Let’s get past this relative tempest in a teapot to address the larger concerns about how we talk openly, honestly and substantively about Israel.
The recent controversy and wall-to-wall coverage of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments, and the reaction they evoked, reflect the gladiatorial spectacle that passes for our current news-media environment, and the polarized politics that drives our poor excuse for discourse. But even more troubling, this debacle threatens to obscure important and integral conversations about our nation’s relationship with the Jewish state, and more broadly, the effectiveness and viability of progressive politics.
Many pixels have already been burned in recounting the events of the last week. To recap: Omar has a history of infusing her critique of the state of Israel and its policies with classic and infamous antisemitic tropes, memes and canards. Accusations of dual loyalty, an almost supernatural manipulation of the masses, and a monetized, self-serving agenda are stereotypes as old as the stories in scripture and as recent as the GOP’s less-than-subtle insinuations, starting with the president.
Supporters of Israel in Congress sought to pass a seemingly redundant and largely symbolic resolution condemning anti-Semitism in general, and obliquely, Omar in particular. Her supporters rightly pointed out that to disproportionately single out Omar, a Muslim woman of color, while Republicans enabled far worse expressions of white supremacy, is disingenuous at best, politically opportunistic at worst.
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The latest draft of the resolution passed on Thursday broadens the scope of indictment against all kinds of isms and phobias. It is a good leveraging of this teachable moment to offer a resounding condemnation of the full panoply of extremism that infects our current culture. And yet, some critical concerns have been subsumed by the desire for a quick resolution — challenges that will percolate to the surface again and again until they are confronted, processed and relegated.
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The first involves the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and enduring anti-Semitism. The expression of concerns about the current policies of the government of Israel under the corrupt, exploitative and cynical leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu is not only kosher, but currently roils Israeli society in a shining demonstration of the freedoms that distinguish Israel from all of its neighbors, and increasingly, some of Europe.
To encourage open debate about the alignment of U.S. policy with Israel is fair game, as is questioning our significant financial support, though much can be argued in favor of such a strategic alliance. However, to conflate the actions of Israel’s current administration with the Jewish people more broadly; to deny the existential right to a safe and secure nation for the Jewish people that is assumed for all others; and to pepper one’s criticism with toxic, historically insidious inferences, and then when confronted, to double down on some of those statements as Omar has done, is as much a troubling and pernicious sign of the times as it is undermining of the integrity of her supposed objective.
But this week’s congressional kerfuffle reflects an even more worrisome trend: the ideological purity tests rampant among progressive groups and the almost idolatrous hegemony of intersectionality over progressive politics. If we can learn anything from the political and social right, it is their uncanny ability to concert many tribes and perspectives in the service of clear and identifiable goals. Contempt for the substance of their ideas should not blind us to the effectiveness of their political acumen.
The fraying of longstanding alliances among progressives over Israel, and expressions of solidarity for all oppressed groups that greatly elide and obscure the details and nuances of different conflicts, threatens to unravel the coherence of the Democratic Party when a united opposition is needed most. And it fosters an increasingly hostile environment for Jews that undermines the moral authority of liberal democracies, from Corbynism in the U.K. through its emerging echoes on these shores.
Let’s get past this relative tempest in a teapot to address the larger concerns about how we talk openly, honestly and substantively about Israel, how we secure strong alliances amid diverse viewpoints, and what it will take to reclaim and hold political power for progressive causes at a critical time. To do anything less is to concede our nation to the darkness for another electoral cycle and beyond.