In the United States, newly elected Democratic Party congresswomen Ilhan Omar has created a fair amount of controversy in recent weeks. Omar and Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib are America’s first Muslim congresswomen, and Omar is the first to wear a hijab.
Before being elected, Omar led Jewish Democratic primary voters in her district to believe that she did not support the “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) movement. According to Ha’aretz newspaper, “When she was asked at an August primary debate held in a synagogue to specify ‘exactly where you stand’ on BDS, Omar said that BDS was ‘not helpful in getting that two-state solution’ — never explaining that she in fact supported the policy.”
After being elected, Omar quickly went on the offensive against America’s close relations with Israel. In February, she attributed pro-Israel sentiment in America to the financial clout of the pro-Israel lobby. While ignoring the fact that many Arab states and Turkey spend a lot more money lobbying for policies they want in Washington than Israel, Omar claimed that America’s pro-Israel stance “is all about the Benjamins” (“Benjamin” in this case being the name of the US president that appears on $100 bills). To many, this appeared to be an old anti-Semitic trope about Jewish money. The perspective also seemed to ignore a host of cultural, strategic, historical and other reasons for the Israeli-American relationship.
Then in early March, during a panel discussion with Rashida Tlaib on Israel-Palestine, Omar said “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” To most, it appeared very clear that Omar was referring to Jews, or at least supporters of Israel, when she made this statement – in which case this too looked like an old anti-Semitic trope, wherein Jews are always accused of dual loyalties (ironically enough, some Islamophobic critics of Omar also accuse her of dual loyalties to Islam before America).
To worsen the whole situation, a 2012 tweet of Omar’s also surfaced, in which she wrote that “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
Predictably, the reaction to Omar’s attacks on Israel and her reliance on questionable rhetoric fell into two general camps – on one side, people found her focus on Israel within the first few months of being elected disproportionate or even obsessive, and her rhetoric anti-Semitic. Others (especially those already holding a very negative view of Israel) rose to Omar’s defense, however, claiming that anyone who “dares to criticize Israel” gets labeled an anti-Semite in America. These supporters claimed that as a former refugee from Somalia herself, Omar simply cares about human rights and the plight of the Palestinians. Even if in her inexperience Omar chose some of her words poorly, her defenders claim that it is about time an elected American official (or two, if one adds Rashida Tlaib) questions American support for Israel.
If Omar were genuinely motivated by human rights concerns, however, why did she visit with Turkish President Erdogan in 2017, when she was an elected official of the state of Minnesota? The Turkish president’s office has proudly published photos of the two together. Does Omar’s concern for refugees not apply to the hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees that Mr. Erdogan created in the last few years? Does her concern for human rights not apply to the people of Afrin, Cizre, Diyarbakir, Roboski, Gezi Park and other recent victims of Mr. Erdogan’s Turkish state? Does Ms. Omar only have affection for regimes such Turkey and Venezuela who share her harshly critical stance towards Israel?
While it would be ridiculous to charge any critic of Israel with anti-Semitism, it would seem equally ridiculous to rule out anti-Semitism on the part of anyone who just uses words like “Zionist” instead of “Jew” and then employs the same old clichés and tropes. Additionally, we should judge such people by their own self-proclaimed standards. So when the likes of Noam Chomsky criticize Israel in severe terms, reasonable people know not to accuse him of anti-Semitism because Dr. Chomsky also stands up for the rights of Kurds, with extremely harsh rhetoric against Ankara, Tehran, and others.
If someone believes in Palestinian rights and self-determination but will not grant the Kurds any sympathy for similar desires, then something is amiss. If someone wants to talk about Palestine all day long and demonize Israel every day but can not pronounce the word “Kurdistan” and takes tea and photos with the likes of Mr. Erdogan, then motives other than “human rights” are at play.
Ms. Omar, along with many other Israel-obsessed people who are not from Israel or Palestine, may not even be anti-Semitic in the stereotypical sense. She may have plenty of Jewish friends and good relations with many Jews – so long as they know their place. Kurds may be very familiar with this kind of perspective. For a hundred years, leaders in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria brandished a similar discourse about liking Kurds and having Kurdish friends. They had to be the right kind of submissive Kurds, however, rather than the kind who forgot their place and dared to want their own state.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.