Rep. Ilhan Omar on AIPAC

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When is criticism vital? When is criticism reasonable? When is criticism over the line?

As an educator, I am constantly thinking about this. 

In business and organizational work, we are taught about the importance of hearing constructive feedback, listening well, internalizing critiques and responding accordingly.

We are taught that if we respond defensively, it means we are not truly open to personal and professional growth. If we respond well to criticism, it means we are humble, open-minded and growth-oriented. 

With Israel, this question about criticism is something I am obsessed with thinking about.

  • If people criticize the settlements and think expansion is detrimental to both the Palestinians and Israelis, are they outside the bounds of reasonable debate?
     
  • When the Oslo process was unfolding in the 1990’s or when the evacuation from Gush Katif was taking place in 2005, was it appropriate to criticize Yitzchak Rabin and Ariel Sharon? 
     
  • If people criticize the decisions by the Israeli government now with the recent nation-state law, are they considered outside the “camp”?

Each community and every individual needs to decide these lines for themselves, but I am confident about three things:

  1. Your students, your children and your peers are thinking about these questions.
     
  2. When Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted that support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins,” not only did she fundamentally misunderstand how AIPAC works, but she crossed a line, and even though she apologized, riffing off famous anti-Semitic tropes is ugly and cynical.
     
  3. Not allowing for any criticism and sincere debate in general is a recipe for stale uniformity and lack of creativity.   


This week, my colleague Elana Raskas does a phenomenal job articulating the different perspectives on how to internalize Rep. Omar’s tweet, how to discuss this with your community and why this all matters so much.

Enjoy and make sure to have the space for these conversations.

Done well, it can transform your classroom, your dining room and your community.

As always, I would love to hear from you, and yes, I am open to your constructive feedback as well!

What Happened?

Democratic representative from Minnesota, Ilhan Omarcreated a stir with her tweets. She insinuated that AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) pays American politicians to support Israel, invoking the age-old anti-Semitic trope that Jews control the world with money. Responding to a tweet about the U.S.’s support for Israel, Omar wrote: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” (a Sean Combs, AKA P. Diddy, line referencing 100-dollar bills).

Omar apologized after facing intense backlash, including from President Trump, Vice President Pence, and leaders of the Democratic party. In her apology, she stated that she is “listening and learning, but still standing strong.” President Trump called Omar’s statement “terrible” and her apology inadequate, and he called on her to resign from Congress or, at a minimum, the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Why Does This Matter?

Criticizing Israel vs. blatant anti-Zionism/anti-Semitism – where’s the line? Far be it from us to whitewash Israel. No country is perfect, and we believe that educated citizens are the best agents of change. But there is a difference between criticizing Israeli policies and making anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic statements. What makes things interesting, and divisive, is that that line is not always clear. In New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg’s take, “it’s particularly incumbent on Israel’s legitimate critics to avoid anything that smacks of anti-Jewish bigotry. And the idea of Jews as global puppet masters, using their financial savvy to make the gentiles do their bidding, clearly does.”

Is it possible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic? A peripheral question here, this query is a popular one these days. Are anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism one and the same? Is the former a modern-day version of the latter? Bret Stephens believes it is, writing that “Hatred of Jews is a shape-shifting phenomenon that historically has melded with the prejudices of the time in order to gain greater political currency… The arguments for hating Jews vary; the target of the hatred tragically remains the same.”

An unlikely “friendship” – Although she faced severe backlash, Omar did receive support from an unexpected source: notorious white supremacist and anti-Semite David Duke. While on most any issue it’s difficult to imagine the two agreeing, when it came to anti-Semitic sentiment the two were on the same page. Duke tweeted: “It is ‘Anti-Semitism’ to point out that the most powerful political moneybags in American politics are Zionists who put another nation’s interest (israel’s) over that of America??????” Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer noted that the far-right and far-left are not all that different when it comes to being anti-Semitic (though on the left it’s called anti-Zionist), and how this trend of polarization of the right and left is sweeping through many countries. 

Zack Beauchamp of Vox.com noted the strange manifestations of anti-Semitism in the United States, which emanate from both the extreme right and extreme left. From the left, anti-Semitism rears its disturbing head when it “twists legitimate criticisms of Israel into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.” And, on the right, anti-Semitism reveals itself when leaders “blame a cabal of wealthy Jews for mass immigration.”

Diversity of Perspectives

Professor Gil Troy wrote an op-ed calling for Omar (and two other new members of Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) to reconsider her position on Israel. He notes that they see their own, and other minorities’, suffering and asks “why are ours invisible to you?” Troy calls them out on “echoing traditional Jew-hatred” and asks them to learn more about Israel’s complexities rather than relying on caricatures.

Tablet writer Yair Rosenbergnoted that while Omar’s anti-Semitic comments (both now and in the past) are deserving of condemnation, Omar has “voiced an exceedingly rare willingness to reconsider her presumptions and put herself in the shoes of Jews.” He recommends that Jews respond to her offer.

Professor Peter Beinart, a frequent critic of  Israeli policies, also condemned Omar’s words as “wrong” and “inaccurate.” However, he pointed to what he considers a “sick double standard,” arguing that her critics are “guiltier of bigotry” than she is. 

Discussion Questions

  1. President Trump called for Omar to resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee (at the very least). Do you agree with this? Do her comments warrant her resignation?
     
  2. In today’s world, politicians reach a broader audience than ever via social media; they can tweet a passing thought in moments. How do you think this reality affects politics, policies, people and rhetoric? Should politicians be careful of what they say or use Twitter as a platform to share anything?
     
  3. In this Haaretz piece, Director of Policy and Communications at Israel Policy Forum Evan Gottesman writes that Omar revealed a deep misunderstanding of American support for Israel. Importantly, he points out that it’s not just American Jews who support Israel, politically and financially, but many American Evangelicals. In fact, “Christians United for Israel boasts the largest membership of any pro-Israel institution in the United States.” Why do you think many people ignore, or are unaware of, this fact? Why do people focus on Jewish influence more than on other groups? Is it natural, since Israel is a Jewish state, or softly anti-Semitic?

Practical Classroom Tips

1. Show students Omar’s apology.

Discuss what makes this an effective or an ineffective apology. Ask students to think about something they might need to apologize for saying and guide them in writing an appropriate apology.
Compare her apology to psychology.com’s take on effective apologies and ask students if Omar’s apology is sufficient or lacking. 

2. Have students browse the AIPAC website to learn what AIPAC actually does and how they operate. This link from the Forward is helpful as well. Ask students to write down the main points and gather information from the class. 

3. Read Chloe Valdary’s Twitter posts and have the students develop their own tweets and questions they would have for people who espouse opinions like Rep. Omar.

Further Reading

  1. Anshel Pfeffer’s comparison of U.S. and Great Britain politics vis-a-vis anti-Semitism. 
     
  2. Zach Beauchamp’s analysis of anti-Semitism in the U.S.
     
  3. Omar’s previous run-in with anti-Semitism.

In Other News…

  1. Kobi Marimi won Israel’s Hakochav Haba (Rising Star) competition and will represent the country in the Eurovision Song Contest this May. Though originally voted off the show, he came back using an “extra life.” He is 27 and from Ramat Gan. Watch him perform here.
  2. An Israeli tour guide found an ancient coin uncovered by rains last week. The coin dates back to 133 or 134 CE, the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, making it 1,885 years old!
  3. Israeli laboratory Prognose 220 Mil uses dog sniffing to detect cancer in saliva samples. This method is advantageous as dogs can detect the cancer in its early stages.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President of Education at Jerusalem U. Noam holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design. Before joining Jerusalem U, he was the principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where he spent 9 years actively engaging and empowering students to find meaning in their Jewish learning.

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