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On Ilhan Omar, anti-Semitism and Israel

I’ll start with a thought experiment. The recent Chronicle editorial board piece that addressed the Ilhan Omar controversy included the following line: “The tweet drew some deserved criticism for her admittedly ill-conceived wording, and Omar subsequently offered an apology.” 

Let’s substitute Omar and her situation with Ralph Northam and his blackface controversy. The sentence becomes, “The photograph drew some deserved criticism for his admittedly ill-conceived costume, and Northam subsequently offered an apology.” If this was a line in a Chronicle Editorial Board article, I imagine we’d justifiably be up in arms at the trivialization of his actions. Jewish students have a right to feel upset about the Editorial Board’s wording. After all, bigotry should be evaluated by the way it makes people feel, not the intention of the perpetrator.

I don’t speak for Jews at Duke, and I certainly don’t speak for Judaism as a whole. Judaism is a notoriously diverse religion, with populations hailing from Israel, India, China, Ethiopia, Iran and Argentina, among others. With a diversity of roots comes a diversity of opinions. Naturally, there is a broad spectrum of Jewish perspectives on religious issues, politics and, of course, Israel.

Far too often critics of Israel and/or anti-Semites weaponize the diversity of opinion in Jewish circles to cherry pick Jewish voices to their advantage. The editorial board comes dangerously close to doing so by giving a nod to the “radical activism” of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that exists on the margins of mainstream Jewish thought and has been repeatedly criticized by the Anti-Defamation League, the premier anti-Semitism watchdog, for “perpetuating anti-Jewish stereotypes.” Another example of this phenomenon is a recent tweet from Linda Sarsour, a founder of the Women’s March, who directs her followers not to support the oldest Jewish newspaper in America. Journalist Yair Rosenberg rightly points out that the tweet delineates “good Jews from bad Jews.” Tokenizing the marginal views of minority groups, whether they are on the left or the right, should be condemned. Look no further than last year’s Duke College Republicans’ “American Muslim Identity: Patriot or Insurgent” event, which was rightly criticized for unfairly representing mainstream American Islam and propagating “fringe” views.

Duke students and Americans as a whole need to start thinking about anti-Semitism in a different way. I’ve found that people, especially on Duke’s campus, are quicker to criticize claims of anti-Semitism than they are to try to empathize with them. Rather than immediately charging offended Jews with intellectual dishonesty or intentional conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, try to understand why they feel offended. As a society, we shouldn’t tell minorities how they are allowed to feel, especially when they are victims of bigotry. We should condemn those who dismiss the feelings of minorities offhand. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this phenomenon is often felt by Palestinians. Critics are quick to attack the Palestinian narrative and trivialize their grievances. Ultimately, though, the same expectation applies to Jews. Sympathy is the product of a rigorous interrogation of our innate biases, and we should always strive to achieve the most complete understanding of our peers’ experiences.

Israel is the ultimate “elephant in the room” of anti-Semitism. Many, including the Editorial Board, take issue with what they perceive as an intentional charge of anti-Semitism to deflect from real issues. This charge is unfair. Anti-Semitism should be evaluated on the basis of how it makes Jews feel. It is not unreasonable to feel offended when a Congresswoman claims politicians support Israel because they are paid off even though, as Max Cherman and Ezra Loeb noted, 75 percent of Americans support Israel. When six million Jews were killed due to perceptions that they were too powerful or had unacceptable political views, Jews are right to feel threatened by objectionable rhetoric. Israel dialogue is tricky, and I concede that it can be difficult to find the threshold where criticism turns anti-Semitic, but it’s important to remember that there is a threshold. A few tips for talking critically about Israel are to avoid sweeping generalizations about Israelis, apply the same standard to Israel that one would to any other country, and be specific about the policies with which one disagrees. Failing to abide by these three principles often results in anti-Semitic rhetoric. 

Regarding AIPAC, Batya Ungar-Sargon put it best: “Of course, it’s fair to criticize AIPAC. But Omar did not criticize AIPAC. She characterized it, in a way that is false, and that got the story of AIPAC’s influence wrong in a way that played right into anti-Semitic tropes.” In talking about the Israel lobby, it’s imperative that a critic be accurate to its actual source of power. As noted earlier, a tremendously high percentage of America supports Israel. The reason political candidates tout their pro-Israel credentials proudly isn’t that they are paid to do so, but because Americans overwhelmingly believe in a strong relationship between America and Israel. Ungar-Sargon then references Evan Gottesman who points out how Arab countries spent more money lobbying than the pro-Israel lobby, but no politician brags about their support for the Gulf states. It is fine if one wishes to criticize AIPAC for its mission, but they should be aware of how their language is interpreted by others. 

Duke students should spend less time objecting to claims of anti-Semitism and spend more time asking their Jewish friends about their experiences being asked where their horns are, looking down at a desk only to find a swastika, or sadly, being violently attacked for being Jewish. In 2019, when almost 40 percent of European Jews have considered emigrating in the last five years due to anti-Semitism, Jews are consistently evicted from progressive movements and popular leaders on the left and right are openly espousing anti-Semitism, trust your Jewish friends when they tell you they are uncomfortable. Only by creating a common language in responding to bigotry can we hope to stop it. 

Spencer Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore.


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