Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitism wins the pop-culture primary

The real defeat for those who worry about the legitimization of Jew-hatred wasn’t in Congress, but on the late-night comedy television shows.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) appearing on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." Credit: Screenshot.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) appearing on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." Credit: Screenshot.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Maybe you thought the turning point took place in February when the Democratic majority caucus in the House of Representatives failed to name and rebuke Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan for trafficking in anti-Semitism. The ability of Omar to hold onto her seat on the House Foreign Relations Committee and for her to remain the darling of the left wing of her party, despite promoting the idea that Jewish supporters of Israel were disloyal to America and that Jews were buying Congress with “Benjamins,” was a shocking development in American politics.

But the real victory for them didn’t take place on Capitol Hill. It happened on television.

If smears of Jews and of Israel have become mainstream fare, it’s not because of anything Congress did or didn’t do. It’s because the late-night television comedy circuit has embraced Ilhan Omar as a heroine who must be defended at all costs. In doing so, the likes of Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah have essentially put the popular-culture seal of approval on a figure who, in a saner time in our political history, would be viewed with disdain rather than admiration by the people who keep America laughing after prime time. That trendy comedians who have an outsized influence in shaping the views of younger viewers are holding her up as both a heroine and a victim may be doing far more damage than anything the politicians have done.

Political humor on American television is nothing new. But a bipartisan approach to politics on late-night TV is now as outdated as silent movies. The roster of these programs is uniform in their liberal outlook, and the comedy at the expense of the hosts’ conservative targets is generally as harsh as it is self-consciously earnest and self-righteous.

Most of this has to do with the extreme antipathy for U.S. President Donald Trump in the entertainment world with the likes of Jimmy Kimmel, Meyers and Colbert on the broadcast networks, and Noah on the just as influential “The Daily Show” on the Comedy Network serving as the main cheerleaders for the “resistance.”

In an era where everything in the media is bifurcated between either liberal or conservative territory, there’s nothing surprising about this also applying to television comedy. If the arbiters of pop culture are looking at the world solely through the lens of their hatred for Trump, then it was inevitable that they would treat someone who has been criticized by the president not merely with kid gloves, but as someone to be admired and applauded.

That’s exactly what has happened with Omar.

She was actually introduced to the national scene by an appearance on “The Daily Show” in 2017 before her election to Congress the next year. Host Trevor Noah was almost reverential in his interview with her as he celebrated her status as an immigrant and observant Muslim serving in the Minnesota State Legislature. The point of building her up was, of course, to refute Trump’s attitudes on immigration. But although the show’s staff of writers is well-known for doing copious research to find something to embarrass politicians, they chose to ignore her Twitter feed with anti-Semitic memes, as well as her support for the anti-Semitic BDS movement.

But since entering Congress with fellow young leftist Democratic rock stars Tlaib and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the love affair between the telegenic Omar and these comedians has escalated.

When Omar and Tlaib engaged in open anti-Semitism earlier this year, there were no jibes thrown in their direction from the roster of late-night hosts, let alone the abuse they routinely hurl at Trump for any ill-considered remark. Instead, they saved their bile for those who criticized her, especially the president, who was accused of Islamophobia and for endangering her safety by calling her out for hate.

In spite of Omar’s refusal to apologize for her smears of Israel and its supporters for dual loyalty, she was accorded a royal welcome last month on Colbert’s show, where she was cheered during a fawning interview.

Perhaps even more important, this week Meyers attacked Meghan McCain—daughter of the late Sen. John McCain and co-host of ABC’s “The View”—for her criticism of Omar during a confrontational interview on his show. Though McCain is a popular figure in her own right, it was clear that by opposing Omar, she had crossed a line that pop culture now regards as inviolate.

The accusations against Omar’s critics are a useful way for her to dodge charges of anti-Semitism and are rooted in a myth about a post-9/11 backlash against Muslims in the United States, which essentially shifts the narrative from concerns about Islamist extremism to false charges of Islamophobia. But in castigating McCain, Meyers was helping to establish a new myth in which Omar is a courageous truth-teller who is being targeted by the nefarious Israel lobby and its conservative allies.

That Meyers was lionizing Omar only days after she was on Twitter rationalizing Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, killing four people, makes it even worse.

Who cares what comedians say about politics or even anti-Semitism? Well, everyone should. At a point in our cultural history when polls tell us that late-night comedy is the primary source of news for large numbers of Americans, and especially the young, it matters greatly that an open anti-Semite who condones terror should be treated in this manner.

For some on the left, anti-Semitism is not a disqualifying factor if those who are guilty are in the forefront of opposing Trump. In this manner, anti-Semitism isn’t being merely given a pass; it’s actually being defended and legitimized on popular programs with broad audiences. If the late-night comedians are now OK with anti-Semitism (as long as it comes from a person of color who is an anti-Trump Muslim), then the cultural barriers against Jew-hatred that many of us assumed were still strong may really be collapsing.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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