Rep. Ilhan Omar’s credentials as a progressive force who would stand up against discrimination have been sharply criticized since her now infamous tweet on Feb. 10 that suggested that support for Israel in the United States was “all about the Benjamins,” a reference to money.
That particular reference in connection with the Jewish faith has long been interpreted as anti-Semitic. To her credit, Omar issued an apology message and stated that “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.”
Despite her apology, Omar reportedly made claims at a bookstore cafe in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 27 that her religious affiliation would make it easier for critics to dismiss her objections to U.S. support for the Israeli government, and that she wanted “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
One of the first people to criticize Omar was Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Omar sits. On March 1, Engel demanded an apology from Omar for her remarks, suggesting that while he welcomes debate in Congress based on the merits of policy, “it’s unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the US-Israel relationship.”
As a Muslim congresswoman who is also an immigrant of Somali origin, Omar is in a difficult position with certain responsibilities and a great opportunity. There is clearly much pressure in today’s politics for individual politicians to advocate for what is important to them. That is, after all, why and how they get elected. However, words matter in politics, and symbolism is at the heart of the political process and critically important.
It was only this just past week that a Republican event in the West Virginia state Capitol included an Islamophobic poster linking Ilhan Omar to 9/11 by depicting her underneath the twin towers burning with the caption “’Never forget’ — You said … I am the proof you have forgotten.”
Omar’s rapid rise in national politics came as a result of her seemingly absolute rejection of “the politics of fear and scarcity” and “destructive and divisive policies” she says are pursued by her opponents. In a 2018 piece in The New Yorker, Emily Witt wrote that Omar’s message was to urge the “moral clarity and courage” of people who “remind[ed] us of the fundamental ideals of this nation, and getting us closer to the American promise.”
Omar has to deliver on her promise. She has the responsibility and the wonderful privilege of leading the way for the future generation of Muslim women (and men) of immigrant origin to become more active and influential in American politics. She also has to be courageous.
But being courageous in our current political climate is not about using Twitter to score a quick point or making a statement that will gain her praise from a small segment of society. Virtue-signaling only to a particular constituency at the expense of finding common ground can pave the way for disastrous political losses. Being courageous in today’s America is about using your position to bring people from all different backgrounds together. It is about rejecting discrimination in all of its forms and colors.
Minnesotans do not want to see Ilhan Omar as the new face of anti-Jewish or even anti-Israel criticism on the left. We need her to be the champion of moral clarity, diversity and inclusiveness.
Binnur Ozkececi-Taner is department chair and a professor of political science in Hamline University’s College of Liberal Arts. She holds a BA in international relations from the Middle East Technical University (Ankara, Turkey), an MA in peace studies from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, and a Ph.D. in political science from Syracuse University.
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