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Ilhan Omar’s Ousting and the Politicization of Antisemitism

How Republicans have warped the conversation on antisemitism in Congress.

Words: Emily Tamkin
Pictures: Tony Webster

Last week, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, was stripped of her assignment to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Republicans, in justifying the move, pointed to what they called antisemitic and anti-Israel rhetoric.

Democrats called the move political revenge. They had, after all, previously removed Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) from their committees for violent rhetoric against other members. Some of Omar’s colleagues called this an attack on a woman of color. (Omar, it should be said, has indeed been the victim of Islamophobic attacks, which, whether or not one agrees with her politically, should be considered unacceptable, and which are accepted by too many).

But it is also true that this is part of a larger pattern of the current Republican party’s weaponization of antisemitism, a term and concept that has become warped throughout our country, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the halls of Congress.

“I stand before you as a proud Jew,” said Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who co-sponsored the Combating International Islamophobia Act with Omar in 2021. “I don’t need any of you to defend me against antisemitism,” she said, presumably to her Republican colleagues. “We have seen all kinds of antisemitism from the other side of the aisle.”

The move to strip Omar of her committee assignment came from the same party whose elected politicians repeatedly engage in antisemitic tropes for political gain.

Apology And Acknowledgement Are The Exception

To stick with Omar for a moment: One of the most common criticisms of her is that she traffics in antisemitic tropes. The most common example, by far, is “all about the Benjamins.”

In February 2019, journalist and pundit Glenn Greenwald had tweeted, “GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.” Omar replied, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” a Diddy (then Puff Daddy) lyric. Asked who was paying members of Congress to be pro-Israel, Omar replied, “AIPAC!”

At best, these tweets were glib (and, I would argue, inaccurate since US policy toward Israel is not only what it is because of money). At worst, they could be seen as playing on an old trope about Jews and money and how we are both consumed by and use it to consume others.

The tweet was immediately seized upon by Republicans and condemned by Democrats. House Democratic leadership called the tweets “deeply offensive,” while Max Rose, then a Democratic representative from New York, said her words were “deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself.” The Democratic reaction back then came under criticism this week for paving the way for this latest Republican attack.

But what stands out about this incident is not just the tweet itself but that Omar acknowledged that she had — unwittingly, she said — engaged in a trope about Jews and money and then apologized for what she said.

The move to strip Omar of her committee assignment came from the same party whose elected politicians repeatedly engage in antisemitic tropes for political gain.

“Antisemitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of antisemitic tropes,” Omar said in a statement. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. 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.” She then reaffirmed her criticism of the “problematic” role of lobbying groups of all stripes in American politics, including the Amercian Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC, which is inarguably a powerful group that is dedicated to advancing pro-Israel candidates and politics.

The reason this is remarkable is that congressional Republicans very often engage with this same trope — that is, that Jews are both obsessed with money and use it to control all around them — and then, when called out, say that it is ridiculous that anyone could accuse them of doing any such thing.

For example, in 2018, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who is now, as speaker of the House, removing Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee — tweeted that George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer were trying to buy the 2018 midterm elections. The next year, when this was brought up in the wake of the Omar brouhaha, McCarthy said, “That had nothing to do about faith. That was about Republicans versus Democrats.” Omar, of course, could have insisted that her tweet had nothing to do with faith and was instead about the power and influence of lobbying groups, but she did not; she said sorry.

This is a common defense against attacks on Soros specifically and “globalists” more generally: those attacking say that their issue is with Soros, not his Jewishness. Some might say they don’t even consider him to be Jewish. But given that that is not up to them to decide, and also that manifestos tied to acts of violence echo Soros conspiracy theories, perhaps Republicans, if they cared about fighting antisemitism, would stop overstating Soros’s influence, or at least pretending he is the lone political actor in the United States.

Similarly, there are those — presumably including former President Donald Trump, who is currently calling Florida Governor Ron DeSantis a RINO Globalist — who insist the word has no Jewish connotations, even though it has been explained repeatedly that it does.

The most obvious offender of this — of trafficking in antisemitism and then denying it — is arguably Greene. She is right that she never used the phrase “Jewish space lasers.” She said that the 2018 California fires were caused by a beam from “space solar generators” and that the vice chairman of “Rothschild, Inc., international investment banking firm” — the Rothschild family being a Jewish banking dynasty who have been accused of, among other things, controlling the economy — were involved.

Greene also spoke at a conference organized by white nationalist Nick Fuentes and then downplayed her attendance at the event and compared House mask mandates to the Holocaust. She apologized a month later. Then, a month after that, she made another Holocaust comparison, likening those pushing the COVID vaccine to Nazis. She was recently added to the House Oversight Committee.

All of this leaves aside congressional Republicans’ repeated defense of and loyalty to Trump, who regularly traffics in antisemitic tropes. For example, in 2021, in the same interview where he said that American Jews “either don’t like Israel or don’t care about Israel,” Trump said that Israel used to have “absolute power over Congress.” Lest readers think that was a slip of the tongue, a month before that, in a different interview, Trump said that, until a decade ago, Israel “literally owned Congress.” He did not specify whether he believed that ownership was “all about the Benjamins.”

But What Constitutes Antisemitism?

There is, in truth, no consensus over how much or what criticism of Israel constitutes antisemitism. Some say that describing Israel’s actions as “apartheid” constitutes antisemitism; others argue that “apartheid,” a term describing policy of segregation on racial or ethnic grounds, is the apt term to use. For example, IfNotNow, a group of progressive American Jews, describes itself as dedicated to ending Israel’s “apartheid system.” The same can be said of the movement to boycott Israel, anti-Zionism: the list goes on. There are quite literally competing definitions of what constitutes antisemitism.

But in addition to jumping on seemingly any criticism of Israel as antisemitism, Republicans in Congress also present criticisms of specific Israeli policies and actions as antisemitic. In this, they have been helped along by some of their colleagues across the aisle.

For example, in 2021, Omar questioned Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “I know you oppose the Court’s investigation in both Palestine and in Afghanistan,” she said, referring to the International Criminal Court (ICC). But domestic courts in both cases couldn’t or wouldn’t prosecute crimes allegedly carried out by Israeli forces and Hamas, and by the Taliban and the Afghan national government. And if domestic courts wouldn’t do that, “and we oppose the ICC, where do we think the victims of these supposed crimes can go for justice?”

She was not saying, “I think the United States and Israel and Hamas and the Taliban are all the same.” Rather, she was pointing out that victims of these different actors in Palestine and Afghanistan would, if it were up to the United States, have the same level of recourse through the ICC, which is to say, none at all.

In this case, not only did Republicans pounce, but some of Omar’s Jewish Democratic colleagues accused her of drawing a moral equivalence between the countries and groups. Omar then said of CNN that they had not been “partners in justice,” which the Republican Jewish Coalition then represented this as though she had said Jews in Congress were not partners in justice, when in fact she was speaking about a specific set of colleagues who had implied that she had done something antisemitic by talking about US policy toward the ICC.

The inverse of this phenomenon is that when Republicans in Congress are accused of having engaged in antisemitic rhetoric, many point to their support for Israel, as though that absolves them of whatever it was they said or did. For example, in defending the aforementioned 2018 tweet, McCarthy pointed to a trip to Israel that freshmen members of Congress take as one of his “great joys,” as though that somehow meant that he could not have said or done something antisemitic.

This dynamic is well captured by the person who introduced the resolution to remove Omar from her committee: Max Miller (R-Ohio), a Jewish Republican Congressman, who said that the House Foreign Affairs Committee was “pro-Israel” and “pro-Jewish.” Before entering Congress, he was an aide to Trump.

“Polemical Weapons”

In September 2020, several Jewish Democratic members of Congress, led by Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) (neither of whom is in Congress anymore), sent a letter to then-House Minority Leader McCarthy. They were asking him to stop trying to make antisemitism a partisan issue.

“Jews are not a political football, and to treat Jews as such devalues Jewish lives and makes it more difficult to fight the dangerous and deadly trends of growing antisemitism. To be clear,” they wrote, “every clearly partisan maneuver in which House Republicans seek to play ‘gotcha’ politics with Jewish lives — including partisan motions to recommit on antisemitism — makes the fight against antisemitism harder.”

“There are these repeated efforts in Congress by Republicans to inflame conflict over antisemitism and Israel,” Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), one of the signatories of the letter, told me later that year. “They never want to call out Donald Trump for neo-Nazis, but they have an endless appetite to go after Ilhan Omar, for example. If you really care about stopping antisemitism and racism, then you don’t use these as polemical weapons in a partisan way.”

But House Republicans did, and are doing so, and will continue to.

Emily Tamkin

Emily Tamkin is a journalist based in Washington, DC. She is the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews.

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