By Beth Kieffer Leonard
Minnesotans are no strangers to political trailblazing, however, we are also known for honesty and kindness.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is certainly a trailblazer, yet her recent anti-Semitic tweets and statements are deeply offensive. They have caused consternation among Minnesota voters, including myself, not just for their insensitivity, but because they further call into question whether she is listening to her constituents.
When the then-Minnesota state representative began her bid for Congress, many in the Jewish community were concerned. As far back as 2012, she had characterized Israel as an “apartheid state” and tweeted that “Israel has hypnotized the world.” The Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), an organization with which I am affiliated, condemned Omar’s statements in August, stating “JDCA will not support her candidacy — and certainly will not endorse her — because her views are not aligned with our positions and values.”
As Omar’s campaign progressed, and as the public criticism of her views on Israel intensified, Omar tweeted “I support a two-state solution. The Jewish people have a right to safety and Palestinians have a right to their homes.” She did not retract or explain any of her previous statements, but this seemed to be a step in the right direction.
Later in the election, during a forum held at a local synagogue, Omar was asked about Israel and about whether she supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Omar responded that BDS “stops the dialogue” and is “counteractive” to achieving a two-state solution, implying that she opposed BDS.
It was only after she won her election in November that Omar’s campaign publicly stated, “Ilhan believes in and supports the BDS movement.”
Many Minnesotans rightfully felt deceived by a candidate making judgment calls based on political expedience and not principle. Some believe she lied about her position on BDS in order to get elected.
In January, Omar finally apologized for her 2012 tweet, only to follow it with another set of anti-Semitic tweets in February resurrecting the centuries-old anti-Semitic canard that Jewish money controls American foreign policy.
The apology she then issued, after pressure from Democratic House leadership and dozens of individual House Democrats, seemed insincere. The first half was an apology and the second half equated pro-Israel lobbying with the NRA and fossil fuel industry. The first tweet she posted after her apology was a retweet of someone defending her original allegation regarding the so-called influence of Jewish money in politics.
Just last week, at a public speaking event, Omar accused the pro-Israel community of allegiance to a foreign country, evoking yet another classic anti-Semitic trope — that of dual loyalty to both the United States and Israel. She also claimed that Jewish lawmakers were targeting her because she was Muslim and critical of Israel when, in fact, as JDCA pointed out, her anti-Semitic comments would have been condemned if made by any member of Congress, regardless of party or background.
To be clear, criticism of Israeli government policy is not inherently anti-Semitic. JDCA itself, for example, has criticized Israel’s nation-state law and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance with an extremist Israeli political party because both were out of step with our Democratic values. When criticism of Israel invokes anti-Semitic references or generalizes negative stereotypes about the Jewish people as a whole however, it crosses the line.
Those who know the history of Minnesota know that it was rife with anti-Semitism not so long ago. We were once strangers ourselves, which is why the Jewish community has welcomed and provided support for so many refugee groups, including our large Somali population. Yet somehow, that seems to make Omar’s words hurt more. She does not seem to understand the pain her words have caused in the Jewish community and among her Jewish constituents.
Omar has only just begun her career, and she has already lost credibility with Minnesotans, her colleagues in Congress, and other political leaders. Her apologies ring hollow because she continues to use anti-Semitic rhetoric. If this conduct continues, allowing her to continue to “learn on the job” will become untenable.
For this reason, we support efforts by Democratic leaders to pass a resolution responding to Omar’s remarks and condemning anti-Semitism, ensuring she receives the message that her words have consequences.
We must exhaust every possibility in pursuit of understanding. Now, however, it is incumbent on Omar to immediately stop with the hurtful language targeting the Jewish community. We would not allow such stereotypes to be used against any religious minority, and must continue to stand up against hatred and bigotry in all forms, including anti-Semitism.
Beth Kieffer Leonard is the treasurer and a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA).