Antisemitism in the US Congress
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Feb. 7, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Files)

There is a lot of talk these days about white privilege, and it is true that white Americans do enjoy many advantages. However, some of the people who are most vocal in making accusations of this type have created a new type of privilege for minorities that is used to shield them from criticism of their own prejudices. We see this often in the willingness of liberals to give a pass to — or, worse, to endorse — antisemitic views.

I can understand and agree with the outrage expressed towards the governor of Virginia for his insensitivity and tone-deafness when confronted with his inappropriate behavior of wearing blackface. What we should not abide is the silence of Democrats to antisemites in their midst, just as we should not abide Republicans who might turn a blind eye to white supremacists.

Consider Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Both are advocates of the antisemitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Like some BDS proponents, they portray it as a human rights campaign, but they have been told by their Jewish constituents, among others, that the goal is the destruction of Israel. This is why 134 international Jewish organizations from across the political and religious spectrums signed a statement opposing BDS.

Omar and Tlaib's support for BDS alone should merit censure, but both have also made incendiary remarks that cannot be excused as "legitimate criticism of Israel." Omar has repeated the slur comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa and, in 2012, tweeted: "Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel." As New York Times columnist Bari Weiss noted, "The conspiracy theory of the Jews as the hypnotic conspirator, the duplicitous manipulator, the sinister puppeteer is one with ancient roots and a bloody history."

On her first day in office, Tlaib displayed a map with a note posted over Israel that reads "Palestine." She also expressed the popular antisemitic canard that Jews have dual loyalty, and care more about Israel than the United States. Referring to supporters of anti-boycott legislation, she said, "They forgot what country they represent."

Both women are shockingly ignorant when they talk about Israel. Omar, for example, said, "When I see Israel institute a law that recognizes it as a Jewish state and does not recognize the other religions that are living in it, and we still uphold it as a democracy in the Middle East, I almost chuckle, because I know that if we see that in any other society we would criticize it, we would call it out."

Israel is the only country in the Middle East that guarantees freedom of religion. Omar supports Palestinian rights but does not seem to care that the leaders of the Palestinian Authority deny their people not only religious freedom, but freedom of speech, press, and assembly. It bothers her that Israel is the one Jewish state in the world, but does not "call out" nations where Islam is the state religion.

As Weiss rightly observed, "those who call themselves anti-Zionists usually insist they are not antisemites. But I struggle to see what else to call an ideology that seeks to eradicate only one state in the world — the one that happens to be the Jewish one — while emphatically insisting on the rights of self-determination for every other minority."

As in the case of Virginia's governor, a bipartisan uproar was heard when another white male, Steve King, made outrageously bigoted remarks. The entire House censured him, and the Republicans went further by stripping him of his committee assignments. Contrast that with the silence of most Democrats following the antisemitic statements by Omar and Tlaib. It took Omar writing that Jews and AIPAC buy politicians before we heard any strong condemnation of her words.

Democrats also took an additional step — they gave both women assignments on key committees and have yet to rescind them.

House Democratic Caucus chairman Hakeem Jeffries said, "I've found those two new freshmen members to be thoughtful colleagues on a wide variety of issues." House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, "I don't accept the premise" that the members are antisemitic.

It was disconcerting for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to put Omar on the Foreign Affairs Committee, where she will now have a platform to attack Israel whenever Middle East policy is discussed. Omar and Tlaib are both out of step with the bipartisan consensus on the importance of the US-Israel relationship, and it boggles the mind that Omar would be put in a position to undermine it.

Democratic friends of Israel try to make us feel better by saying that the women are just two members out of the entire Congress when discussing their support of boycotting Israel. I agree. But consider what Republican Representative Lee Zeldin tweeted: "Instead of the Dems supporting Israel & combatting BDS & anti-Semitism on college campuses & elsewhere, they're now empowering it."

Being a minority does not excuse inappropriate behavior, whether it be racist, homophobic, sexist, or antisemitic. We have seen this double standard repeatedly on college campuses, where there is no such thing as free speech when it comes to criticism of minorities; any speech or behavior that the minorities consider inappropriate is dealt with severely. When Jews, or Israel as a euphemism for Jews, are criticized, however, administrations defend the free speech rights of the antisemites.

The tacit acceptance of the views of Omar and Tlaib are indicative of a growing normalization of antisemitism. Today, critics of Israel increasingly feel impunity. They assert freedom of speech "for me but not for thee," and accuse those who challenge them of McCarthyism. Public figures not only refuse to denounce the rabid antisemitism of Louis Farrakhan, but they meet with him and court his favor.

I don't know if it is just base politics or this new minority privilege that has prevented the critics of Virginia's governor and Congressman King from being equally vocal in denouncing the statements of Omar and Tlaib.

Politically, they are popular because they are young, outspoken, and represent the far left segment of the Democratic Party. There is also concern that criticizing them would be seen as being anti-Muslim when, of course, that is preposterous. As an Orthodox Jew I am thrilled that observant Muslim women are being elected to high government office. It is their hatred of Israel to which I am adamantly opposed.

Pelosi was apparently afraid to answer questions about her decision to put Omar on the Foreign Affairs Committee, or her refusal to take her off it after Omar's AIPAC comment. Congressman Zeldin, a Republican Jewish male, got a taste of what any critics are likely to experience when Omar accused him of "Islamophobia" and said, "Don't mind him, he is just waking up to the reality of having Muslim women as colleagues who know how to stand up to bullies!"

She laid down a marker that anyone who tries to criticize her will immediately be demonized.

Democrats cannot be intimidated and should not hesitate to condemn the statements by Omar and Tlaib. Furthermore, if Omar makes any additional antisemitic remarks, she should be removed from her committee assignments. A good first step would be to adopt the resolution introduced by Zeldin rejecting anti-Israel and antisemitic hatred in the United States and around the world.

Democrats must show courage if they intend to brand themselves in 2020 as the party of tolerance that fights bigotry in all its forms. It would be a tragedy for the party, the Jewish people, and the country if they follow the example of universities and exempt Jew-hatred.

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About the Author

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, 'America's Rabbi,' whom the Washington Post calls 'the most famous rabbi in America,' is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including his most recent, "The Israel Warrior." Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.