Last month, Representative Ilhan Omar lit up the news in her response to Representative Kevin McCarthy’s accusation that wealthy Jewish leaders buy elections. She casually tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” referencing the power of money, and playing into an age old anti-Semitic trope that McCarthy used about Jews conspiring to rule the world. The episode was followed by her commenting on American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) role in promoting Israel’s interests in Washington D.C.
She has since apologized, and it is clear she was unaware of the history of anti-Semitism relating to Jews and money that she drew upon when making these statements. Regardless of her apology, many maintained that her comments were anti-Semitic and offensive. The controversy provides an opportunity to examine the difference between pro-Israel and Jewish identities.
Someone who is pro-Israel supports the current Israeli government policy, which since the inception of the state has included Zionism, the belief that Israel is the Jewish homeland. A Jew can be anyone who is ancestrally, culturally, or religiously Jewish. The Israel-Palestine conflict can be easily misunderstood. It is problematic when people conflate Jews and people who are pro-Israel, thereby implying that all Jews support the oppression of Palestinians. Not only is it insensitive to refer to these two identities interchangeably, but it is inaccurate to assume that American Jews are the biggest supporters of Israel in the United States.
Conflating Jews with Israel allows the left to be divided over this controversial issue. Jewish people are an important group of supporters on the left. In fact, over 75 percent of Jews voted for Democrats in the midterm elections in 2018. Due to this, left-wing politicians need to be diligent in watching out for anti-Semitic language. Democrats should care about both justice in Israel-Palestine, and combating anti-Semitism. It’s essential that Democrats are united in one movement for peace and respect for other cultures. When working towards resolution in the Israel-Palestine conflict, anti-Semitism detracts from the movement.
If being pro-Israel and being Jewish aren’t understood as separate identities, people miss the fact that not all Jews support the state of Israel. When people make comments attacking Jews for problems related to Israel, it feels anti-Semitic. The distinction must be made. When discussing Israel, it must be about the policies, not Jewish people in whole.
In a place like Berkeley, it seems that citizens are highly conscious of others’ identities and trying not to discriminate. This is where intersectionality becomes essential. We need to be able to differentiate between the many possible beliefs of Jews, so as not to falsely generalize about the entire religion. This is a lesson Representative Omar learned the hard way, and hopefully others can learn from her experience so that progressive leaders like her can address problems of greater importance than offensive tweets.