Rules Are for Schmucks: Omar, Tlaib, and Dual Loyalty

Rep. Ilhan Omar (photo by Lorie Shaull)

The travails of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) continue. Her latest sin was saying: “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.”

This followed closely on the heels of Omar’s remark last month at a Washington bookstore event that she wants “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” She was joined at that event by the other Muslim freshman congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who earlier this year complained that critics of the anti-Israeli government “Boycott – Divest – Sanctions” movement (BDS) “forgot what country they represent.”

On its own, Omar’s most recent statement is innocuous—in fact, it’s entirely correct. Is it reasonable to expect someone to “pledge support” to Paraguay, or “have allegiance” to Thailand to serve in Congress, or on a congressional committee? Of course not.

Unfortunately, all Omar and Tlaib are doing is playing into the hands of defenders of the Israeli government. These defenders have always had a tough task, because that government’s apartheid system is morally indefensible. The best strategy, which these defenders have been employing for decades, is to change the subject by calling “anti-Semitism!” every time someone criticizes Israel. In this case, they accused Omar and Tlaib of repeating a trope suggesting that Jews in general are disloyal to America, even though that’s not even close to what the two women said.

The pro-Israel lobby—which is heavily comprised of evangelical Christians as well as Jews—quickly demonstrated its enormous clout by getting the House of Representatives to drop its normal order of business and condemn Omar and Tlaib’s comments. More precisely, the House condemned what they didn’t actually say, but what the Israel lobby twisted their words into suggesting. The resolution adopted overwhelmingly on March 7 states categorically that “accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel or to the Jewish community than to the United States constitutes anti-Semitism.”

Now, is it conceivable that there are American Jews who care more about Israel than they do about the United States? Of course it is. In fact, one night my wife and I were out to dinner, having an otherwise pleasant conversation with a couple at an adjoining table. The talk turned to politics and the woman dropped that exact bomb while explaining why she didn’t care for President Obama. (I didn’t want to create a scene, but I was so angry I withdrew from the conversation altogether, and hurried through the rest of dinner.)

Aside from these types, an even larger number of American Jews are vigorously opposed to the apartheid framework of the Israeli government and believe that the non-Jews in the territories controlled by that government should have all the same rights—including voting rights—that Israeli Jews have. How many American Jews are in each of these ideological camps, or in the large area in between? I don’t know or care. Omar and Tlaib shouldn’t care either. What they should care about—especially Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian refugees—is hammering away relentlessly at the immorality of US support for apartheid.

Bill Clinton won an election in 1992 by following the advice of his strategist, James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.” By turning nearly every question back to that simple mantra, Clinton (who for a time trailed Ross Perot in the polls) was able to unseat an incumbent president. Omar, Tlaib, and others who seek to champion justice in this part of the world should similarly stick to “It’s the apartheid, stupid.” Laws that treat people differently based on their race, as Israel enforces, are wrong. Basing legal status on what’s in a person’s DNA, as some Israeli rabbis are now doing, is wrong. Preventing approximately half the people from voting, in order to keep the other half on top of the heap, is wrong. Herding non-Jews into the equivalent of South African Bantustans while banning them from other areas is wrong.

For all this to happen because the United States, the great hope of Enlightenment values, politically and economically props up a gang of foreign God experts is not just wrong, but nuts. That’s what Omar and Tlaib need to concentrate on, without getting lost down the rabbit hole of what does or doesn’t motivate their opponents.

I suppose it’s possible to characterize the apartheid charge, which even former President Jimmy Carter has endorsed, as anti-Semitic. Some Israel defenders are trying to do that already—but it’s a much tougher sell. A rational debate about whether Israel does or does not practice apartheid is a debate Israel’s defenders will lose. That’s why they’re so desperate to hush it up.

American support for Israel is a hard issue, generating intense passions on either side. The American Humanist Association has not, to my knowledge, taken a position. Opposing anti-Semitism, however, is not a hard issue. Humanists should focus on it more than we do. (I’ve devoted an article to anti-Semitism in this publication, but I think mine may be the only one with such a primary focus that it’s had. Apologies if I missed any, but I hope there are more to come.)

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a longtime friend of humanism, spearheaded several meetings among a dozen or so Muslim and Jewish House Democrats to discuss these issues and their personal experiences. He also co-sponsored the House resolution condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry, one clause of which I criticized above. Shining a light on this ugliness is welcome at any time. I do believe the controversy that resulted in that resolution was manufactured by the Israel lobby to smear two fresh faces it (rightly) regards as dangerous to its mission, but if that’s what it took, then so be it.

It is possible to despise both anti-Semitism and Israeli apartheid at the same time? If I can do it, anyone can. I wish more people would.