Criticism of Israeli policy is not anti-Semitism

Criticism of Israeli policy is not anti-Semitism
© Greg Nash

Today the House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. There shouldn’t be anything controversial about speaking out against hatred. But this was clearly designed to censure Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarJohn Oliver torches Meghan McCain over Seth Meyers dust-up 'SNL' mocks Jeanine Pirro's support of Trump: 'He is the Michael Jordan of presidents' Omar introduces bill sanctioning Brunei over anti-homosexuality law MORE (D-Minn.).

Rep. Omar has faced intense criticism in recent weeks as a result of several comments that she has made critical of Israeli policy and U.S. political support for Israel. The attacks on Rep. Omar are unwarranted and are being used to silence legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. This is part of a larger effort to legislatively challenge traditional definitions of anti-Semitism by terming all criticism of Israel and political Zionism as forms of anti-Semitism. 

At a time when real anti-Semitism is on the rise, this is particularly dangerous. Rather than focusing on silencing debate, we need to be looking at the political environment that is enabling the violent anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and white supremacy on display in places like Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Portland, and across the country.

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Rep. Omar is now being accused of making anti-Semitic statements and this is reflected in the bill which repeatedly goes out of its way to identify accusations of dual loyalty made against Jews as a particularly pernicious form of anti-Semitism. While the final bill brought for a vote was also broadened to include explicit condemnations of Islamophobia, racism, and other forms of discrimination, a number of key Democratic officials made it clear that their motivation for pushing the bill at this time remained their anger over (misrepresented) statement made by Rep. Omar.

It is clearly anti-Semitic to single out Jews and to accuse them of dual loyalty if they support Israel. If Rep. Omar had done that she should be held to account. But that isn’t what she said.

In a speech focused on the need to address discrimination and racism, Omar included the following line:

But it’s almost as if every single time we say something, regardless of what it is we say… we get to be labeled in something… and nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of ‘what is happening with Palestine?’ So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil-fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby that is influencing policy…”

This isn’t a statement targeted towards Jews or any particular group of people. It is a statement about the limits of debate present in this country when it comes to Israel. Those who worked so hard to censure Rep. Omar brought into focus the truth of her claim.

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Indeed, Rep. Juan VargasJuan C. VargasFrom avocados to beer: 5 areas taking a hit if Trump closes southern border Booker takes early lead in 2020 endorsements Criticism of Israeli policy is not anti-Semitism MORE tweeted, “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” 

Isn’t stating that it is unacceptable to question the U.S.-Israel relationship (and presumably Israeli policy) effectively the same as calling for unquestioning support of a foreign country? And isn’t conflating non-specific criticism of pro-Israel actions and positions with criticism of Jewish people or Judaism itself dangerous and problematic

This isn’t the first time that Rep. Omar has been accused of anti-Semitism for her statements. In February controversy arose over a tweet she wrote on the role of AIPAC money in influencing congressional decisions. But again her words did not — in substance — say anything different than what the Wall Street Journal tweeted several days later:“Aipac, the pro-Israel lobby, raises more than $100 million a year, which it spends on lobbying politicians for U.S. aid and sending members of Congress to Israel.”

Anti-Semitism must be condemned. At the same time, it is dangerous to focus so much attention on trying to portray all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic while politicians like Donald Trump, Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and others have put forward seemingly anti-Semitic positions without censure. In a growing climate of white supremacist racism and xenophobia, it is also dangerous to let legitimate policy criticisms be painted as anti-Semitism in order to vilify one of the first Muslim women in Congress.

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Since entering office in January, Rep. Omar has been called a terrorist, threatened with assassination, and subjected to a level of scrutiny experienced by few other members of Congress. Rather than condemning Rep. Omar, Congress needs to stand with her as she faces discrimination and racism as a Black woman, as an immigrant, and as Muslim.

Successful pressure from activists resulted in significant and positive changes in the final bill. The addition of condemnations of Islamophobia, White Supremacy, and other forms of racism and discrimination, including specific actions and threats against members of congress, is positive and greatly strengthens the final bill. Overall the aims of the bill are aims that should be supported.    

However, it is important to not let the changes made to the final bill obscure the reality that this was an ill-conceived and politicized process, and it is a shame that this may now stand in the way of more considerate efforts to address the interlinked threats of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, White Supremacy and all forms of bigotry.

Mike Merryman-Lotze is the American Friends Service Committee’s Palestine-Israel Program Director. He coordinates AFSC’s Israel and Palestine focused advocacy and policy programming, working closely with AFSC’s offices in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and throughout the U.S.