November 13, 2019

An Open Letter to Tlaib and Omar About Their Recent Behavior

From Left: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, July 25 REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert; Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) addresses her constituents during a Town Hall style meeting in Michigan Aug. 15, 2019. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook. Photo created by Jewish Journal

Dear Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar,

How could you do this? How could you let us down? I can’t count the number of progressive Jews who have come out to support you over the last few months. We have heard and accepted your apologies for some ill-chosen words and perhaps your lack of understanding about what pushes our buttons. We have defended you when you were attacked for your religion, the color of your skin, your womanhood and were questioned about your loyalty to the United States. We have defended you when you were told to go back to whence you came. We defended your right to have your own visit to Israel/Palestine that wasn’t part of the congressional delegation so that you could go where you wanted to go, see what you wanted to see and speak with whom you wanted to speak. 

Many of us who have supported you believe in and fight for the establishment of a strong and vibrant Palestine alongside a peacefully bordered Israel. We will continue to defend your dignity as members of Congress, as Muslims, as women and as Americans, even when you act in ways that cause us to question your motives. You make it difficult — and for some, impossible — to stand by your side when you participate in attacks on our dignity.

This is why we are so stunned and disappointed that you would have the insensitivity (I really want to attribute it to ignorance or naivete but your action seems too purposeful) to tweet an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic cartoon by Carlos Latuff, who gained some of his reputation by coming in second in the Iranian Holocaust cartoon competition (to be fair, he claims his work is not anti-Semitic nor denies the Holocaust). I really thought I understood the righteousness and moral character of your struggle and believed that, as a Jew, I owed you my voice. Was I wrong?

I have been involved in Muslim-Jewish dialogue for a long time. I’ve seen anger cause blindness, deafness and ill-selected words. I’ve felt it myself, at times, but somehow I’ve managed to get myself back to the dialogue table if, for no other purpose, than to tell my Muslim partners what hurts me and so I could hear and absorb what hurts them. I know that the only path to true peace and understanding is to honor each other’s narratives. Along the path to that holy place, many symbols will appear that mean one thing to one group and something else (or nothing at all) to the other.

 I really thought I understood the righteousness and moral character of your struggle and believed that, as a Jew, I owed you my voice. Was I wrong?

Take the Israeli flag that was so demeaned in the cartoon you tweeted. Yes, the basic design is two stripes of blue on a white background with a Star of David in the middle. The colors are purposeful, designed to exude the essence of a Jewish prayer shawl (a tallit). The star is, reportedly, the symbol that King David had on his shield. Of course, that star was appropriated by the Nazis to make it easier to target us for the genocide they attempted. I understand and sympathize with your association of that star and that those blue stripes with the oppression of the Palestinian people — and I don’t take that away from you because I have no right to do that. In precisely the same way, you have no right to take from me that these are both symbols of pride and, especially when used alongside caricatures, are very old anti-Semitic tropes.

I do not understand what you intend to accomplish on the road you are taking and who you deem expendable along the way. For the moment, I am a casualty of your … callousness? Unkindness? Blindness? Lack of information? Unfamiliarity? Thoughtlessness? I don’t want to seem patronizing, but you need to work in a coalition. I and others are ready to be in that coalition. I urge you to check with us first before you blithely tweet. We need to do the same with you. You can’t afford to lose those of us who have stepped up to help you in the recent past. 

You’ve lost me … for now. I’m standing by the side of the road, waiting for a change in direction so I can walk with you again.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels is the rabbi of Beth Shir Shalom, the progressive Reform synagogue in Santa Monica.