In a weird, perverse way, I’m almost glad an anti-Semitism controversy regarding Rep. Ilhan Omar is afoot. It’s about time. As we’re stranded in the hallucinatory nightmare of “the new normal,” it’s almost like a postcard from a different, simpler reality, reminding us that some things will never change and we’ll eventually return to normal.
This time, the controversy involves a mailer aimed at the Minnesota Democrat’s primary opponent, Antone Melton-Meaux.
While Omar maintains a large — likely unsurmountable — lead in the four-way primary race, Melton-Meaux has attracted a surprising amount of money and attention by painting Omar as too divisive to represent her district or affect real change.
According to BuzzFeed News, the lawyer has attracted a number of high-profile endorsements from community leaders and civil rights groups, particularly Jewish leaders unhappy with her opponent’s tendency toward anti-Semitic dog-whistles. (Or, really, sometimes just whistles.)
So naturally, Omar did what any politician who needed to patch up her reputation would do: She sent out a mailer titled “Can We Trust Antone Melton-Meaux’s Money?” which attacked the sources of her opponent’s campaign donations — and listed only Jewish donors.
“The only names cited in the mailer are Stanley Weinstein, a retired real estate executive from Miami Beach who was the only on-record BuzzFeed quote; billionaire Jonathan Gray, the head of Blackstone Group private equity firm; and Seth Klarman, a billionaire hedge fund owner who has donated in the past to the GOP,” Vice reported.
All three, of course, are Jewish.
Lest you think this is an error, a fourth donor is identified, if not fully named, in the mailer: “Michael, a donor from Scarsdale, New York.” For those of you who don’t get the subtext, Scarsdale is a New York City suburb that is a) very wealthy and b) very Jewish.
Is Ilhan Omar an anti-Semite?
“My immediate thought when I saw the mailer was ‘Here we go again.’ This had both implicit and explicit anti-Semitic tropes,” Rabbi Avi Olitzky of Minneapolis’ Beth El Synagogue told Vice.
“Most disappointing were the presence of tropes that we’d personally discussed as hurtful, as offensive, and that I received a commitment not only would it not happen again but education would take place to learn more as to why it’s a problem,” he said.
“I am beyond dismayed that especially in the heat of the primary season, such nuanced hate still rises to campaign literature.”
Olitzky had discussed with Omar why her comments regarding elements of the Jewish community were harmful stereotypes, so either she didn’t learn or she learned all too well. The rabbi publicly endorsed Melton-Meaux on Wednesday.
While he also supported another candidate in the 2018 Democratic primary, Olitzky was one of Omar’s most prominent defenders in Minneapolis’ Jewish community during the controversy over a “send her home” chant during a Donald Trump rally in July of last year and criticized Israel for denying her (and fellow “squad” member Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan) visas to visit the country in August 2019.
Some Jewish members of Omar’s progressive activist base pushed back on the characterization of the mailer as anti-Semitic.
“Ilhan’s opponents have sought to paint her as anti-Semitic at every turn, even before she was elected to Congress,” progressive activist Evan Stern told Vice.
“This is just the latest step in that, where the campaign is just speaking truthfully and honestly about opposition to its agenda and the counter-movement against progressive change in this country.”
However, another anonymous Jewish progressive in Omar’s district expressed exasperation that something like this would happen again.
“It was sloppy work that staff allowed this to go out without any type of critical review,” the person said. “I don’t know if it’s intentional. But it’s like, ‘Hey you guys, you need to be double extra careful about this; there’s a magnifying glass on this issue.'”
If all of the sloppiness tends toward one side of the ledger, however, it’s not sloppiness.
Let’s give you a quick rundown of Omar’s history of “sloppy” remarks and actions regarding the Jewish people.
In 2012, before her time in Congress, she tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” This was during an Israeli operation in Gaza, but you still had the stereotype of the ability of Jewish people to “hypnotize” others.
“Those unfortunate words were the only words I could think about expressing at that moment,” she told CNN.
All right, so this was before she was elected and it was just one instance. Interestingly enough, when criticizing the pro-Israel lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the only song she could think about was “all about the Benjamins baby,” which she said in a tweet, again perpetuating the stereotype that Jewish leaders pull the strings behind the scenes with money.
Well, OK, two examples of sloppiness that looked like bigotry. Could happen to anyone. So could Omar’s decision to retweet a Jewish journalist who said, in the wake of the AIPAC tweet, that “[s]he might as well call us hook-nosed.”
And perhaps that sloppiness could extend to accusing Jewish-Americans of dual loyalties. And all of this sloppiness just so happened to be made by America’s most prominent supporter of the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel, a movement even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called anti-Semitic.
It’s all just a big misunderstanding. None of this is anti-Semitic. Just like this time.
“Our campaign is supported by a grassroots coalition of people of all faiths, background and ethnicities,” Omar spokesman Isaiah Breen told Vice. “Rightwing donors are going on the record explicitly declaring their hate for Ilhan and desire to unseat her, using overtly xenophobic language. But we will continue to build an inclusive movement fighting for an America where everyone has their basic rights protected.”
Her campaign declined to say whether Omar had approved the mailing or whether she knew only Jewish names had been used.
Now, granted, there’s more of a chance that this is just an accident than, say, accusing Jewish-Americans of dual loyalties.
What are the odds, though, that you throw three Jewish donors and “Michael, a donor from Scarsdale, New York” into a mailer?
It likely wasn’t Omar who came up with this, but she’s certainly created an environment in which someone put this together and no one bothered giving it a second look-see.
Here we go again, indeed.