Zaman: In Defense of Ilhan Omar

We should stand by Rep. Ilhan Omar.

by Raniyan Zaman | 5/10/19 2:00am

Just last fall, Ilhan Omar (D-MN) was elected as the representative of Minnesota’s 5th district. Since then, she has faced a relentless storm of personal attacks and death threats, and has featured in one controversy after another. Scandals and personal attacks are nothing new for anyone in politics, but the level of vitriol directed at Omar, a Somali-born refugee who moved to the U.S. as a teenager, seems to be especially extreme. Unfortunately, as Omar stands up for herself, politicians too often deliberately stoke fury towards her or idly stand by.

Perhaps Omar is controversial. But that’s because she has the courage to speak the uncomfortable and necessary truths that many politicians avoid, drawing attention to the aspects of society that too many others turn a blind eye to. I’ll focus here on one prominent instance of that: Omar’s remarks in February regarding the immense lobbying power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. On Twitter, she critiqued AIPAC for using its resources to leverage political support for Israel. AIPAC’s influence is a truth that few American politicians have been willing to highlight, and Omar’s choice to emphasize the issue did not deserve the controversy it incited.

Omar’s position isn’t so far outside the mainstream. Former congressman Brian Baird has questioned why AIPAC was so often prioritized above the well-being of the United States, while former congressman Jim Moran expressed doubt that AIPAC represented “the mainstream of American Jewish thinking.” They’re not wrong. In an op-ed for The Nation, activist Ady Barkan recounts his experience as a staffer on a political campaign, remembering how “checks arrived promptly in the mail” soon after the campaign adopted AIPAC’s stances on a few key issues. 

Yet when Omar criticized AIPAC, critics immediately attacked her, skewing the meaning of her tweets to claim that she was perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish monetary influence. Certainly, Omar’s tweet should have been better phrased. And any notion that “Jewish money” corrupts politics or other institutions is both false and dangerous. At the same time, however, there’s no detangling AIPAC — which is by no means representative of the Jewish people — from its considerable lobbying power. And American Jews are increasingly uncomfortable with Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration and Israel’s policies, which AIPAC tends to support. Omar’s tweet could have used more diplomatic language, but it hardly merits condemnation.

Both political parties have shamefully overreacted to Omar’s tweet. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump — whose own declaration that there were “very fine people” among alt-right and neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville veered into anti-Semitism — called on Omar to resign. That’s perhaps to be expected. But Democrats have also failed Omar. Rather than defend Omar and her positions, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) instead offered a statement condemning anti-Semitism, and in doing so, validated all those who said that Omar’s statements were anti-Semitic.

As one of our newest congresswomen, a woman of color and the recipient of an alarming amount of death threats, Omar needs all the support she can get from her party. Instead, Democrats continually marginalize her as a radical other — an experience all too common for women of color. It’s worth noting that while Moran generated controversy by criticizing AIPAC, he never seemed to experience the kind of outrageous treatment that Omar did — probably because he’s not as vulnerable. 

Make no mistake; I am not making a false equivalence between the Republicans’ outright vilification of Omar and the communities she represents and the Democrats’ weak or nonexistent attempts to quench the flames. The Republican reaction is clearly worse. However, the Democrats’ response seems hypocritical. The party is all too eager to embrace diversity on a surface-level when it means trumpeting diversity numbers after midterm elections but seems unwilling to do the heavy lifting that comes with actually honoring different perspectives.

No doubt, many congressional Democrats are reluctant to defend Omar in part because they believe that she alienates their more moderate constituents. It is entirely possible, and even expected, that those closer to the center might not agree with Ilhan Omar’s policies. But the Democratic Party should ask itself why it is pandering to a whiter, more moderate base at the expense of those with more marginalized identities, particularly people of color. While they’re at it, they should consider how well that strategy has worked out for them so far. Both parties must do better when it comes to Ilhan Omar. If Democrats truly embrace her and what she represents, it might just help a party that has lost its way to reorient itself around new perspectives and principles.