The traditions of seniority in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives have come in for much criticism over the years. The criticism was often warranted, as when politicians wielded extraordinary power as chairmen of committees, which were run more like fiefdoms than democratic structures.
The privileges of seniority were also frustrating to freshman representatives, whose views on the issues were rarely sought by the powers-that-be.
The idea was that newcomers to Washington were better seen and not heard while they learned the ways of government, and first of all to respect their elders.
As the intemperate and ill-considered statements of some of the latest additions to the legislative branch this winter have shown, the traditions of seniority were not entirely without merit.
Rarely has a freshman member of Congress attracted so much attention, and in so invidious a manner, as Democrat Rep. Ilhan Omar from Minnesota.
The latest remark that has provoked outrage among the Jewish community and its friends was the accusation last Friday that pro-Israel activists and lawmakers owe their “allegiance to a foreign country.”
This dual-loyalty smear follows another anti-Semitic trope issued by her earlier this month, in which she posted successive tweets suggesting that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee pays politicians to be pro-Israel.
Both comments have brought down upon her the wrath of senior lawmakers, even within her own party. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Charles Schumer were among those who severely censured Omar in the first instance.
This time, her Democratic colleague Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on Omar to apologize for her “vile anti-Semitic slur.”
“I welcome debate in Congress based on the merits of policy, but 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 U.S.-Israel relationship. We all take the same oath,” Engel said in a statement.
“The charge of dual loyalty not only raises the ominous specter of classic anti-Semitism, but it is also deeply insulting to the millions upon millions of patriotic Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, who stand by our democratic ally, Israel,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said.
Rep. Omar has protested her innocence in all this and claimed that her right to speak for “Palestine” is being shut down.
“A lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our allies, [think] that everything we say about Israel [is] anti-Semitic because we are Muslim.”
She said the charge of anti-Semitism is “designed to end the debate” about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Omar said she was “sensitive to” and “pained by” accusations of intolerance. But she added that “it’s almost as if every single time we say something, regardless of what it is we say,” she and Tlaib are “labeled.” And “that ends the discussion because we end up defending that and nobody ever gets to have the proper debate of what is happening with Palestine.”
Thus, Omar feels she is misunderstood, not given a fair hearing, the victim of anti-Muslim bias. All she wants is fair play for “Palestine.”
On the contrary; the fear is that she is understood all too well. Whether Omar is deliberately anti-Semitic or not, her comments have been redolent of the anti-Semitic clichés of generations. Clearly, she has been steeped in those malevolent attitudes toward the Jewish people and, intentionally or not, they come out in her public statements just about every time she talks about the Middle East. It is not because she is Muslim that she is thought to be saying things anti-Semitic, as she claims, but because the things she has been saying are anti-Semitic, no matter who said them.
Hopefully, this is the painful beginning of a long learning curve for Omar. She apologized for the first set of remarks, and she ought to swiftly apologize for these too. More important, though, is that she seriously reconsider her attitudes and study the history of anti-Semitism to avoid mouthing such calumnies in the future.
At the same time, it must be stressed that, generally speaking, relations between Jews and Muslims are good in America. It would be a terrible shame if this young politician’s words would sow friction between those communities.
The voters in her district (which includes many Jews) did not elect her to be the advocate for “Palestine” in Congress.
It would, however, be most welcome if Muslim leaders in America would also speak up and condemn the hateful things that Omar has been saying. It is not only in the best interests of the Jewish community, but also of the Muslim community — and America generally — that this kind of talk be shut down, so that we can indeed have some debate on the merits of policy.