Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

What my father would have said about 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)

(RNS) — This week, I have been sitting shiva for my father, George Salkin.

Several people approached me and asked: “Was your father ‘religious’?”

No — certainly not in any ritual sense.

My father’s Judaism was all about memory — historical memory.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I marched against the Viet Nam war, my father would caution me. True — he was also anti-war, even as much as he disliked the aesthetics of the movement.

But, on several occasions, he would say to me: “Be careful. Your radical friends might turn against Israel, and against the Jews.”

I laughed him off.

I shouldn’t have.

Dad — I am sorry.

You were right.

  • You were right, because it happened in Russia in the late nineteenth century.
  • You were right, because it happened after the Russian Revolution.
  • You were right, because it happened in the days of the New Left.

You are right, because, well, Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Several weeks ago, Rep. Omar criticized Israel and AIPAC. She said that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has paid politicians to be pro-Israel.

“It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she tweeted. As in hundred dollar bills.

Omar accused the Jews of buying support for Israel — and worse, of controlling Congress with their money.

It wasn’t the first time that she expressed her concerns about Israel in problematic tones. In 2012, she commented that “Israel has hypnotized the world.”

Now, most recently, she has said that pro-Israel activists were pushing “for allegiance to a foreign country” — a reprise of the ancient antisemitic trope of “dual loyalty.”

My father, of blessed memory, had a simple and even simplistic world view.

“Fool me once,” he would say, “shame on you. Fool me twice — shame on me.” Rep. Omar has apologized for her earlier remarks. But, she keeps making them. Apology not accepted.

You would say to my father: “There has been far too much attention to Rep. Omar’s statements. It is coming off as racist and Islamophobic.”

My father would have responded: “Hatred is hatred, and it doesn’t matter who says it.”

You would say to my father: “Well, what about all the Islamophobia that has targeted her?”

My father would have responded: “That anti-Muslim stuff is a pile of crap. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

My father would have understood that you have to criticize Omar’s antisemitic themes, and you have to simultaneously criticize the anti-Muslim themes that have come to the fore.

You would say to my father: “Well, you see, implying that Jews have dual loyalty isn’t really antisemitic. You have to understand the perspective, and the context, and the nuances, and maybe there is some truth in it anyway. After all, AIPAC…”

My father would have responded: “Where the ______ would you have found that idea? I don’t get it. You use anti-black stereotypes; that’s bigotry. You use anti-gay slurs; that’s bigotry. You use any kind of bigoted ideas; you’re talking bigotry.

There are many things that my father understood very well.

But, there are several things my father would never have understood

  • He would never have understood how it is possible for Jews, and some of their leaders, to bend themselves into moral pretzels in order to stand with Rep. Omar.
  • He would never have understood how it is possible for his beloved Democratic party to fail to utterly reject this infestation.
  • He would never have understood how contemporary Anglophilia would manifest itself in Corbyn envy.

And, please — this has nothing to do with criticizing Israel, or its policies.

  • If you dislike the reality of Israel, that makes you neither anti-Israel nor antisemitic.

In fact, it could mean that you are Jewish. There are many aspects of contemporary Israeli life and policy — the lived reality of the Jewish state — that make me uncomfortable, and even crazy.

  • But, if you dislike the idea of Israel — if you believe that its creation was a mistake, some kind of primordial historical original sin; if you believe that Israel should not exist; if you believe that the world should dismantle Israel and send millions of Jews back into exile…
  • If you believe that the only country in the world that does not deserve to exist, the only country in the world whose flaws must condemn it both to perdition and the scrap heap of history, also happens to be the only Jewish state in the world…
  • If you derive a certain glee, a kind of intellectual sugar high from criticizing Israel, in a way that other countries fail to give you…

Yes, you are probably anti-Israel. At the very least, you are trafficking in antisemitic ideas and themes.

If that is true, then, please — do us all a favor.

Have the decency, the moral elegance, and frankly, the good taste not to tell the Jews what is or isn’t antisemitic.

As with others who suffer from dementia, towards the end, my father’s short term memory was shot.

But, his long-term memory — a memory that stretched back into history, even long before he was born — was intact.

Those who defend Rep. Omar are like a ten-year-old Macbook.

They need more memory.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

ADVERTISEMENTs