Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Rep. Omar touches a third rail

Democrat Ilhan Omar speaks after winning in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District race during the election night event held by the Democratic Party on Nov. 6, 2018, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

(RNS) — This year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “A Night at the Garden,” about a massive pro-Nazi rally that took place in New York’s Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 1939, begins with a German-accented voice intoning, “I pledge undivided allegiance to the flag of the United States of America … ”

Why “undivided”?

No doubt the German-American Bund, which organized the rally at the Garden, wanted to emphasize the loyalty of German immigrants and their descendants, which had been widely called into question during the Great War two decades earlier. But the organizers were at the same time calling into question the loyalty of Jewish Americans, whom the rally was intended to vilify.

The idea that Jews are a malign force who owe no allegiance to anyone or anything but themselves is classic anti-Semitism, and it was channeled by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., last week when she said at a Washington bookstore event, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

No wonder Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which the freshman congresswoman sits, denounced her statement as a “vile anti-Semitic slur.” No wonder House Democrats are scrambling to pass a resolution condemning anti-Semitism.

American history is, unfortunately, rife with accusations of disloyalty on the part of minority groups.

From the 1830s through the presidency of John F. Kennedy, Catholics were regularly slurred as taking orders from the pope. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were interned as a fifth column of the emperor. Red Scares after both world wars made leftists out to be agents of the Soviet Union. And of course, since 9/11 American Muslims have been the object of suspicion as supporters of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group known as ISIS.

There is, in fact, something un-American about the charge of what tends to be called, these days, “dual loyalty.” The United States, like many nations, allows residents to be citizens of another country as well as this one. We must presume that this means it’s OK with us if someone also pledges allegiance to that other country’s flag.

To be sure, there are things you don’t get to do on another country’s behalf. You don’t get to give it top-secret classified information, the way Jonathan Pollard did. If you lobby for its interests, you’ve got to register as a foreign agent, as Paul Manafort didn’t.

This country’s dedication to freedom of thought should allow for a range of alternative allegiances, foreign or domestic — though that proposition has been too often honored in the breach. As Justice Robert Jackson famously put it during World War II in West Virginia v. Barnette, the Supreme Court case that recognized the right of schoolchildren not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

No doubt, this constitutional right can make for ugly conflicts, and one of the ways we minimize that danger is through unwritten rules of conduct. These include not attacking those whose allegiances may differ from one’s own. Omar ignores that rule at peril of her public service.

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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  • Ilhan Omar did not make anti-semetic statements. If anything, she called out evangelicals who rabidly support Israel at the cost of Palestinians and justice.

  • Let’s be honest:
    1) America and Israel are allies. Because democrats hate America; by default they hate Israel.
    2) Omar is an “orthodox” Muslim; by default she hates Jews.
    3) Omar, talib and AOC are the face of the “new” democrat party; socialists, racists and bigots with big mouths who know how to use them.

  • I still say that since we have six million of the Jewish people in the United States out of the sixteen million or so total in the world, then there is some kind of question why another six million now in Israel should not have also been here as well. We have a mistaken notion that, in order to support Jewish people, we must also support the idea of a separate Jewish nation with a Jewish government. That’s not something that particularly follows in logic. I mean, in the USA, we don’t exactly believe in having religions run governments. So that cannot somehow make more sense in the case of Israel.

  • A correction: Japanese Americans were not interred; they were interned. It’s a common, but significant, mistake.

  • ummmmm….. the right of self-determination. Perhaps you’re not familiar with the concept.

  • Why shouldn’t they have the right to govern themselves? One startling reason for their self government is so they can have a place where they no longer have to succumb to hostile people/governments and their warped anti-Semitic views and actions. This is the only place where they are relatively safe from a world that even after the Holocaust can’t seem to stop beating them up.

  • So after all the liberal cries against racism, and bigotry, they elect one themselves. Oh the irony. I hope the Dems sanction her and remove her from the Foreign Affairs committee she currently sits on.

    What no one understands either is that her and AOC, not sure about Talib, is that they are just the mouth pieces for the groups they represent. They are not politicians who want to represent voters, or their states, but have their own agenda they desperately want to get passed into laws. Therefore those states they represent actually do not have representation.

  • “Let’s be honest:”

    What a joke.

    1) Most American Jews are Democrats and the love Israel. Most white supremacists are Republican and they only like right wing Israel

    2) She hasn’t demonstrated that. However every time a conservative mentions “George Soros” they do so with the purpose of antisemitic slurs. “The Jews will not replace us” didn’t come from liberals, it was a chant of right wingers.

    3)Racists and bigots already have their foothold in the Republican Party, hence a president who follows white supremacist policies and uses their talking points. Democrats decry their bigots, Republicans make excuses for them and engage in deflection.

  • Capt Spuddie: set deflector shields to full; phasers to stun…

    All I hear is Omar being a racist, bigot and anti-Semite. Getting censured by her own party and Jews in congress.

    All you talk about is trump, Soros and republicans. Nothing to do with Omar’s behavior or the anti-semitism of the American left.

    Thankfully for Israel; American Christians exist.

  • I am not the one who is lying about Jewish Democrats, Omar, or which party actively recruits bigots. But I can see why such facts are inconvenient to you.

    I find it funny that you are claiming the majority of American Jews do not love Israel. Meanwhile conservatives only seem to support right wing Israelis.

  • Well, the neighbors in Gaza ain’t exactly friendly. Not to mention the lack of support of American Jews and the democrat anti-semites.

  • Oh, Omar is a friend of Israel? Good to know. Talib too?
    Pelosi thinks otherwise.
    Keep defending a bigot and anti-Semite. It’s very becoming.

  • Omar just needs a little time-out, that’s all. ADX Federal Supermax will do nicely. She’ll love it.
    And somebody please email Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Ms. Tlaib, that THEY are next on the list!

  • Republicans are not friends of Israel. They are friends of the Likud. Pretty much needing Israel just to keep the lights on for when their messiah comes.

    Omar hasn’t crossed over into Anti-Semite territory. Not like right wingers who shoot up synagogues, engage in rehashing “Zionist Bankers” conspiracies or claim “Jews will not replace them”.

    ….but she is getting perilously close to it. 🙂

  • I’ve noticed in my reading on conservative news sites a campaign establishing the Republicans as pro-Israel, pro-Judaism and painting the Democrats as anti-Israel and antisemites. They are hammering this into the heads of their viewers and they are using AOC, Omar and Tlaib as nails.

  • Conservatives have always been pro-Israel. Similar democratic beliefs and a check to unfriendly nations.
    Conservatives don’t have to paint the three “ladies” in any light; they are showing themselves for who they are.
    Conservatives have been talking about this double standard for years. Now the American public can see who the real racists and bigots are.

  • If it was really true that Israel is the only safe place to be Jewish, the six million living in the USA would have already left here for there, wouldn’t they? As for “governing themselves”, OF COURSE, as citizens as part of a secular democracy. But a state based on a religion and politically pre-engineered to keep that religion in control? In a place surrounded by neighboring countries which are permanently hostile to Israel’s presence? In a more-or-less permanent state of war for the rest of their lives? A nation looked upon by two billion Christians (from elsewhere) as serving in some supernatural destiny or end times drama which does not particularly coincide with Jews’ own vision of their religious purpose and place in the world? There are just a lot of questions about all this (in my mind anyway).

    Bear in mind that I’m not one who wishes the Jewish people would all go away to some other faraway place—-such as Israel. I’m one who seriously questions if everyone might be safer and happier (and more sensible) if most of the Jewish people in the world were here with us in the USA. If nothing else, it suited me fine that Jewish American voters voted against Trumpism at 71% in 2016. We should have been so lucky to have had several million more with that level of good sense.

  • Are you saying that she called out evangelicals for having allegiance to another country?

  • Evangelicals and those who have an overwhelming fetish for supporting the state of Israel over and against the Palestinians we supposedly also are concerned about, and who the US and Israel assert deserve a nation state.

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  • Israel is the historical home to the Jewish people. It is not like they setup home where they do not have any ties. They have a history and a heritage that they now have.

    Israel is a secular country just as any other country. They are also very diverse religiously as well as ethnically. Since their “neighbours” have been hostile to them since day one based on the fact that they are Jewish having the ability to govern and protect themselves means life and death.

    Just because they are “safe” in the USA does not mean that they should be without a country or that things won’t change.

  • This is the new Democrat party: they hate America, want to flood it with illegals, want to take your car away and turn it socialist; all while they jet around the world and live in their million dollar homes in SF and NYC.

  • Actually, “AOC, Omar and Tlaib” are openly volunteering for that position. They LOVE their anti-Semitism.

  • They aren’t really safe in Israel. Jews are safer in the US (in spite of the antisemitism here)There will be no safety in Israel until the Palestinian people are treated fairly. This is fact.

    It is also a fact that both sides are equally to blame for the mess they are in. We can also blame the rest of the nations for creating the mess with the expulsion of Palestinians in the creation of Israel. BUT that is water under the bridge, over the dam, that shipped sailed long ago.

  • I do understand about the history and claims of heritage attached to a particular piece of land. I do understand that there is plenty of diversity in Israel, conditional however, on not allowing Jewish ideological control to ever be outvoted and conditional on an extreme and permanent atmosphere of militarization which can go hot any minute in parts of the country—-maybe in the whole country. I do understand that the Islam surrounding Israel is a subsequently-cooked-up religion which (IMHO) is a completely-false theology. And—-I get it that there is no chance now that some 60-65% of the world’s Jewish people are going to be happy seeing the USA as their home. But 35-40% are here and not in a bad place or state of affairs, and apparently not leaving here for there. That latter reality is always enough for me to question whether the rest of this contention is really necessary or whether there were other ways for the world to treat Jewish people well and dial down the aura of conflict.

    Then, there is always the profound oddity of fundamental Christians seeing the revival of literal Israel as being for a play-out of end times events which are not the same vision as Judaism has of itself. It’s not insignificant that those fundamental Christians with that differing vision about Israel are going politically crazy everywhere in the world.

  • At first I thought I would have to vote for Bernie because his stand on this issue was the most just and fair. Now that we have Omar, we have a choice. I have long been bothered by the way Palestinians have been treated. To shoot protesters throwing rocks is not my idea of a neighbor which the Old Testament is clear on how they should be treated. Enough is enough. The truth is one of these groups don’t really want to share or give in the form of a two-state solution. You decide which group that is.

  • I get that Rep. Ilhan Omar is looking for words that let her criticize Israeli government and national policy that does not address the needs of the Palestinian people who also live there. And there is plenty of room for criticism of how Palestinians are treated and of the direction of the Israeli government.

    But everytime anyone says anything, it is automatically labeled as anti-semitic, anti-Jewish. I do think that the anti-boycott legislation is a step too far. There is lots of lobbying by different groups to boycott businesses that support, for example, a radio or tv talk show host who goes over some line drawn in the sand by far right or far left groups. Didn’t we try that with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham? And that is perfectly okay. So why can’t those who do not like how Israel is dealing with the Palestinian issue also use that tactic, It isn’t anti-Semitism, it is for a better solution for the non-Jewish Palestinian people.

    Be careful, Mark, of jumping on a bandwagon that does not also see the other side and repeatedly closes off discussion because some relationship of words like “undivided allegiance” to something said long ago by Nazi sympathizers. Be careful of demonizing, making a target of someone who has her own experience of the kind of discrimination you so abhor as the experience of Jewish people. I very much want Israel to exist. I want a home land for Jewish people. BUT, the Palestinian people are also there and need to be respected and some accommodation must be found that lets them form communities and work and live and pray according to their own community standards.

    Next time, instead of attacking the speaker, why not discuss the issue and steps Israel could do or should not do to create/maintain a homeland for those who call themselves “Palestinians?”

  • There is no wall where I crossed and there never wili be. Texans are sstubborn like that!
    Besides, I now hold dual citizenship. I can vote.

  • This is racist – pre-judging someone because of their race or nationality. Additionally, your judgments are incorrect. No one hates by default. The present leader of our government was raised to be unkind. Hatred is taught and learned and has nothing to do with his race or nationality. In fact, I find so many members of his race from the same country, tirelessly trying to give equal rights to all – and they seem to be winning at this time. Of course, using these words you probably hope to hurt the progress America is making from the new insightful, intelligent minds who were not raised or taught to hate these groups – no one is born hating. I have great compassion for haters. They are suffering mentally and most likely physically. ¶ “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.” (Lev. 19:17) I am so proud of our new democrats.

  • Imagine if there were a pro-Iran lobby with as much power and influence as AIPAC, complete with a handy slur to use against anyone who dared criticize any act or aspect of the Iranian government.

  • Racist?!
    Who? Omar?
    Of course she’s racist. I have no idea why. What was she taught in the Somali public school system?
    Let’s not forget Linda sarsour. She’s a regular lover of people of a different color or religion too – isn’t she?

  • Yes. And they’re every bit as powerful and influential as AIPAC, of course. *eyeroll*

  • I agree with that. But some sort of justice for both the Israelis and the Palestinians requires it. Either that or some nation like the U.S. could agree to turn over a state, pick one, to be the new Israel or the new Palestine. A two state solution at least gives the idea that they can both exist. Without some recognition for the Palestinians, can there ever be peace?

  • If Israel annexes the territories they would have a country that no longer has a Jewish majority. They would be pressured to offer citizenship and voting rights. I can’t see Israel, with it’s current Right-wing bend, doing that. With a two-state solution they have a legitimate fear of a Palestinian State that doesn’t believe Israel has a right to exist. But they can’t continue as occupiers. They have made relations worse by doing basically nothing for all these years.

    Flaws in my assessment, anyone?

  • What is it with you conservatives and dispatching folks to prison or hell (yes, I know it’s god’s doing)? 🙂

  • #2
    In the Muslim world Jews are looked upon unfavorably. According to a 2005 Pew survey over 90% disapproval in the Arab world with diminishing rates in Asia and Europe. However, in the US Muslims reported only a 7% unfavorable rating. Is wearing a hijab an accurate indicator of orthodoxy? Maybe but I don’t know for sure.

  • There are conscientious Jews who continue to criticise the Israel’s government treatment of Palestinians. There are also Jews who would rather see the annihilation of Palestinians. Meanwhile you have the American leaders and politicians who support the Jewish extremists and any criticism by some is puny by comparison. Politician Rep Omar speaking out appears jarring to some as criticising Israel’s policy and American support is not kosher in American politics- at least not yet !

  • One scenario is that Israel annexes those areas where they have allowed settlements to be built and leaves the rest to be governed by Palestinians. But the territory that would then be Palestine would be terrible split up, without contiguous borders – that has already been tried and it doesn’t work.

    I think the Israeli settlements are a huge problem in creating even a chance for a 2 state solution. Settlements built on land that was not part of the original land designated by the UN for an Israel state is a big issue. Now maybe the UN needs to redraw the boundary lines of what is Israel and what is not, recognizing the continuous state of war that has existed and that Israel does need to be able to protect itself just as the Palestinians need to be able to protect themselves.

    Another big, big issue is Jerusalem, a city sacred to three great religions. Can the people of Islam trust the people of Israel to protect and give access to those parts of Jerusalem that are sacred to the Islamic traditions? What can the UN do to help assure Muslims that what is sacred to them in Jerusalem will be protected? Should Jerusalem be recognized as the Jewish capital, with all that implies? I think it foments anger to do so and doesn’t help find peace.

    I don’t really know, Jim, what needs to happen. I don’t want to blame only Israel for being the thorn that always pricks the wounds. They didn’t start the warring this time, when Israel was created by UN mandate. But Israel appears to now be the thorn pricker, making new wounds and keeping them festering with continuous jabs. I admit I may be unfair to israel – but what of the right of the Palestinian people to also have a homeland?????

  • Jews by heritage have a far more long standing and valid claim than Muslims. This representative is a racist hateful bigot and should be censured and probably removed from office.WE do not need radicalized Islamic political positions in the United States.

  • Rep Omar have indeed touched some nerve when she questions about the default support for Israel by most American politicians. Maybe she does not know that some issues are taboo in Democratic America. Just ask the Uighurs in China.

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  • Not really. People that want to hang out at home are normally losers without friends.
    I think you should consider one of those Asian robot companions.