Over the last few weeks, a bipartisan assortment of congressional leaders have panned Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for her Feb. 10 tweet condemning the financial influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on American politics. This intense criticism has taken a variety of forms — from calls for her resignation to an anti-hate House resolution in which the initial draft singled Omar out specifically. The responses to Omar’s comment by both Democrats and Republicans papers over the white nationalist rhetoric that has been rising steadily since President Donald J. Trump’s election. Such terrorism poses the most direct threat to the safety of Jews and Muslims in America.
Omar’s concern about the power AIPAC exerts over politicians is echoed by many on the left. The organization is the largest pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States and contributes relatively large sums of money to candidates from both parties. In 2018, the committee spent over $3.5 million on lobbying efforts directed at both Democratic and Republican politicians, a figure that dwarfs the financial influence of other organizations; Planned Parenthood spent only $1.1 million during the same year. AIPAC’s aggressive advocacy campaigns have lent credence to the combative, right-wing politics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, who repeatedly sought to undermine the Obama administration’s opposition to West Bank settlements, is on the brink of being indicted for corruption. More recently, he helped forge a coalition between his Likud party and the far-right extremist Otzma Yehudit party, a political move even AIPAC felt compelled to publicly oppose.
Omar’s tweet was absent-minded and arguably hurt her credibility with many in the Jewish community, including some on the left. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the tweet has drawn ire from some liberals. Given the current state of our country’s political polarization, it is even less surprising that so many on the right were quick to label Omar as a blatant anti-Semite.
The intense scrutiny on Omar’s comments by the media and elected officials has unfortunately distracted from bigoted attacks on Omar’s Muslim faith. As media coverage condemning the congresswoman for her criticism of Israel ramped up, an anti-Muslim poster was displayed in the West Virginia State Capitol that attempted to connect Omar to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on account of her religion. The exhibit was set up by the anti-Islam hate organization ACT for America for the State Capitol’s GOP Day celebration. The event was but one of many displays of Islamophobia from parts of the right wing over the past few years.
Republican politicians are in no position to claim the moral high ground in disavowing perceived bigotry from Omar, given their silence in regards to recent statements and actions from members of their own party . In a speech following the neo-Nazi march on Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, Trump proclaimed there were “very fine people on both sides” of the protests. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) has made numerous remarks sympathetic to white supremacists and met with a far-right Austrian organization with Nazi ties in October 2018 during a trip funded by a Holocaust memorial organization. King has seen next to no punishment from Republican party leadership for his bigoted actions beyond a meaningless censure resolution and the temporary termination of his committee assignments.
Let’s not forget the relentless lies about former President Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign and throughout his presidency in which many conservatives accused him of secretly practicing Islam despite being a Christian in public. Remember these things the next time a GOP politician or conservative pundit denounces what they view as hateful language coming from the left. Dangerous white supremacist movements have voices of support in Congress, the White House, online and in our local communities. We must not let a feckless tweet from a freshman congresswoman drown out the immediate threat these groups pose to Jews, Muslims and other religious and racial minorities in our country.
Anti-Semitism is a scourge that continues to plague the world, and it is a scourge that we as Americans should fight against at every opportunity. Omar has apologized for her tweet, and she should seek to build bridges between her office and the Jewish community. We must remain critical of her and other politicians who make statements that could be genuinely perceived as anti-Semitic.
That being said, we cannot allow our leaders to use this instance as a distraction from the more direct threats to both the American Jewish and Muslim communities, most notably by right-wing, white supremacists and the politicians who refuse to condemn them. Yes, politicians must work to root out anti-Semitism in our government, and it must be a part of our national discourse, but it cannot take priority over more pressing threats to both groups in the U.S., especially in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and the recent mosque shooting in New Zealand. It is time that our elected officials’ actions start speaking louder than their words.
Zach Ball (20C) is from Griffin, Ga., and Jake Busch (22C) is from Brookhaven, Ga.