was racist.  The next day, Meadows and Tlaib “hugged it out” on the House floor. 

Critics of Omar should learn from Tlaib that we can decry her use of certain phrases that are clearly anti-Semitic but still overall give her the benefit of the doubt.  She has earned this, as, rather than remain defiant, she has eloquently expressed remorse and understanding for the pain she caused and has offered multiple apologies.

The Need for More Productive Understanding

Some of her defenders are correct in that being a Muslim black woman wearing hijab, Omar will be the target of criticism from some quarters no matter what, but it’s when she talks about Israel specifically that she has been getting into trouble, and the way in which she has talked about Israel has broadened the quarters from which criticism has been directed at her from extremists to the sane and fair-minded.

I grew up in Connecticut in a town with a large Jewish population.  Some of my earliest memories in school are from show-and-tell when some of the Jewish kids would talk about their grandparents escaping Nazi death camps—or dying in them—during the Holocaust.  In my English classes, a lot of the books we read through grade school were about the Jewish experience: Anne Frank’s diary, Number the Stars, The Chosen, etc.  Given what I learned growing up, as an adult I am uncomfortable even using the phrase “the Jews” in conversation or writing. 

My point is that being “woke” and aware about the specifics of anti-Semitism and its long, very-largely-Christian history (even in the U.S. ) was not something I learned by instinct.  Omar, on the other hands, grew up in Somalia until she was eight, fleeing war there in 1991 to refugee camps in Kenya, where she stayed until she came to the U.S. at age 12. When she came of age, Americans sympathized overwhelmingly more with Israelis than Palestinians (and still do, even if to a lesser extent), and, understandably, her heart was with Palestinians, with her fellow Muslims, at a time when few were speaking up on their behalf. 

The point here is that Omar is not from an environment and background like mine were one could expect her to be aware of the intricacies of anti-Semitic rhetoric or to make anti-Semitism one of her main causes.  At the same time, as a U.S. Congresswoman who plans to speak about both bigotry and Israel often, she needs to close her gaps in her understanding of anti-Semitism and adjust her rhetoric as soon as possible, or else see her platform, credibility, and ability to advance her causes severely diminished.  To her credit, she has repeatedly expressed a strong willingness to do this.

Omar also hails from the “progressive” wing of liberals in America, and they often have far too simplistic a view of how politics works.  From Bernie Sanders to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, these types tend to explain everything in terms of powerful interest groups corrupting politicians and media with money: the people would be united in supporting democratic socialism/”progressivism,” the Green New Deal, and Medicare for All (among other lofty ideas) if only, in their view, the special interests buying owning Congress and the press were held in check.  If you look at Sanders’s constant smearing attacks in 2016 against Clinton and how she was supposedly paid for and bought and controlled by special interest money along with most of the Democratic and Republican Parties, suddenly Omar’s quips about Israel buying and selling the American Congress makes a lot more sense in that context. 

The problem with that über-progressive/democratic socialist worldview is that it is rarely that simple on the scale they imply, and there are many other factors besides money at work with groups like ones as diverse as Congress.  This also goes for Jews and those who lobby to support Israel (most of the latter of whom in America are actually Evangelical Christians).  So part of the inaccuracy of some of Omar’s statements may well be at least partly explained by this oversimplistic worldview of how money controls politics, of black-and-white monolithic corrupting blocs, as opposed to traditional Western anti-Semitism about Jews, money, and control.

The Need for More Productive Engagement: A Way Forward

In the end, those who demand understanding from Omar about their outrage at her comments would do well to understand why she would, it seems, use these anti-Semitic tropes without being aware of their being dangerous or tropes, and her very appropriate apologies are solid evidence that she was not using them from a position of hate.  They would do well to not insist that her questioning the U.S.-Israel relationship or Israeli policy is “unacceptable” and instead offer respectful counterpoints to her critiques even while coming down hard on her clumsy and apparently clueless rhetoric.

For Omar’s part, she has made it clear she has made mistakes, want to do better, to hear people out and engage them (which she has done repeatedly) while still standing strong on her policy positions, which is a markedly different approach from President Trump and many Republicans who have been caught in similar situations, and for all her flaws, for this, Rep. Omar should be respected and held as an example of how to learn from mistakes so long as she follows through on her promises to do better. 

In a larger sense, defenders of Israel should call out criticism of Israel that is rooted in, or overtly, anti-Semitic while still making it clear that criticism of Israel in-and-of-itself is not inherently anti-Semitic, while critics of Israel should acquaint themselves with the long history of anti-Semitic tropes and rhetoric and take extra care and be extra cautious to make sure none of their criticisms even suggest the appearance—let alone partake in the serious trafficking—of anti-Semitism.  For an issue that is so deeply controversial, these would be minimum requirements in order to have a productive debate, and this goes for having that debate anywhere, not just America (I live in the Middle East, have for five years, and have spoken with many Arabs and Jews in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, and I can tell you that a strong majority of people on either side who live here use incredibly insensitive language when talking about the other side that would make Omar’s comments seem mild in contrast).

Especially with a clear historical link between words and violence, especially as growing extremist elements of an increasingly intolerant white American majority continue to become increasingly anti-Muslim and, over the last few years, have displayed a shocking rise in anti-Semitism (concurrent with similar rises elsewhere), disagreements over Israel need not make Rep. Omar and the American Jewish community—itself increasingly critical of Israeli policy and U.S. support for it—enemies.  Yes, Omar needs to do better, and if she can purge her rhetoric of anti-Semitic tropes and take pains to distinguish her criticism from those tropes, and if some of Omar’s Jewish and other critics can stop labeling all her criticism of both Israel and U.S. support for Israel as anti-Semitic and take her at her word that she wants to do better, they will find there are a great many issues on which they can be natural and productive allies.

UPDATE: March 8, 2019: Just hours after Omar, along with nearly the entire House (except for about two-dozen Republicans, including Steve King, who voted present), admirably voted for a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, white supremacism, and bigotry and racism in other forms and in general, she retweeted a vicious attack on Meghan McCain that also attacked McCain’s recently departed father, the late Senator John McCain, in a very distorted way, from Intercept far-left journalist Mehdi Hasan. Hasan’s tweet crudely attacked Meghan and her father after she cried and expressed clearly heartfelt worry on The View about the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and what Omar’s recent remarks represent to her and millions of other Americans: he claimed her emotions were fake and then attacked her father for past (later-transcended) hostile feelings and words for his former Vietnamese tormentors and captors, claimed and and took a comment of his about Iran out of context, and (fairly) blame him for elevating the odious precursor to Donald Trump, Sarah Palin; none of these things had anything to do with Meghan’s views expressed on The View.

Now, I wish that McCain could have shown the same emotion for other forms of bigotry that have been omnipresent of late, and I don’t think she is hard enough on Republicans overall for their lack of action on racism, but that doesn’t invalidate her points or make me question the sincerity of them or her emotions. For Omar to retweet this horrible, unfair attack (the retweet is still up half a day later) after all that had just transpired in the preceding hours, days, and weeks, is really beyond me. I still think Pelosi’s understanding of Millennial quick Twitter-fingers and activist passions is the best explanation. but this retweet makes me have doubts for the first time and makes it harder for all but her most hardcore defenders to continue to defend her after we just asked those who harbor doubts about her or are more hostile towards her to be patient, to appreciate that she comes from a different background and is learning (as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes mentioned), that she can and and will do better, when just after it seemed she had weathered the worst of this scandal, she instead does worse and undermined herself and her defenders. I still count myself among these defenders and stand by my above arguments and analysis, and still ask others for patience, but this retweet undermines all of that and empowers Trump, republicans, Islamophobes, and other bigots; she need to take down the Hasan retweet, start a public dialogue with McCain, and do everything she can to think more carefully before she tweets and speaks and avoid anything like this in the future. If she does not, she will undermine herself, the left, and the noble causes for which she fights (including holding Israel accountable), and it will become far more difficult, if not impossible, for non-extremists to defend her. See me related Twitter thread here.

Retweeting that Hasan tweet was wrong, beneath a U.S. Congresswoman and especially a Democrat so passionate about bigotry who has suffered so much form it, and a huge step back for Omar. Please, Representative Omar, do better!! We’re counting on and rooting for you!

© 2019 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, no republication without permission, attributed quotations welcome

Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer and consultant from the New York City area who has been based in Amman, Jordan, since early 2014. He holds an M.S. in Peace Operations and specializes in a wide range of interrelated topics, including international and U.S. policy/politics, security/conflict/(counter)terrorism, humanitarianism, development, social justice, and history. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981

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