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The Shameful Campaign to Silence Ilhan Omar

The Minnesota congresswoman did not accuse Jews of dual loyalty. She accused politicians of extreme pro-Israel prejudice. And she's right.

Ilhan Omar (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

History has been curling back lately in the most uncomfortable ways. Nearly 125 years ago, a French military court convicted the artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason for handing military secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus, who was Jewish, would eventually be exonerated, but not before his case was turned into a national referendum on the nature of loyalty to the state and the place of Jews in French society. Leading the charge against Dreyfus was the journalist Édouard Drumont, founder of the Anti-Semitic League of France and author of the best-selling Jewish France, a lengthy and largely incoherent screed against immigrants and Jews. Among its many spurious claims was that Jews were “perpetual nomads,” incapable of loyalty to any existing state.

This charge would reappear with disastrous consequences in the century that followed. It resonated both with ancient slanders against Jews and with new forms of xenophobia that arose alongside modern nationalism. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American nativists also accused Catholics of maintaining a sinister loyalty to Rome, just as far-right pundits in France and the U.S. alike currently allege that Muslims are incapable of living in a liberal democracy, that allegiance to Islamic law conflicts with the obligations of citizenship.

Now, in a twist equally painful and absurd, Ilhan Omar, America’s first black, Muslim congresswoman, stands accused by both political opponents and her Democratic peers of employing the old, anti-Semitic canard of dual loyalty. Few have stopped to consider that Omar, who has been the subject of constant assaults from Drumont’s ideological heirs, looks a lot more like Dreyfus than any of his accusers. 

It began last Wednesday night. Omar, sitting beside Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib at a Washington, D.C. bookstore event, complained that she and Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American, endure accusations of anti-Semitism almost “every time we say something.” Omar was just beginning to catch her breath from last month’s controversy, in which she had been labeled an anti-Semite for calling attention to the outsized influence of AIPAC money in American politics. Such accusations, she observed, effectively end all conversation. “Nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine,” she continued. “So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

Omar went on to ask why she was permitted to speak about other powerful lobbies—the NRA, fossil fuel industries, pharmaceutical companies—and not about Israel, but that bit would not be quoted in the storm of coverage that followed her remarks. All attention went to just five words: “allegiance to a foreign country.” Never mind that Omar was talking about politicians, and not about Jews at all: Congressman Eliot Engel had released a statement before the week was out, accusing Omar of “invoking a vile anti-Semitic slur.” The pundits soon jumped in. On Monday, New York Times columnist and former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Bret Stephens, who had elsewhere called anti-Semitism “a disease of the Arab mind,” took to Twitter to charge Omar with “classic anti-Semitism.” Jeff Ballabon, a former Trump campaign adviser, lobbyist, and fund-raiser for far-right Israeli settlers, went a step further, calling the Congresswoman “filth” on Fox Business Network.  

Over the weekend, leading Democrats met in what the New York Times characterized as a “frenzied effort to respond to Ms. Omar.” By Monday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had circulated a draft resolution condemning anti-Semitism. It did not mention Omar—or the Islamophobic smears she had faced the previous week—but its target was clear. The draft mentioned actual, and terrifying, instances of anti-Semitism, including Robert Bowers’s murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, but nearly a fourth of its length was devoted to “the myth of dual loyalty.” It even cited Dreyfus, misspelling his name.

Omar, however, was not actually hauling out the old dual loyalty trope. Rather, the Minnesota representative was questioning a situation in which American politicians, the overwhelming majority of whom are not Jewish, have for years with near-unanimity fought to quash all public criticism of an actual foreign country. No fewer than 26 states have passed legislation punishing businesses and individuals who, to protest Israeli policies toward Palestinians, support the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Some require anyone who wishes to do business with the state to sign an oath declaring that they do not boycott Israel. Others create official blacklists of BDS supporters. The U.S. Senate’s first legislative priority in January, after a five-week government shutdown, was to pass a bill authored by Marco Rubio that gave a federal blessing to state and local anti-boycott laws. Predictably, when Rashida Tlaib spoke out against it, tweeting that the Senate bill’s backers “forgot what country they represent,” Rubio slammed her for taking “a typical anti-Semitic line.”

Anti-Semitism is all too real. Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitism. Nor is calling out politicians who are more interested in shielding Israel from embarrassment than in protecting the constitutional rights of their own constituents. So far, the Democratic establishments’ attempts to chastise Omar have only made her point more strongly. On Monday, Representative Juan Vargas condemned her on Twitter for perpetuating “hurtful anti-Semitic stereotypes,” adding that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” The language was strikingly similar to that Democratic congressman Eliot Engel used last fall, when he suggested that Omar, Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all of whom had spoken up for Palestinian rights, “need to be educated” about Israel. “We have overwhelming support for Israel in the Congress,” he said, “and … it will continue that way.” 

Meanwhile, blatant appeals to anti-Jewish conspiracy theories by Republican politicians who do support Israel have received no such condemnation. (The president has, famously, even retweeted neo-Nazis.) The contrast makes what we saw this last week look less like an attempt to deal honestly with anti-Semitism than an opportunistic assault on a black woman in a hijab who had the effrontery to speak out of turn. President Trump got his jabs in on Saturday: “We have people in Congress that hate our country,” he said, before implying that these people were immigrants. Given that Omar is one of only 14 immigrant members of Congress, and Trump then called her out by name in a tweet two days later, the allusion was none too subtle. None of the Congress members who have accused Omar of anti-Semitism has voiced a word criticizing the president for such dog-whistle xenophobia. 

Those accustomed to shouting down dissent on Israel are getting more of a fight than they bargained for, this time: Omar is not backing down, and progressive Democrats have come to her defense. The spectacle nonetheless brings to mind one of the uglier chapters of the Dreyfus affair, the convicted captain’s ritual “degradation” in January of 1895. Dreyfus was forced to stand alone before the media and 5,000 troops in the courtyard of Paris’s École Militaire. An adjutant broke Dreyfus’s sword over his knee and cut the insignia from Dreyfus’s uniform. The crowd jeered, shouting that Dreyfus was a traitor and a Judas as Dreyfus, standing tall, proclaimed his innocence. “You are cowards,” he told them. And he was right.