Why are liberal Jews still covering for Ilhan Omar?

The latest trolling of the Jews by the Minnesota congresswoman exposes the failure of many Jewish groups and Democrats to prioritize the fight against anti-Semitism over their partisan affiliations.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in 2017. Credit: Phil Pasquini/Shutterstock.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in 2017. Credit: Phil Pasquini/Shutterstock.
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.

The interesting thing about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) isn’t that she can’t stop trolling American Jews, the pro-Israel community and even her Jewish colleagues in the House Democratic caucus. Omar has demonstrated again and again that she is a dedicated ideologue who is committed to anti-Zionist politics and never shy about employing anti-Semitic tropes to advance that cause.

The really interesting thing about her is why so many liberal Jews, Jewish organizations and even Jewish members of Congress are not only afraid to stand up to her, but often bend over backwards to rationalize or justify her outrageous behavior. Yet this explains a great deal about how a largely dysfunctional organized Jewish world has failed to respond effectively to a surge of anti-Semitism emanating from the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

Every new instance of Omar’s trolling of the Jews follows a familiar pattern.

She generates outrage by saying something offensive, seems to retreat when she gets pushback, but then almost immediately turns around and doubles down on her original comments and then counter-attacks, depicting herself as a victim and anyone who had the temerity to criticize her as a racist, an Islamophobe and an opponent of “justice.” She then reaps the rewards of adulation from the leftist base of the Democratic Party, as well as its cheering section in the mainstream media and popular culture.

That was what happened back in 2019 when, upon entering Congress as one of the four members of the radical leftist “Squad,” she said Jews were buying congressional support for Israel (“it’s all about the Benjamins”). That was a double-pronged attack aimed at delegitimizing the pro-Israel community and fellow members of Congress—both Jewish and non-Jewish—for supposedly selling their votes for Jewish money.

It played out this way again only weeks ago when, after falsely denouncing Israeli measures of self-defense against Hamas terrorism and damning it as an “apartheid state,” she went on to make a specious comparison between both Israel and the United States to Palestinian terrorists and the Taliban. After receiving criticism, including from a dozen Jewish Democrats who called on her to “clarify” remarks without actually condemning her, she appeared to back down saying she had been taken out of context, giving Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the opening needed to declare the controversy over. But then in almost the same breath, Omar denounced those who had sought to call her to account as bigots and was strongly defended by the House Progressive Caucus and others on the left who were no more offended by her appalling comments than they are by her support for the anti-Semitic BDS movement.

Yet given an opportunity to try to conciliate her critics when asked about the most recent dustup in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN, Omar did the opposite. She denounced the 12 Jewish Democrats who took a stand against her as people who are not “seeking justice around the world.”

That she considers her support for Hamas’ war to eliminate the one Jewish state on the planet as a fight for “justice,” is a form of gaslighting. But one has to admire the clever way she always seeks to put liberal Jews on the wrong foot by accusing them of being insufficiently loyal to the social justice agenda that is at the core of their political identity.

To that end, Omar quickly pivoted from anti-Semitic invective to an attempt to laud Jews for their past support for justice. In a tweet thread, in which she again burnished her credentials as a woman of color and an immigrant “who survived war and witnessed injustice first-hand” and then proceeded to play a different Jewish card by citing the involvement of Jews in the Civil Rights movement in the past in the 1950s and 60s.

The implication of this was that those who take issue with her support for an anti-Semitic war on Israel are betraying the legacy of people like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But it was also an attempt to position herself as an advocate for a black-Jewish alliance on social justice rather than, as she really is, an extremist politician who traffics in anti-Semitism and whose invective and incitement can be linked to the surge in attacks on Jews across the United States in the wake of her statements about Israel.

Not everyone is falling for this.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations roundly condemned her for what it rightly termed her “anti-Semitic accusations.” David Harris, the head of the American Jewish Committee, similarly took her to task in a Newsweek column for having “a problem with Jews.”

But what has to be most galling for those who are put in her cross-hairs is the way so many Jews who identify as “progressives” are not only willing to give her a pass but are actively assisting Omar’s campaign against Israel, its supporters and any Democrat who has the guts to notice what she’s doing.

For example, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism who had nothing to say about Omar’s attacks on Israel and Jews. But he actually endorsed Omar’s attempt to co-opt Jewish history in her defense with a fawning tweet: “Thank you, Rep. Omar, for lifting up this history. We need our communities standing together in the fight for justice and against antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry,” he wrote.

With the leader of the political arm of the largest Jewish denomination in America behind her, Haaretz was right to claim in a headline that, “Jewish Democrats Back Ilhan Omar.”

Nor was the RAC alone. Two Jewish members of the House Democratic caucus, Representatives Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.)  also spoke up in her defense with the latter claiming all the fuss was the work of “right-wingers” who were “trying to create a controversy where there is none.” Halie Soifer, the head of the Jewish Democratic Council of America that has recently signaled that its mission is to advocate for both Israel and “Palestinian rights” amid the Hamas attacks on the Jewish state, also “strongly welcomed” Omar’s comments.

It should be remembered that the majority of House Jewish Democrats chose to be silent or actually support Omar rather than join with those who condemned her comparison of Israel to a terrorist group.

It isn’t only progressives who seek to cozy up to anti-Semites. This past week, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) was called out for planning to host a fundraiser with alt-right anti-Semite and Holocaust-denier Nick Fuentes, who has previously been shunned by mainstream conservatives. Like Omar when she was asked about her “Benjamins” slur, Gosar claimed ignorance of who he was dealing with. But the point here is that Jewish Republicans were quick to condemn Gosar, rather than support him.

By contrast, progressives are blinded both by their partisan aversion to taking on their ideological allies like Omar, but also often effectively silenced by her status as a woman of color. The Jewish left has bought into the toxic myths of critical race theory and intersectionality, and has become so conscious about having “white privilege” to the point where they are simply incapable of realizing the connection between leftists and attacks on Jews and Israel.

That inability to spurn anyone, no matter how egregious their behavior, who can fit into a race category that denotes “oppressed status,” acts as a permission slip for Jew-hatred that Omar is happy to accept. That Omar is effectively given a pass by the media establishment (including Jews like Tapper, who failed to challenge her attack on Jews in his interview with her) is bad enough. But that progressive Jews are still lining up with her tells you everything you need to know about the partisan sickness and ideological madness that is doing such terrible damage to the country’s political culture.

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

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