Last year a wave of young, progressive, equality-minded women was elected to Congress, garnering hope and celebration, especially within the LGBTQ community. These history-making new representatives included more women of color than ever before, including Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), a refugee from Somalia and the first black female Muslim in Congress. Her victory helped create representation in Washington, D.C., that more closely mirrors the diversity of our country, but only a few months after she was sworn into office, she has become polarizing, with the country currently debating comments she made about Israel and many people calling them anti-Semitic. The controversy illustrates the internal conflict of being a liberal, open-minded member of the LGBTQ community and being Jewish in today's political climate.
Last month, Omar criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), tweeting, “It's all about the Benjamins baby.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi condemned her statement, as did other Democratic leaders. “Congresswoman Omar's use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel's supporters is deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks.” Omar “unequivocally apologized,” saying, “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. … At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”
She followed that up with more recent comments during a panel with fellow progressive and new Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan). “What I'm fearful of, because Rashida [Tlaib] and I are Muslim, that a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our allies, go to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim. … I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she said. This was met with even more outrage. In response, the House drafted legislation that condemns anti-Semitism and touches on other forms of hate, including Islamophobia. As of press time, the Democratic leadership, under pressure and criticism to make it less of an implied rebuke of Omar, has rewritten the legislation and awaits the vote.
I agree with Omar on almost all her progressive policies — stricter gun control, a woman's right to choose, universal health care, the effects of global warming and the uneven distribution of wealth in this country. Unlike the Republican Party, whose leader is trying to ban trans soldiers from serving in the military, or whose vice president and his family believe in gay conversion therapy, Omar is a huge LGBTQ rights advocate. “The queer and trans community is disproportionately affected by the issues of equity that touch us all,” she tweeted last August. “In Congress, I will work in allyship to uplift the voices of the LGBTQIA+ community.” The tweet included a fully laid-out plan to implement this. This definitely resonates with me as a member of the LGBTQ community.
But I feel conflicted about Omar's characterizations of Israel, and I'm surely not alone. Seventy years ago, after the Holocaust, Jewish people were the underdogs and most liberals supported the establishment of the state of Israel in response to the Holocaust. Millions of Jews died simply because they didn't have a place to escape to. Even the United States, under President Franklin Roosevelt, turned away Jewish refugees seeking asylum. After the Holocaust, most open-minded people agreed that the need for a Jewish homeland was obvious.
But in the last few decades, favoring the Palestinian cause over Israel has become more common in liberal circles. Now the Palestinians are seen as the underdogs without a homeland. Liberal people always want to help the underdogs, those most marginalized and oppressed, and I totally support that. That's why most liberal Democrats support LGBTQ rights. As a liberal and member of the LGBTQ community myself, I cannot support the Republican Party because doing so would be hurting myself and my community. However, being Jewish and liberal can often be an oxymoron today because of the declining lack of support for Israel from Democrats and their supporters.
To help demonstrate this, I turn to my parents, both currently in their 60s. My mother used to be a Democrat. She voted for Bill Clinton both terms and for Al Gore in 2000. While my parents support me and have no issues with my sexuality, they have become full-on Fox News–watching, Donald Trump–supporting Republicans, with 9/11 being the catalyst that sent them down this path, along with what seems like a growing anti-Israel sentiment by many Democrats. From my perspective, I don't live in Israel, I live in America, and I'd rather support a party that might appear unsupportive of Israel than one actively trying to curtail my rights as a member of the LGBTQ community (as well as the rights of other minorities and people of color). The damage Trump is doing to the world as a whole is catastrophic and will eventually be overturned. Any help he gives Israel will no doubt be overturned as well, and his ardent support will only further mar Israel's reputation among liberal people when we finally take back the American presidency.
Here is a recent email I received from my parents:
“You should perhaps write your next article on increased anti-Semitism, particularly by the new wave of liberals and progressives [like Ilhan Omar]. You yourself have said that Israel is very kind to gays and compare that to the other countries in the Middle East. It would be sad that as a gay Jewish-American you are being politically correct. You always talk to me about The Right, but she is very dangerous to Jews everywhere. I really hope you decide to write an article about the anti-Semitism of Omar.”
So I guess that's exactly what I'm doing, although probably not in the manner they were hoping for. While I appreciate their love and support, which is something many in the LGBTQ community don't have from their parents at all, I feel like they are putting Israel's needs above their own son's. Since they equate Omar or anything anti-Israel with anti-Semitism, they see the issue as very black-and-white, and very personal. But from my view, the left is not really attacking Jews when it attacks Israel — it's two different things. And by making Israel their No. 1 issue, I feel that my parents are implying my rights and well-being as a gay American are less important than Israel's.
They also don't acknowledge that there are still many in the Democratic Party who do support Israel, although a lot of them are the old guard of the party, with the newcomers like Omar being more vocal. Unlike my parents or even some older Democratic leadership, I can separate anti-Israel sentiments from anti-Semitic ones, and I think a lot of us can. There are some policies Israel currently stands for that I don't agree with, and it is acceptable for non-Jews to feel the same. A secular person disagreeing with Israel does not automatically make him or her anti-Semitic. I certainly don't agree with everything the American government does, and that doesn't make me anti-American.
Personally, I draw the line with Palestinians who say their claim to the land is more legitimate than the Jewish one (as opposed to equally legitimate) and with anyone who believes that Israel doesn't have a right to exist. The Holocaust showed the world that after a history of persecution, the Jews needed a safe haven for themselves. To deny that, in my opinion, is anti-Semitism. And this is not to say that the Palestinians don't also deserve a safe haven as well. Many Democratic leaders such as Bernie Sanders believe this as I do, and that doesn't make him anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
Omar does deserve fault for her choice of words, words that play into old anti-Semitic stereotypes. It's not her opinions but her language that's problematic. I agree that there's no need for lobbyists of any kind, including for Israel. But saying “It's all about the Benjamins” and accusing people (which can be interpreted as Jewish people) of having “allegiance to a foreign country” can perpetuate anti-Semitic rhetoric, the kind that fuels conspiracy theories and stereotypes concerning Jews and money. These tropes have existed for ages in Europe and have been transferred to America as well. They are dangerous. Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke even responded to Omar's panel comments, saying, “Omar is right … about Israel.” Surely a progressive thinker like Omar doesn't want to be on the same page as a man like David Duke, but her choice of language allowed for his kind of bigotry to represent it as propaganda.
Republicans like my parents condemning Omar seem to forget that their beloved president spewed anti-Semitic rhetoric himself. In 2015, when Trump was running for president, he told a room full of Jewish Republicans, “You're not going to support me because I don't want your money. … You want to control your politicians, that's fine.” And in 2016, he released a campaign ad in which he stated, “For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don't have your good in mind.” The “people” he referred to featured footage of prominent Jews.
And what about Trump's acceptance of anti-Semitism at the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacy rally? I asked my parents how they can support a president who said there were “fine people on both sides” when referring to Nazis. My great-grandfather was killed by the Nazis in Poland during the Holocaust, and the rest of his family, including my grandpa, escaped to Israel. My parents replied with a typical Fox News–style response, saying, “Where were you when Obama did the Iranian deal? Where were you when Obama refused to renounce Reverend Wright?” They say there is no place for anti-Semitism in this country and if you are truly a Jew you stand up whenever and wherever you find it. But even David Duke endorses Donald Trump. And what about the constant Islamophobia that occurs daily among many in this country? Does that not deserve condemnation as well? It's definitely a double standard.
The Israel-Palestine situation has a long history and it remains one of the most difficult global conflicts for humanity. Sadly, resolution doesn't seem to be coming anytime soon. But the Jewish community need not migrate to the Republican Party because of it, as my parents did. And if they feel they must, hopefully they will research how we got here first, so that there is an understanding of the complexities, nuances and varied points of view.
There's too much at stake right now in our own country for thoughtlessly taking sides. For now, I'll remain a die-hard liberal and card-carrying Democrat because, aside from this problematic issue, I believe in what they stand for. Maybe someday there will be peace in the Middle East and Jewish gays like myself won't feel forced to eschew our LGBTQ identities for our heritage or culture. In the meantime, many of us will have to prioritize our beliefs about right and wrong, and do our best to avoid our own conflicts with family and fellow Jews who see things differently.