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When is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic?

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) listens as lawmakers speak

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) listens as lawmakers speak about the Voting Rights Enhancement Act, H.R. 4, on Capitol Hill on Feb. 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. Credit: Getty Images/Joshua Roberts

If questioning Israel’s actions or its influence on the policies of the United States were invariably anti-Semitic, there would not be so many Jews doing it.

But we American Jews are often very sensitive when non-Jews criticize Israel. We are particularly on guard against criticism from Americans who frame the struggle between Palestinians and Jews not as a thorny issue with fault on both sides but as Israeli oppressors dominating heroic, peaceful victims. And we are always on the lookout for the traditional tropes and slurs of Jew-hating. Too often we feel that criticism stems not from the actions of Israel or its Jewish supporters but from the mere fact of Israel’s existence and history as a Jewish state and our existence and history as Jewish people.

That brings us to the controversy over comments from Rep. Ilhan Omar, a freshman Democrat from Minnesota:

  • On Feb. 10, Omar, a Somali immigrant and Muslim, tweeted of congressional support for pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”
  • On Feb. 27, she said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

It is important to note that the response to these comments mostly matters because Omar has and wants to continue to have strong relationships with Jewish allies. That suggests she is not actively anti-Semitic, or does not want to be. So what of the comments themselves?

The “Benjamins” accusation is not very problematic, because you can replace Israel and AIPAC with support for any powerful lobby and it remains equally true. You’re allowed to say congressional support for the NRA, public-sector unions, low corporate taxes and loose environmental regulations are “all about the Benjamins.” But in truth, support for these things usually blends heartfelt political beliefs with a desire for campaign support, as with pro-Israel sentiments.

But Omar’s “allegiance to a foreign country” statement does stir echoes of the slur that Jews are not loyal “real Americans” and owe fealty to some other conspiratorial confederation. This is a painful and untrue thing to imply of a people who have toiled and fought to make the United States great. It’s a laughable charge to level at Israel’s strongest non-Jewish supporters in Congress, the far-right Republicans, whose patriotism toward the United States is unrelenting. And Omar’s statements are colored by her past comments saying Israel had “hypnotized the world,” and referring to the “apartheid Israeli regime.”

Israel is a complex, wonderful, flawed nation. It often deserves criticism, for its treatment of Palestinians, and women, and African refugee asylum-seekers and secular Jews, and countless other missteps. And it often deserves accolades, for its democracy and ingenuity and kindness and fortitude and aspirations.

Omar can criticize Israel as she wishes, whether Congress passes a resolution against anti-Semitism this week or not. But if she wants to ally with Jews and avoid legitimate accusations of anti-Semitism, it’s her responsibility to be certain her criticisms are entirely free of anti-Semitic flavor.

And if she does that, it will be on us Jews to accept that criticism of Israel is often legitimate, and can come just as fairly from a Muslim woman in Congress as from across the seder table.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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