Omar Locally: An Incomplete History
Beginning on May 24 with a letter from the Democratic Club of Claremont (DCC) and continuing through July 26, the COURIER published a sequence of seven letters dealing with remarks made by Representative Ilhan Omar.
While the editor of the COURIER is to be thanked for allowing the reading public to follow that extended exchange on a single topic, the fact is that, in the end, no newspaper can devote sufficient space for a thorough discussion of the relevant issues.
As a result, I have written an analysis of the ideas found in those letters, which more completely examines what the various authors have said on the matter. It must be noted that what I say here is pure me – none of the other people involved in these letters has seen much less commented upon what I have to say.
This is not a neutral analysis – I am committed to the support of the view originally taken by the DCC and to an understanding of what I going on in the exchange that is critical of those who could condemn Omar.
OMAR LOCALLY – AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY
1. Letter from the Democratic Club of Claremont, May 24
The point of the letter has not been grasped by its critics. It twice referred to “a witch hunt” and asked Americans to condemn that.
What calling it a witch hunt meant is that what was being said publicly about Omar, by the President and his supporters, was not criticism, perhaps even justified criticism (the letter did not address that issue), but was a much nastier attack. She was being pilloried in such a way by the president that her life and her family were being threatened.
It was the violence of the attack and the inciting that the letter from the DCC was condemning. She was not being defended from criticism but from unwarranted viciousness.
The club also attempted to explain why she was the target of a witch-hunt. The proposed explanation was that that she has characteristics that are already the subject of hatred by the president and his supporters: she is a Muslim, a woman, a woman of color, and immigrant and she is outspoken.
There are three assumptions the letter made. One assumption s that the Presidential attacks were greatly overdone compared with what she had said or implied. There is a gigantic gap between the punishment and the crime (as though she were getting 10 years I state pen for stealing a Fudgsicle), a large disproportion between the kind of criticism she received and what she had said or implied, a gap that could only be explained by that the club cited as explanation.
A second assumption was that there were many more legitimate targets of vigorous attacks concerning anti-Semitism who were not being singled out by the president; that Omar was the person selected meant that there was something about her that directed his attention her way.
The final assumption, only hinted at in the letter, was significant: since her remarks were made in the context of criticizing Israeli policies and their American AIPAC supporters, that context was what made it necessary to viciously go after her. She was exercising her legitimate right to criticize and that was the reason for trying to have her silenced.
The aim of the original letter went missing from all the subsequent letters. The topic was shifted.
2. Letter from Scott and Nicole Grannis, May 31
The Grannises responded to the letter from the DCC but missed the point of the original. They did not notice that what was being criticized as a “witch-hunt” was the great disparity between the violent response to Omar’s remarks and the remarks themselves. Nor did they notice there is something odd about the choice of Omar as the object of the attacks when there are many other worthy objects both more clearly and more certainly expressing anti-Semitic views, all of this done by a President who is not in the slightest known for being an opponent of anti-Semitism.
They claim that club said that she was “unjustly attacked” – which we did not say at all. They focus only upon her remarks, and not at all on the nature of the response to them, implying that she was being justly attacked and offering the explanation that the criticism was due to “her blatant anti-Semitism.”
What they said has had the effect of shifting the discussion from what the DCC was calling attention to, and criticizing, to the issue of whether her remarks were anti-Semitic. The original letter did not raise that issue at all.
However, one of the assumptions mentioned above did bear upon that issue: it was assumed that even if her remarks were anti-Semitic they were mildly so and did not justify the threatening response being made to them.
The Grannis’ letter, on the other hand, rejects that assumption: to them the remarks were “blatantly anti-Semitic.”
The supporters of the DCC’s position strongly reject that claim. For instance, she did not deny the Holocaust or cite with approval the Protocols. Nor did she say anything like ‘Kill Jews.’ Nor did she, much more ordinarily, say something like ‘Jews love money’ or that Jews are racists or that Jews will not replace us… Now such things would be blatant pieces of anti-Semitism. The Grannis’ letter simply goes off the deep end in claiming that what she said was clearly and beyond doubt anti-Semitic.
In fact, following her remarks there was an extensive examination in the media, with both pro and con positions taken, of whether and to what extend those remarks were anti-Semitic.
My best judgment, having read some but no all of that debate is that given the background of anti-Semitic themes down through the ages what she said does fit, though not blatantly, into the anti-Semitic tradition. I personally thought I saw as a consequence of that debate that her ways of putting things were a result of her coming out of a cultural situation in which such ways of expressing ideas was the norm.
But to continue the arguments as to whether her remarks were anti-Semitic is pointless because of what Omar herself has said and done. Called upon to apologize by the leadership of the House (Nancy Pelosi and others) she did apologize, thereby accepting that her remarks should be characterized as anti-Semitic.
Her apology: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies an colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”
Readers should pay attention not just to the fact of the apology and what she says about anti-Semitism, but also to her thanks for her education in what constitutes anti-Semitic remarks. That is, I take it, a sincere claim that it was through ignorance, not intent, that what she said was anti-Semitic. I believe that is confirmation of my guess that she was talking from her cultural background, without realizing what was involved in the expressions she used.
No one who has criticized the DCC’s position by letter to the COURIER, months after Omar offered the above blatant apology, has point out that she did apologize. And the apology requires that she agree that the remarks were offensive.
I would guess that that very important omission is a sign, along with the viciousness of the attacks on her and the ignoring of other people’s blatant anti-Semitism, that there is something else going on about Omar than the remarks in question.
I think that something else begins to come out in a further remark made the Grannis’ letter. They tag on to the (false) claims that her remarks were obviously anti-Semitic “and her support of terrorist Hamas.” Wow – that is something that the cat dragged in. There is nothing in the remarks for which she was criticized and for which she apologized (and about which the DCC was writing) about Hamas.
That additional line is irrelevant and yet very revealing. What it reveals is an animosity toward Omar that goes far beyond the remarks in question. The cause of that animosity is hinted at but not made explicit by the throwaway bit about Hamas. More on that soon.
3. Letter from Carol Oberg, June 28
Oberg’s letter, though it is chiefly interested in thanking the Grannis’ for their letter and so is likely to be dismissed as irrelevant to this review none the less makes two points that need to be noticed.
She thanks the Grannis’ for having “called out…her [Omar’s] blatant anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli comments”.
It is that last clause which is important. Nowhere, at least explicitly, do the Grannis’ call Omar out for “anti-Israel comments.” There is no (direct) mention of Israel at all in the Grannis’ letter.
What Oberg has done is to see what is not openly expressed in the letter (and subsequently through all the criticisms of the DCC letter); namely, that Omar’s chief sin is criticizing Israel. For that is what is behind the otherwise mysterious reference to a defense by Omar of Hamas. O Oberg has put into the open what is so importantly going on here, what is behind the Grannis’ animosity toward her.
Omar is highly critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. That was the context of the remarks, which she admits were anti-Semitic. They were made while she was criticizing American lobbyists, chiefly AIPAC, for producing unblinking US support for Israel. Oberg realized, without its having been explicitly mentioned, that opposition to Israel’s policy vis-à-vis Palestinians is what animates the Grannis’ letter. That theme will become central in my response to the anti-Omar letters in the COURIER.
Note: when Oberg mentions “anti-Israel comments,” that is a very misleading way of putting the matter. To be very specific, what should be said, and what will be meant through this analysis, is that Omar is critical of the policies and actions regarding Palestinians adopted by the Israeli government (or governments) in the name of the state of Israel. To continue to say ‘anti-Israel’ is nothing more than a shorthand for that description.
There is a second reason that Oberg’s letter is important in this sequence. Sam Pedroza signed the initial letter as president of the Democratic Club of Claremont. Oberg ignores that his signature was official and attacks him personally as the author of the contents of the original DCC letter. That personal attack is what inspired the next item in the sequence.
4. Joint letter with 26 signatories, July 12
No one replied to the Grannises letter but the Oberg letter, with its misguided criticism of Sam Pedroza, caused a letter to be written in support of the original DCC letter. That response was not to be done by the club and a number of people not originally involved were asked whether they agree—and a significant number did and their names and titles were added to the letter.
Nothing having been said by way of criticism of the DCC’s point was correct so this new letter ended up supporting the original claim: that the attack on Omar’s remarks and her person far exceeded what was called for by what she had said.
But Omar’s apology was now known and so this new letter added some comments. The anti-Semitic character of her remarks was accepted. However, the letter focused on the key background issue: that a central reason for the attacks by the president and friend is that she is a Muslim woman of color who speaks out in opposition to Israeli policies.
It is so very common in our public discussions about Israel for those who completely support Israeli policies to think that those who criticize those policies must be anti-Semitic. In Omar’s case, what that idea does is to slide from the self-admitted tenor of her remarks to a life-threatening attack on her as a person, to a level of condemnation far beyond what is justified.
That idea, that opposition to Israeli policies can only be due to anti-Semitism, must be thoroughly rejected. It is a fouling of rational discussion of what the US needs to do to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Only if those who think that way, who make the slide from seeing opposition to government policies and practices to seeing anti-Semitism, become clear to themselves that that is not simply a mistake but a morally culpable fault will we be able to think clearly about what US policy must be.
That is the point to be learned from the joint letter.
5. Letter from Leslie Watkins, July 19
This letter is a very minor player in the sequence, but there is one point important to note about it.
It begins with a two-sentence quote purportedly from Nancy Pelosi. The problem is that the first sentence has been pasted in to replace what Pelosi actually did say. The purpose of the doctoring I don’t know.
The second sentence is Pelosi’s call for Omar to apologize for those remarks, which stated this entire burst of letter writing.
What Watkins does not do is give any notice that Omar did, in fact, apologize as Pelosi called for her to do. Nor has any other critic of Omar in this sequence of letters. The public apology is straight-forward—it commits her agreeing that what she did say could and should be taken to be anti-Semitic and it thanks others for showing her what constitutes anti-Semitic expressions.
Remember, what she did is completely ignored by those writing in the COURIER in opposition to her—a blatant failure to deal honestly with the issues.
The remainder of Watkins’ letter goes off into irrelevancy, which was duly noted by Kathryn Dunn in an editorial comment.
6. Letter from Scott and Nicole Grannis, July 19
They write this time in response to the join letter of July 12.
But something new enters the game this time: rather than addressing themselves further to Omar’s actual anti-Semitic remarks, they now try to show that she personally is an anti-Semite.
One can make anti-Semitic remarks without being an anti-Semite, just as one can, say, be late to an appointment without being an unpunctual person or can tell a lie without having the character flaw of being a liar.
Thankfully, however, the Grannises do not argue that she is an anti-Semite on the grounds that she made anti-Semitic remarks. Rather they argue that it is because of her cultural background, a specific Muslim background, that she can be seen to be an anti-Semite.
They quote a fellow Somali woman, Ayan Hirsi Ali, who from her own experience says that anyone raised as they both were acquires anti-
Semitism without further thought simply because it is embedded in their culture.
Pointing out Ali’s claim is an unintended confirmation of what can be learned from Omar’s apology. As I said earlier, study of Omar’s remarks does make it seem as though she was expressing something without putting any individual twist to it, that the anti-Semitism made certain ways of talking completely natural to her. The idea that it is not her talking personally but rather is an outcome of the culture in which she grew up is also implied by her offering thanks to those who have shown her the anti-Semitism embodied in her remarks.
It is quite one thing to have prejudices due to living in a certain prejudiced time and place. We in the United States are all marked by racial prejudices that we have inherited from living in our culture. But that does not make most of us racists. That is a term reserved for those who fully accept and espouse the cultural prejudices, who make those prejudices part of their individuality.
It seems likely that Omar is a cultural anti-Semite but not a personal one. And that means the level of her culpability is lessened considerably and the treatment she deserves is quite different from that deserved by someone like Donald Trump.
There are some other points that must be made in opposition to the Grannis’ letter.
Once again they charge Omar with supporting Hamas as a terrorist organization. Since they present no evidence for that, it is plausible that they are simply inferring support for Hamas from her criticism of Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians. That is, it is likely that they are indulging in a parallel to the ‘Since she is opposed to Israeli policy, she must be anti-Semite’ thesis—only here it is ‘Since she is a critic of Israel’s policies, she must be a supporter of a terrorism.’ Those are both thoughts that must be strongly exposed and rejected.
Secondly, they think that the claim in the joint letter that “she stands against anti-Semitism” is absurd. Once again, the failure to realize she has apologized for her remarks rises up to bite them. What the claim in the joint letter is based on is that apology. So I will quote the relevant parts (again): “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have always been willing to step back and think through criticism.” That does sound as if she is “standing against anti-Semitism.”
One last item: the Grannis’ letter tosses out a remark that Trump is not preaching racism. That is amazingly mistaken. Their thesis is that “hatred, violence and intolerance” are being preached, not by Trump, but by “Antifa, the bastard child of the left.”
They seem to think that Antifa is an organization and one the preaches things. But there is no such organization: there is only a loose set of groups who act locally. From Wikipedia: “Antifa is not an interconnected or unified organization, but rather a movement without a leadership structure comprising multiple autonomous groups and individuals.” There is thus no preaching by Antifa (there should not even a capital letter in the ‘name’).
The Antifa groups do engage in violent protest behavior (that is one of their activities). But are they at all comparable to the right wing, white supremacist groups that Trump appeals to? Not at all. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has said “While some members of Antifa have indeed damaged property and engaged in physical violence, they have not yet been lined to any killings in America, unlike some known hate groups that have not been designated as terrorist organizations” – “White supremacists use even more extreme violence to spread their ideologies of hate, to intimidate ethnic minorities, and undermine democratic norms.” – “Right wing extremists were responsible for 73.3 percent of the more than 45 deaths in the US attributable to violent extremism between 2009 and 2018 according to an ADL report… while left-wing extremists were to blame for 3.2 percent.” [Note: given what was said earlier by the ADL, the Antifa movement is not to blame for the 3.2 percent.]
In short, the Grannis’ letter, like so much of right-wing literature, tries to create a left-wing organization responsible for widespread violence, while evading looking at the right-wing terrorist organizations to which Trump gives voice. (I write this just after Gilroy and El Paso: mass shootings by people with white supremacist ideas who draw sustenance from Trump’s ongoing remarks.)
7. Letter from Marilyn Lubarsky, July 26
Lubarsky lays out a case against Omar, a case which rests not just upon the particular remarks that were the occasion for this series of letters but which collects up other things Omar has said (and about which I will not try to respond here).
Having done that, she draws a conclusion about the “the leaders of the local Democratic club” and others who signed the joint letter. We are to be condemned because we did not condemn Omar but instead spoke up “on her behalf.” To put what we did as “speaking up on her behalf” is very misleading as what we did was to point out the discrepancy between the particular remarks she made and the savage response of the President and others to those remarks. (Lubarsky probably can be counted in that group as she echoes Trump excesses by claiming that Omar’s remarks were “reprehensible and dangerous”.) We neither supported nor condemned what she said—in the letter(s) we were making a different point to which taking sides was irrelevant.
Of course, that explanation will not satisfy Lubarsky since we didn’t condemn Omar, not only then but not later. I believe that Lubarsky shares with the Grannises the idea that Omar’s remarks were obviously and blatantly anti-Semitic. On the contrary, to outsiders, not versed in the sordid history of anti-Semitic thinking, to see that what she said was anti-Semitic required discussion and explanation. Only after that was I, for instance, able to see that her remarks did fall into historical anti-Semitic tropes. By that time, Omar had already rendered the point irrelevant by reaching the same realization that I (and others) had and apologizing.
I’m going to make an assumption here, one that is not as obviously present in Lubarsky’s letter as it was in the Grannis’ letters and which was made explicit in the Oberg letter. That assumption is that lurking in the background is the fact that Omar’s remarks (not just the ones that have been at issue in all these letters but also the ones that Lubarsky introduced) were all uttered in the context of Omar’s criticism of Israeli policies and actions toward the Palestinians and that it is that background matter that leads to the full out attack on Omar over her remarks. Her anti-Semitic remarks are not as important in understanding the furor over them as the fact that they were made in the course of criticizing Israel (well not Israel overall but a specific set of policies and actions.) That assumption on my part plays a role in this discussion soon.
Lubarsky’s conclusion is expressed in the well-known words of Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” By that she means that we, some Democrats, have stood by and watched the triumph of evil. (Worse, we have enabled evil by speaking on its behalf.)
However, it must be pointed out that Burke’s words are a double-edged sword.
Lubarsky’s use of Burke in opposition to what we have (not) done requires that in matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Israel is (undeniably) in the right. Anti-Israeli ideas are evil and good men must side with Israel. Omar does not do that and so she is evil. And we who do not condemn her enable the triumph of evil.
However, suppose you make just the opposite assumption, that the Palestinians are in the right, that Israel is an oppressor. Then it is possible to use Burke’s words to praise Omar who speaks up in opposition to Israeli policies and acts. She, by her words, has taken action in opposition to evil and is therefore praiseworthy.
The point here is not which assumption you make, but that how Burke’s words are applied depends upon which assumption you make. Lubarsky’s application of them in condemnation of the DCC’s position requires that she assumes that the Israeli position is the only one with truth and justice on its side. The DCC has not taken sides in the matter in initiating the series of letters: it does not assume what Lubarsky assumes nor does it share Omar’s assumption.
I want to offer the following summation of what I have written.
1. The aim of the original letter was limited: it aimed at calling attention to the large gap between Omar’s remarks and the virulence of the President’s response and to try to explain that. In this sequence of letters no one critical of the club has even attempted to remark on that disparity.
2. The assumption of the original letter was that, even if Omar’s remarks were anti-Semitic, they were of a rather low-level, not at all blatantly so.
3. None of the writers, so eager to condemn Omar, have at all noticed that she did apologize. Her apology involved several elements. It rejected anti-Semitism. By apologizing, she agreed that her remarks were anti-Semitic and offensive. She thanked others for educating her in historical anti-Semitic tropes. (That last led me to the conclusion that her anti-Semitism is a cultural not a personal matter.) It is quite sad, that her critics continue to lambaste her without so much as a recognition that she has apologized and what that entails.
4. None of her critics make explicit that her remarks were made in the context of criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. They know that is so, but call attention only to her anti-Semitic remarks. Yet it is that background that generates their powerful opposition to her and to what she says. Only one letter says explicitly that her position is anti-Israel.
5. There is, in American public discourse, a frequently employed argument that must be soundly rejected: ‘It is anti-Israeli hence it must be anti-Semitic.’ It is not only a flat-out mistake to identify criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism but is a morally flawed argument as well, one that prevents a rational discussion of issues facing our country.
5. My supposition that Omar is a cultural anti-Semite and not a personal one—an extremely important distinction—is confirmed by what a fellow Somali refugee has to say about the culture they grew up in.
In conclusion, I would like to thank Kathryn Dunn, the editor of the Claremont COURIER, for publishing this (for a newspaper) long string of letters on a single topic—and for doing so on the grounds that it is a matter of public interest to see what the citizens of the city are thinking.