Seven days on from the controversy over an American-Muslim congresswoman’s alleged anti-Semitism, the only uncontroversial truth is as follows: The issue has not gone away; we will be revisiting it. Again. And again. And again.
This, because the recent election to Congress of two outspoken Muslim women is bound to bring new attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. With new attention will come new, trenchant criticism of Israel, at least for as long as its political actions are oppressive towards Palestinians.
Most of that criticism will be deemed anti-Semitic. On occasion, that charge will be justified. Any time the actions of the Israeli state are criticised using stereotypes about people of the Jewish faith — greedy hook-nosed Shylocks who engage in usury and occult practices — the accusation of anti-Semitism becomes real and attention is deflected from the reason Israel deserves to be criticised.
This is the trap newly elected US Representative Ilhan Omar fell into February 10 when she tweeted about the power of “Benjamins” to influence American politicians in favour of Israel. The “Benjamins” reference was to $100 bills, which feature Benjamin Franklin.
When asked who was flashing “Benjamins” around, Omar named “AIPAC,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobby group.
In the storm of protest that followed, Omar apologised, acknowledging that “anti-Semitism is real” and expressing gratitude for instruction from Jewish allies and colleagues “on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”
She also reiterated her opposition to the “problematic role of lobbyists” in American politics, even-handedly and smartly spreading the criticism to include AIPAC, the National Rifle Association and those who advance the fossil fuel industry. This was a less incendiary characterisation of the issue of lobbyists’ power in the United States and some of the heat was taken out of that particular debate.
There will be other rows and they will assuredly focus on Israeli impunity and the reluctance of powerful American politicians to confront it. Omar’s fellow Muslim congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib, is of Palestinian ethnicity and argues passionately for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.
That the plight of the Palestinians will feature in the 116th US Congress and much more than it has in a while is a given. The challenge will be for Omar and Tlaib to make the point without allowing their criticism to be cast as hostility to Jews as a community.
The controversy over Omar’s alleged anti-Semitism raises very real issues about the political role available to people who belong to minority groups and especially those, such as Omar and Tlaib, who emerge from relatively new immigrant communities in the United States.
They have a special responsibility as Muslim politicians who serve a diverse constituency and must represent the values of the American melting pot. Not only must they call out Islamophobia but they must be mindful of anti-Semitism as well. Anything less reflects — badly — on the American Muslim community.
While this may seem unfair, every new minority group in the political sphere has faced additional scrutiny. When John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960, his campaign was almost crushed by the canard that America’s first Roman Catholic president would be in thrall to the pope.
Larry Tye, who studied the Kennedy family for his 2016 book about Kennedy’s brother Bobby, described the “bigotry” as follows: It “was expressed in the sort of catchword of, ‘If a Catholic were in the White House, would that mean the pope would be calling the shots on what went on in the White House?’ Would the president somehow be more loyal to the Vatican than he was to the American people?”
On the campaign trail, Kennedy took careful note of the suspicion. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he told church ministers in Houston. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters and the church does not speak for me.”
As president, Kennedy kept his distance from the church hierarchy while continuing to practise his faith.
This is a good template for American-Muslim politicians. Their challenge is to highlight human rights concerns, such as the Palestinians’, as a universal issue rather than specific to the Muslim faith. It is hard to do when Israel defends itself by casting all criticism as hostility to the worldwide Jewish community. It routinely evokes the horror of the Holocaust as a reminder of the effects of anti-Semitism.
All the more reason to be careful not to use words and images that serve Israel’s purpose.