What Ilhan Omar Can Learn from the Mistakes of the Women’s March

March 8, 2019
Rep. Ilhan Omar Photo from Flickr.

The discourse surrounding anti-Semitism and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) feels like a black hole. Its darkness is consuming, sucking in complex nuances around Jew-hatred, Islamophobia, race, whataboutism and partisanship. Each voice dogpiling onto the conversation seems to pierce the edges of this gravitational field, scraping our most intense anxieties.

Black holes form when massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle.

Omar is a star. Not only is she first Muslim refugee to be elected to Congress, but with her hijab proudly on display in the Capitol under a reputed Islamophobic administration, she is the full embodiment of resisting bigotry.

Earlier this year, we witnessed four other stars rupture in the social justice sky.

Their names? Women’s March co-chairs Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Bob Bland.

The troubled Women’s March dynamic is nearly identical to the controversy exploding around the congresswoman. Omar and the Women’s March Inc. co-chairs are progressive figures who entered the national stage, symbolizing the fight for tolerance, but failed at achieving their mission because of their personal biases against Jews.

After these women were implicated in anti-Semitic attitudes and beliefs, their supporters and critics used the same tactics.

Jews on both sides of the aisle condemned their actions as anti-Semitic. Mainstream Democrats pulled their support; the Democratic National Committee ended its sponsorship of the Women’s March, and party leadership denounced Omar’s anti-Semitic tweets.

The right, predominantly non-Jewish Republicans, weaponized the harm done to Jews by these leaders to attack their racial and religious identities. Rather than addressing the festering beehive of anti-Semitism in their own backyard, they used “fighting anti-Semitism” as a cover to spew Islamophobia and racism at their opponents.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Women’s March and Omar painted all of their critics as those bad-faith actors determined to victimize them. They gaslit Jews, employing more anti-Semitic tropes to silence them, alleging this was a Jewish scheme to silence criticism of Israel.

Supporters said Jews couldn’t talk about prejudice against them unless they met ever-shifting social justice goalposts. Rather than working on their personal bias, they leaned into it, depicting Jews as buzzkills concerned only with their oppression.

This fiasco didn’t leave Women’s March Inc. unscathed. It lost hundreds of sponsors, including Emily’s List; The Southern Poverty Law Center; NARAL, a proc-choice nonprofit; GLAAD, a nongovernmental media monitoring organization that tracks LGBTQ representation; and the Human Rights Campaign. Participation dropped from 500,000 in 2018 to around 60,000 in Washington D.C. Worst of all, its legacy will forever be tied to anti-Semitism.

Unlike that of the Women’s March co-chairs, Ilhan Omar’s service to the American people doesn’t center around one march. Her star is waning, but she has her entire term to shine.

To stop the Democratic Party from becoming a similar black hole, we can learn from the failures and successes of the Women’s March leadership when faced with a deep, painful anti-Semitic supernova.

1. Don’t victim-blame.

Throughout the Women’s March controversy, co-chairs consistently painted critics of their relationship with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as right-wing haters. They ignored the voices of progressive Jewish, trans and queer women, even erasing anti-racist activists like Ashlee Marie Preston. Depicting their critics as saboteurs, they denied marginalized women advocacy when they needed it most.

Omar repeatedly has implied that lawmakers with more mainstream views on Israel are being bribed, that they are disloyal to the United States, and that the American-Jewish community is on a bigoted witch hunt to get her. The ADL, American Jewish Committee, Union for Reformed Judaism (URJ) and even J Street condemned her behavior and attacked her religion. They just want her not to use anti-Semitic rhetoric whenever she discusses Israel.

2. Don’t cherry pick token voices.

By associating only with the Jews who can assure them they did nothing wrong, the Women’s March evoked more disdain. There are fringe Jewish organizations willing to be used as a prop for those accused of anti-Semitism. The Women’s March leadership railed against the Anti-Defamation League, and Sarsour has made several lists of the “good Jews” who unwaveringly support her, even asking people to boycott Jewish institutions that have criticized her.

When Omar props up the same fringe groups who think she did nothing wrong, it reflects she has no interest in listening.

3. Call in respected Jewish leadership and give it real power.

Adding Jewish leaders to its steering committee was a successful way the Women’s March rebuilt trust and avoided descending further into a wormhole. Transgender activist Abby Stein, Ayecha’s Yavilah McCoy, and the URJ’s April Baskin have real credibility in mainstream Jewish spaces. Not just retweeting, but hiring them was a healing call.

If Omar followed suit and hired someone on her staff with a documented history of advocating against anti-Semitism, it would demonstrate an effort to build bridges.

4. Educate yourself on anti-Semitic tropes, and apologize for using them, even if you didn’t intend to.

Having implicit bias toward groups you aren’t a part of isn’t an anomaly. When Mallory tweeted that she had the “same enemies as Jesus” it played into ancient tropes that “Jews killed Jesus.” It’s likely she didn’t know the history of this trope. When Jews expressed hurt at her tweets, she accused them of projecting things onto her.

Even if she didn’t intend to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric, it caused hurt. Mallory should have apologized and educated herself on these tropes. Instead, she left an open wound.

Omar grew up in Somalia; she likely never met a Jew until she came to the United States as a 12-year-old. She needs to acknowledge that and study up on anti-Semitic tropes before speaking on Jewish issues without the cultural competency to do so. But the more times she employs dangerous stereotypes when she discusses these issues, the less ability we will have to forgive her actions as uninformed mistakes.

Omar, like the Women’s March leadership, has a choice: She can accept that she does indeed hate Jews or stop spreading hate against them. Four stars already have gone out. Unless we learn from the destruction their black holes caused, there will be none left in the sky.

Ariel Sobel is a Los Angeles-based writer filmmaker and activist whose writing has appeared in Haaretz, Out Magazine, The Jewish Daily Forward, Tablet, Hey Alma, The Huffington Post, Pride.com, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and The Advocate. 

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