In a recent interview with Yahoo News, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) revealed both an astonishing ignorance about American foreign policy and renewed questions about her anti-Semitism, which at this point appears increasingly probable. Yahoo asked Omar, “How can America work productively towards a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians?”
Omar responded, “By having an equal approach to both. Most of the things that have always been aggravating to me is that we have had a policy that makes one superior to the other and we mask it with a conversation that’s about justice and a two-state solution when you have policies that clearly prioritize one over the other.”
When asked to provide examples of such policies, Omar responded, “Our relationship really, with the Israeli government and the Israeli state. And so when I see Israel institute, um, law that recognizes it as a Jewish state and does not recognize, um, 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, you know, we see that in any other society we would criticize it, or any other place that sort of upholds its religion. And I see that now happening with Saudi Arabia. And so I am aggravated truly in those contradictions.”
Omar’s answer was predictably starved of reason and facts. Shrouded as a mere critique of Israel, the primary thrust of Omar’s response was that the country’s existence as both a Jewish state and a democracy is problematic, if not impossible; that the U.S.-Israeli alliance harms relations between Muslims and the United States; and that the state of Israel is comparable to Iran, the world’s largest state-sponsor of terror.
It would be easy and perhaps forgiving task to chalk such commentary up to simple ignorance. However, given Omar’s past comments regarding the Jewish state, to dismiss her most recent insights as merely uninformed gibberish would evince a repeated failure to condemn what can only be anti-Semitism.
Ilhan Omar’s History of Anti-Semitic Statements
One of Omar’s most controversial statements on Israel was in November 2012, where she tweeted that, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel.”
Omar’s tweet was in response to Operation Pillar of Defense, a military operation in Gaza conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces against the Islamist terror group Hamas. Israel’s incursion into the Hamas-controlled region was in response to Hamas firing more than 100 rockets into Israel in one day.
Instead of acknowledging the confrontation as an Israeli response to Hamas aggression, Omar’s critique relied on the old anti-Semitic trope, popular in both Nazi and Islamist imagery, of powerful Jews controlling the thoughts and behavior of non-Jews in order to advance their interests. Bari Weiss of The New York Times underscored precisely why Omar’s 2012 comments were not simply a critique of Israeli foreign policy, but an evocation of centuries of anti-Semitic rhetoric, which portrayed the Jew as the “hypnotic conspirator, the duplicitous manipulator, the sinister puppeteer.”
As Weiss notes, criticism of what Israel or its government does can be reasonable, and any discussion of foreign policy demands nuance. But accusing the only Jewish state in the world of having hypnotic powers is no such example.
Israel Is Far More Democratic Than Its Muslim Neighbors
Against this backdrop, Omar’s recent commentary with Yahoo News seems particularly sinister. Omar cloaks her criticism of Israel under the guise that it cannot be a Jewish state and a democracy. Omar’s argument contains two flawed premises: (1) that a democracy is impossible in a country with a state religion and (2) that American criticism towards Iran is based on Iran’s fusion of religion and state.
If the feasibility of a religious democracy is in question, then we can start with challenging contemporary Western democracies that do boast a state religion in their constitutions, including Denmark, Greece, and, up until 2012, Norway. I would be hard-pressed to locate an individual who would question the democratic identity of any of these three countries. Yet for Omar, Israel’s identity as Jewish and democratic is somehow spurious and inconceivable.
To suggest that Israel is not a democracy is entirely laughable, from both an absolute standpoint and a relative standpoint when compared to the policies of her neighbors. Israel is the only country in the Middle East in which women enjoy equal rights to men. As of the close of 2017, more than 50 percent of Israel’s judges were female and more than a quarter of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, was comprised of women.
Coexistence between Israel’s Jewish majority and Arab minority is far from seamless, as discrimination and income inequality between the two groups remain persistent problems. However, the single legal distinction between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens is that Israel’s Arab citizens are not required to serve in the Israeli military, although Israeli Arabs can and often do so.
As in any healthy democracy, Israeli citizens over the age of 18 may vote. Arabs living in East Jerusalem may apply for Israeli citizenship, although in recent years it was seen as taboo to do so among the Arab community. The process of naturalization can take up to four years, a bureaucratic lag that rightfully has drawn ire within Israel’s political community, even within Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party. However, as many in the United States can attest, an imperfect immigration system does not preclude democracy.
Thus, Omar’s issue with Israel’s identity as a Jewish state could only be characterized as, at best, a gross fixation. Israel is the only country of the 17 in the Middle East that is not majority-Muslim. Of Israel’s nearly 9 million residents, a little more than 6 million are Jewish.
The vast majority of the countries neighboring Israel identify Islam as their official religion, and several have declared Islam their state religion. But the self-determination of the region’s one Jewish and one truly democratic state is what “aggravates” Omar. I can take a guess as to why.
Terrorism Is the Problem, Not Muslims’ Existence
Omar’s second premise is another of her now-familiar accusations of Islamophobia with improved window-dressing. She claims that Americans reject religious statehood in places like Iran, but not Israel, because of an irrational, evil bias against Muslims.
She’s wrong. We don’t oppose Iran because it is—or, more accurately claims to be—an Islamic republic. We criticize Iran because Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. We criticize Iran because it invades and establishes terrorist pseudo-governments like Hezbollah in the territory of its neighbors, controlling much of Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq.
We criticize Iran because it is homicidally sectarian, sending actual death squads to slaughter Sunnis in Syria. We criticize Iran because the government sanctions the execution of homosexuals, apostates, alleged adulterers, and any other people it deems “undesirables” in horrific ways.
We criticize Iran because of its desire to make women forms of property. Among the regime’s many restrictions, women cannot leave the country without permission from their husbands, and a strict dress code ensures a perpetual reminder of subjugation.
There are tens of reasons why Americans criticize Iran, but its status as an Islamic republic is not one of them. However, Omar’s reasons for criticizing Israel do in fact stem from animus against a people and religion—and such bigotry has no place in Congress.