I’m all for new voices in the U.S. Congress. But lately, some of those new voices have been voicing some very old canards.
I’m talking about Representative Ilhan Omar, one of the newly elected Democrats who populate the 116th Congress. Omar has attracted much news coverage, and the condemnation of most of her fellow Democrats, for promoting some ugly tropes about Jews.
First, when questioning long-standing congressional support for Israel, she blamed the campaign money provided by pro-Israel supporters. “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” she tweeted.
After apologizing for that comment and acknowledging her need to be “educated,” she followed with another tweet, questioning the “allegiance” of supporters of Israel, intimating that we place the concerns of Israel above those of the country that we call home.
No one is questioning the right of members of Congress and others to criticize Israeli policies. But Omar is crossing a line that should not be crossed in political discourse. Her remarks are not anti-Israel; they are anti-Semitic.
Whether consciously or not, Representative Omar is repeating some of the ugliest stereotypes about Jews—tropes that have been unleashed by anti-Semites throughout history. She is casting Jewish Americans as the other, suggesting a dual loyalty that calls our devotion to America into question.
Maybe I’m sensitive to this charge of dual allegiance because it’s been wielded against me in some of my political campaigns. I’ve been accused of actually being a citizen of Israel. (That’s not true, although my father was an Israeli immigrant to the United States.) In 2002, well before Donald Trump and other “birthers” questioned Barack Obama’s citizenship, I had to produce my U.S. birth certificate in my first run for Congress to disprove false assertions about my background and loyalties.
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But it’s not just me who’s been subject to questions of dual loyalty. For centuries, this trope has been aimed at Jews in countries around the world. In embracing it, Omar is associating herself with calamities from the Spanish Inquisition to the Russian pogroms to the Holocaust. That’s not historical company that any American should want to keep.
One doesn’t have to be Jewish to recognize the deep and abiding relationship between the United States and Israel. Yes, there might be serious problems with Israel’s democracy—just as we’re currently experiencing our own. But Israel shares fundamental values with the United States that most of its neighbors have never embraced.
In Israel, women can vote and serve in the armed forces. So can members of the LGBTQ community. Its Arab citizens can vote, form political parties, and serve in the Israeli Parliament. And Israeli women can drive—just as badly as the rest of the population.
As for Jewish Americans who support Israel as a friend and ally of the United States, we do so because we recognize the commonality of our values and national interests. And many of us don’t hesitate to criticize Israel when its policies are wrong—or to champion American interests when they come into tension with Israeli goals.
On my very first day after leaving Bill Clinton’s administration as his senior adviser in October 1998, I received a call at 5 a.m. from the president. He was at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, where he was hosting a summit meeting between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The president was frantic that the summit would collapse if he didn’t release Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. intelligence analyst who had delivered sensitive state secrets to Israel, as Benjamin Netanyahu was demanding.
Clinton was getting conflicting advice from his political and national-security teams. Some members of the political team thought Pollard’s release was a small price to pay for a successful agreement. But members of his national-security team were strongly opposed because of the serious level of the security breach that Pollard had orchestrated.
I told Clinton not to give in on Pollard’s release, believing that Netanyahu needed the agreement more than he did. The president followed that advice, and Netanyahu ultimately signed the Wye River Memorandum.
Later, during my service as White House chief of staff in the Obama administration, I spoke out strongly against Netanyahu’s policy of expanding Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. For my troubles, Netanyahu labeled me (along with the presidential adviser David Axelrod) a “self-hating Jew.”
My allegiance to this country wasn’t in question then. And it shouldn’t be now—nor should that of other American Jews. That would be just as wrong as suggesting that all Muslims are potential terrorists and should be banned from entering this country. What president would possibly embrace such an un-American position—until the current one?
As mayor of Chicago, I denounced Trump for his anti-Muslim policies. I worked to make Chicago a welcoming city to Americans of all backgrounds, creating the Office of New Americans to help immigrants and refugees in my city, which has been a gateway for immigrants to the United States for generations. I appointed Seemi Choudry, herself the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, to lead that effort.
I often say that only in America could the son and grandson of immigrants become the chief of staff to the president and the mayor of one of its largest cities. I fully expect Muslim Americans to follow this well-trod path, as we’re witnessing already with the election of candidates like Ilhan Omar to Congress.
No doubt, such candidates will have to overcome allegations of dual loyalty and of taking campaign contributions from fellow Muslims with nefarious goals in mind. And when they face such claims, Jewish Americans like me will come to their defense—because we know the pain and potential damage of these bigoted stereotypes. It’s time for Omar to learn that lesson.