The past few weeks have been painful and eye-opening for many Americans. The image of a white politician (apparently) donning blackface in an old yearbook, a deeply offensive and racist mockery of African-Americans, opened fresh wounds for many — and during Black History Month. Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, has apologized, as has the state’s attorney general for a similar episode, but neither has resigned.
Likewise, a Minnesota congresswoman has twice in three weeks had to apologize for troubling anti-Semitic tweets.
Earlier this week, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, tweeted a vile comment, suggesting Israel’s supporters in Congress are beholden to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” she asserted. The tweet drew immediate gasps and ire from all political corners, deservedly, including her own party leadership.
The Anti-Defamation League responded, “At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in the U.S. and abroad, Rep. Omar is promoting the ugly, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews have an outsized influence over politics. The notion that wealthy Jews are controlling the government is a longstanding anti-Semitic trope and one of the pillars of modern anti-Semitism….”
It wasn’t the first example of Omar’s willingness to traffic in these anti-Semitic themes. Just weeks ago she had to defend a 2012 tweet in which she claimed, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
Amidst calls for her to resign, she, like the men in Virginia, apologized, but is also defiant, tweeting: “Listening and learning, but standing strong.”
That’s another parallel in these two troubling tales: ignorance. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring blamed his college blackface on “ignorance and glib attitudes.” Northam has also suggested he needs to educate himself on the history of racism in America. If a recent interview with Gayle King is any indication, he has a ways to go; she had to correct him that the term was “slavery,” not “indentured servitude.”
Omar also admitted she needs an education, responding to New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss, “you are correct when you say, ‘Perhaps Ms. Omar is sincerely befuddled and not simply deflecting,’” in failing to grasp why her “hypnotized” comments were so offensive.
But for all the similarities, there’s an important difference between Omar and the two Virginia politicians. While many Democrats in Virginia — including African-Americans — say Northam and Herring’s policies have been good for blacks, Omar supports one policy that is patently bad for Jews.
BDS is a pro-Palestinian movement to punish Israel through boycotts, divestments and sanctions. She is one of only two House members — Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib is the other — to support it. As the ADL describes it, “many of the founding goals of the BDS movement, including denying the Jewish people the universal right of self-determination, along with many of the strategies employed in BDS campaigns, are anti-Semitic.”
To be clear, the BDS movement is not just a criticism of Israeli policy. I spoke with JNS.org editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin last week, who said millions of Israeli Jews wake up every morning and criticize Israeli policy. BDS, on the other hand, is about demonizing and delegitimizing Jews and a Jewish state — as Tobin reminds, “the only Jewish state on the planet.”
Ignorance isn’t a sin — though, we’d presumably expect our elected officials, from the President on down, to know something about the important histories of racism and anti-Semitism.
But ignorance can’t explain Omar and Tlaib’s support for a movement whose anti-Semitism is plainly stated and painfully obvious.
They’ve apologized for their tweets. Will we hold them accountable for their policies?