March 8, 2019
Open Letter to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar
During the past few months you have made a series of comments about America’s pro-Israel community which have crossed the line separating legitimate criticism of the policies of the State of Israel from what many consider to be expressions of anti-Semitism. You have apologized already several times for statements you have made – claiming you didn’t understand the implication of your words. I’m now convinced that your comments were purposeful - intended to target the pro-Israel community and to raise questions as to the loyalty and allegiance of those in that community to America and their fellow Americans. Your comments can’t be explained away any longer by your pleadings of ignorance. Your words are far more than the musings of an unintentional anti-Semite. No, you speak the familiar and poisonous anti-Semitic tropes too knowingly. Your words, I believe, are intended to undermine the American-Israel relationship in the hope that it will fatally weaken the State of Israel.
You’re not the first to raise questions of the allegiance and loyalty of the Jewish people to the lands in which we have lived. There were other anti-Semites before you who did the same. There was the Pharaoh of Egypt who planted in the minds of the Egyptians that the Israelites living in Egypt might join in alliance with Egypt’s enemies. That poison turned the Egyptians against the Israelites and resulted in the enslavement of my people. There was another arch-villain by the name of Haman. He suggested to the King that the Jewish people were different from others in Persia. He said that the Jews were loyal to their own traditions and not to the king. He too, raised concerns of the Jewish people’s allegiance to their country.
The list goes on from there. And that brings me to you. You said last week, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it’s okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” I hear in your words the echoes of anti-Semites who came to the conclusion that the most effective way to undermine the position of the Jewish people was to raise questions about our loyalty to our country and our fellow citizens. That’s why I am holding you fully responsible for your words. And no – it’s not because you are a Muslim. It’s because there are decent people of all faiths, traditions who reject silence when antisemitism must be confronted.
Sadly your colleagues failed to condemn you for your expressions of antisemitism. You should have felt the sting of your colleagues rebuke. You earned that repudiation. Unfortunately, your colleagues failed to single you out for condemnation. In my view they failed the moral test of this moment in American history.
Several weeks ago you said that “American support for Israel was bought by Benjamins” suggesting that Jews use money to influence affairs of state. It’s an insidious lie that anti-Semites have made for at least two thousand years. Did you think that your comment would go unchallenged? Jews and non-Jews together responded because we understood that,”it’s all about the Benjamin’s” was your unique anti-Semitic dog whistle. It was your hope and intent to mislead Americans into believing that the American-Israel relationship is the product of Jews controlling American foreign policy through financial leverage. Your words will not be the last words.
It’s really not at all about the Benjamins. It’s about shared values. Well before there was AIPAC, or any other Zionist organization, John Adam’s wrote in 1819: “I really wish the Jews in Judea an independent nation." Some years later Abraham Lincoln wrote,” restoring the Jews to their national home in Palestine was a noble dream and one shared by many Americans.” One hundred years ago, Supreme court Justice Louis D. Brandeis made the case that America could and should embrace Zionism - the dream of the Jewish people to have a homeland of our own.
From the time of the founding of this great country, until this very day, the spiritual bonds of the Jewish people to the land of Israel have been affirmed and reaffirmed by our leaders. Of course, you should know that President Harry Truman supported the United Nation’s Partition Plan which led to the creation of the State of Israel. It has never been about the Benjamins.
You can certainly criticize Israel on issues of policy. But why is Israel the only country in the world that you endorse boycotting, delegitimizing and sanctioning? You hold Israel to a standard that you fail to apply to any other nation in the world. Your comments perpetuate anti-Semitic stereotypes which long ago were declared to be too vile for our national conversation. Know this, we will hold you responsible for the words you speak. You see, Jews and our friends across the faith communities will not permit antisemitism to go unanswered. We owe it to our ancestors, to our decedents and to America not to be silent.
Rabbi Charles A. Klein