I stand with Ilhan Omar.
Not with her comment linking American support for Israel to “the Benjamins,” which echoed one of the ugliest themes in classic anti-Semitism. Instead, I stand with the Minnesota congresswoman against the Islamaphobic attacks of President Trump and his amen corner in the Republican Party. In America, you can be a victim of bigotry and perpetuate it at the same time.
That’s the point we’re missing in our hyperpartisan moment, when everyone is breaking into predictable camps on Omar. On one side: Trump and the Republicans, who have spread racist graphics linking her to terrorism. On the other: Omar’s fellow Democrats, who have correctly called out these attacks but have often downplayed her own prejudiced remarks.
And that plays perfectly into the hands of President Trump, who would like nothing better than to saddle Democrats with everything Omar has said. So even as they defend her against the vicious racism she has encountered, Democrats have to make clear that they do not — and will not — defend her earlier comments about Israel and Jews.
Why pretend that victims are always blameless? They’re not. Irish-Americans suffered brutal discrimination from native Protestants in the 19th century, but also visited hatred and violence upon African Americans. In the New York draft riots of 1863, most notoriously, predominantly Irish mobs attacked African Americans around the city. The Colored Orphans Asylum, which sheltered over 200 children, was burned to the ground; so was America’s first black-owned pharmacy.
In California, likewise, Irish immigrant Dennis Kearney spearheaded attacks upon Chinese launderers, railway workers and miners. Founded in 1877 on the platform “Chinese Must Go,” Kearney’s Workingman’s Party helped spur an 1882 Congressional measure that barred Chinese immigrants from the United States.
Nobody in the United States has experienced more hatred and racism than African Americans, of course. But they too engaged in their own forms of discrimination, especially against Jews and Asians.
Growing up in Harlem in the 1920s, novelist James Baldwin often heard black ministers blame Jews for murdering Jesus. In rural Arkansas, likewise, Richard Wright taunted Jewish shopkeepers as “bloody Christ killers.”
And in the 1970s, as Asians built businesses in American inner cities, African Americans denounced them with slurs like “ching chong” and “chow mein.” Black performer Ice Cube blasted “Oriental one-penny-counting” Korean shopkeepers in a 1991 song, warning Koreans to “pay respect to the black fist” or “we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp.”
So there’s nothing inconsistent about expressing prejudice and experiencing it yourself. And that’s precisely what we see in the case of Omar, whose “Benjamins” tweet came on the heels of another remark accusing American Jews of promoting “allegiance to another country.”
But Omar also apologized, which marks a huge difference between Trump’s GOP and herself. “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” Omar tweeted. “We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”
No such apology has come from anyone posting pictures connecting Omar to 9/11, including the New York Post and Trump himself. That is an attack on her identity, plain and square.
But instead of backing off, Trump and the Republicans are piling on.
In a tweet on Monday, Trump said that Omar was “out of control” and had made “ungrateful U.S. HATE statements,” a reference to a speech in which she said that “some people did something” on 9/11. But nobody who watches the full speech — which is widely available on the internet — can possibly infer that she was defending or minimizing terrorism. That’s simply a slur, just as Omar’s own comments about Jews were.
Again, though, she owned up to her bigoted remarks. By contrast, the president of the United States has continued to spew bile and hatred. Tweeting her image superimposed upon the smoldering Twin Towers is beyond irresponsible; it’s unforgivable.
The correct response to that is not to rally behind everything Omar has said, or to suggest that anyone who attacks her is somehow in the same Islamaphobic camp as Donald J. Trump. Democrats must find a way to criticize Omar in a fair-minded way and also to denounce the unfair attacks upon her. Anything else is catnip for Trump, and a formula for Democratic defeat next year.