Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The education of Ilhan Omar

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, right, speaks about the party's legislative priorities when Democrats assume the majority in the 116th Congress in January, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, on Nov. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Ilhan Omar is learning.

Sunday evening the newly minted Democratic representative from Minnesota, a Muslim immigrant from Somalia, tweeted out criticism of the the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC that traded in the classic anti-Semitic trope of rich Jews using their money to buy political influence.

There ensued a firestorm of criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, culminating in a statement Monday afternoon from the Democratic House leadership taking Omar to task for using “anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters.” Whereupon Omar tweeted as straight-up an apology as you’re likely to see in public life these days:

Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. That is why I unequivocally apologize.

At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.

It wasn’t a perfect apology. Omar said she was sorry for causing offense, not for getting her facts wrong. (AIPAC is not a political action committee that contributes money to candidates.)

Moreover, her understanding of lobbying is, shall we say, a bit unsophisticated. What about CAIR, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, NARAL, and the ACLU? There are lobbyists on all sides in American politics, and politicians wouldn’t know what to do without them.

Still, you’re not mincing words when you “unequivocally apologize.” After the New York Times reported Rep. Steve King saying, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?,” the Iowa Republican’s response was, “I regret the heartburn that has poured forth upon this Congress and this country and especially in my state and in my congressional district.” Compare and contrast.

Unsurprisingly, President Trump was unprepared to let Omar off the hook. “I think she should be ashamed of herself,” he told reporters on Air Force One on his way to El Paso Monday evening. “I think it was a terrible statement, and I don’t think her apology was adequate.” Then, on Tuesday, he doubled down, calling on her to resign from Congress “or she should certainly resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

That’s pretty rich, coming from the guy who gave aid and comfort (“good people on both sides”) to the alt-rightists who in 2017 marched through Charlottesville chanting, “The Jews will not replace us.”

But that was then. Now, Trump and his reelection handlers have decided to use the anti-Israel sentiments of a handful of congressional Democrats to drive a wedge between Jews and the party that has overwhelming held their allegiance for more than a century.

Thus, in his State of the Union address, Trump not only celebrated his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but managed to devote more words to denouncing anti-Semitism than he did to his “major” priorities of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and improving its health care system combined.

Will it work? Color me skeptical.

It’s not just that, in 2016, Jews favored Clinton over Trump 71 percent to 23 percent, and that, according to the latest polling, 72 percent of them strongly disapprove (and another seven percent somewhat disapprove) of the job Trump is doing as president. If history has taught us anything, it’s that when Christians are on the march, Jews run in the opposite direction. Or to put it another way, Trump’s pandering to white evangelicals is more repellant than his pandering to us is attractive.

That will be the case as long as Democratic leaders continue to draw lines in the sand when it comes to anti-Semitism. And as long as Ilhan Omar et al. show themselves willing to learn.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Christ was the biggest anti-Shem there ever was. Why isn’t anyone getting all loud and obnoxious over Christ?

  • I suspect the only thing she’s learning is what every politician who stays around long enough learns. CYA.

  • Here we go with round three of this ridiculous story with no substance whatsoever. So, for the third time:

    Omar was not criticizing the Jewish people – she was criticizing a lobbying organization that lobbies on behalf of the right-wing government of Israel, led by a man, Benjamin Netanyahu, who stood before a joint session of Congress and attacked an American president, President Obama, running for re-election and who plays an outsize role in controlling our own government’s actions in the Middle East.

    For the third time, it is NOT antisemitic to criticize a lobbying organization. This whole thing reeks of the same manufactured outrage that accompanied Hillary Clinton’s emails that was curiously absent in the entire media when it was discovered that Trump and Trump’s children used unsecured emails for governmental business. The double standard is astounding, though at this point hardly surprising, given the sheer intellectual laziness of today’s media, including this outlet.

  • Thanks for a thoughtful article. I think that she is naive to say the least and hasn’t quite adjusted to being on the “big stage”. I think she will learn IF that is people take the time to teach her rather than just condemning and attacking her.

  • Ok, so let me get this straight….
    We have a Muslim congresswoman who is only now “learning” that it is inappropriate to make anti-Semitic statements?!
    Gosh, didn’t she learn that growing up in small-town MN?
    The fact is she got called out for her rhetoric.
    If she wanted to address the lobbying issue prevalent in DC; she could have referred to McCain-Fiengold; or lobbying in general.
    I see that she has no issues receiving benji’s from CAIR or the other pacts that supported her; she only has issues with conservative leaning PAC’s.
    Now it seems the left is all about learning and forgiveness…
    How far they’ve come from scorching Kavanaugh.

  • Hey, don’t forget Reps. Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez! The school bus is gonna pick THEM up too!! Those two need plenty of good Lar’nins !!

  • So let me get this straight. Omar said publicly some anti-Semitic comments. Comments that were bigoted, ethnically disparaging, as well as discriminatory in her intents. Then we have a comment Trump made about there being good on both the left and right that was interpreted as being supportive of alt-rightists. Now we are to forgive and forget Omar’s comments, rather than observe that her biases are what brought about her comment. It becomes so nauseating to consistently observe how forgiving the left is of their own deplorables while sicking the SJW dogs on any conservative up to and including the President. Can the left not smell their own stink?

    Now I am not hoping that Omar resigns, even though she belongs to the alt-left fringe. However, she should not be on any committee that has anything to do with cultural, ethical, issues since it has been shown by her own attitudes and beliefs that she is biased. As we know as well those attitudes and beliefs are not something that changes over night either. In fact, the only lesson she may have learned is to not state her prejudices publicly. Now we have to wonder what she will be doing behind the scenes.

  • I beg to differ, E. Someone could make an argument that there’s nothing racist about a white person putting on blackface. As in: “It’s simply a way of expressing admiration for black people.” You have to know the vaudeville context, and be aware that this was a way that white entertainers denigrated African Americans. Mutatis mutandis, an awareness of the the history of anti-Semitism is necessary to understand why Omar’s tweet elicited the reaction it did, and why the reaction was legitimate.

  • Dear Representative Omar,

    We come to save you from added embarrassment with some reality:

    Islam was founded by a warmongering, misogynist, ex-spice, literate trader named Mohammed who started his life of
    horror by conquering spice trading cities in an attempt to control the flow of spices such as frankincense, and myrrh, two spices used routinely in those times to mask body and building odors. And today we have the stench of Islam
    covering the globe. Irony?

    He and his scribes eventually converted his crusade into a religion to keep his subjects bound to himself and a
    mythical god, Allah with his mythical angel Gabriel being the earthly connection. The absurdity of it all boggles the mind!!!

    And the other religions? They also suffer from mythical foundations embellished by scribes trained in the art.

  • Your comments ring hollow if you’re going to defend Trump, who has made many racist, biased declarations without a whiff of apology.

  • Well put, and how quickly we forget the vile anti-Muslim rhetoric helped upon Omar on a regular basis.

  • Why did you kill him then? If Christ was pro-kyke then why did you kill him? I know the answer kyke and I know the truth. There will be no refutation from you on this point only your meaningless kyke insults. Go to hell.

  • Just as i thought no answer. Why do you hate Christ kyke? Was Christ anti-Shem for refusing to fulfill Jew expectations? Was Christ anti-Shem for refusing to enslave human kind? Was he kyke?

  • Also, just wondering why gays and women on the board call people dear, honey and sweetie to antagonize.
    Please explain.

  • I believe you used the word dear at some point; so I was just asking.
    I don’t use the terms. Just curious why you do.

  • i agree with you. I would like to add that nobody should accept funds from any person or group that’s aim is the support of another country. Crying antisemitism when a non-Jewish person rightly calls out a Jewish organization only creates real antisemitism and is an insult to all.