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(March 5, 2019, San Jose) Last November’s election of not one, but two American Muslim congresswomen – including the first to wear the Muslim headscarf or hijab – was a hopeful sign that as a nation we are moving past Islamophobia, just as we moved past anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-Italian, anti-Chinese, anti-Jewish, and anti-Japanese sentiments in the past. Unfortunately, every time Islamophobia seems to be disappearing, events remind us that it is still very much with us. This week produced a potent reminder of that reality with the very loud, bigoted, and dangerous vilification of Minnesota’s freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her answer to a question about anti-Semitism during a recent town hall meeting in Washington, DC. This incident follows a previous episode a few weeks back when she was criticized for an insensitively worded tweet on a similar topic for which she has apologized. Anti-Semitism, like all forms of bigotry should not be tolerated, and indeed all Americans could benefit from a conversation about anti-Semitic tropes and their history and the impact they have, since many people don’t realize the sensitivity with which some statements regarding Jews are likely to be heard.
However, regardless of where one stands on the issues she raises, what should be glaringly clear is the double standard being applied to an incoming congresswoman who happens to be a black, Muslim woman. Compare the outrage – or lack thereof – when clearly anti-Semitic comments were made by other politicians. As Jewish American journalist Peter Beinart stated in a February 12 article commenting on this double standard, “she’s being judged by a grotesque double standard. Her fiercest critics in Congress are guiltier of bigotry than she is.” He goes on to describe a number of anti-Semitic comments by Donald Trump before and after his campaign and after becoming president, including his telling a Jewish audience in 2015 that “you’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money… you don’t want to give me money, but that’s ok, you want to control your own politicians, that’s fine.” In 2016 he retweeted an image of Hillary Clinton surrounded by money and a Jewish star, and in 2017, he said there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. Furthermore, an October 19, 2016, New York Times article described an ADL report on rising anti-Semitism among Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential campaign: “During its investigation, the organization found that 2.6 million anti-Semitic messages were posted on Twitter from August 2015 to July 2016. Of those, 19,253 were directed at journalists. There was a significant uptick starting early this year, when the presidential campaign began to intensify . . . More than 800 journalists have been the subject of anti-Semitic attacks on Twitter, with 10 of them receiving 83 percent of the total attacks.” Yet Trump was never forced to apologize for any of this.
Other prominent Republicans are also guilty of anti-Semitic comments yet have received none of the outrage or censure they are now heaping on Representative Omar. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who recently responded to comments by Representatives Omar and Rashida Tlaib by threatening to take action against them if the Democrats didn’t, posted a tweet just a day after George Soros was sent a pipe bomb accusing him and two other Jewish billionaires —Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg — of trying to “buy” the midterms. Despite the fact that Steyer called the tweet “straight-up anti-Semitic,” McCarthy, though he deleted the tweet, refused to apologize for it. Trump has not called on him, as he did Representative Omar, to resign from Congress. Steve Scalise, the House Minority Whip who is demanding that Representative Omar be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee over her supposedly anti-Semitic remarks, actually spoke at a convention of the white supremacist European American Unity and Rights Organization in 2012, a group founded by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who has been described by the Anti-Defamation League as “perhaps America’s most well-known racist and anti-Semite.” Representative Matt Gaetz invited Holocaust denier Chuck Johnson as his guest at the State of the Union and later defended him: “He’s not a Holocaust denier; he’s not a white supremacist. Those are unfortunate characterizations of him.” In fact, Johnson has appeared on Alex Jones’s “Infowars” show and said that “it’s not that Jews are bad, it’s just they are the head of the Jewish mafia in the United States. They run Uber, they run the health care, they’re going to scam you, they’re going to hurt you.” Yet neither he nor Congressman Gaetz have been censured or asked to apologize. According to the many Jewish Americans writing in defense of Representative Omar, the real anti-Semitism is not found in her critique of a lobby and its influence, which is her First Amendment right, but rather in the violence of the Charlottesville march by Nazis or in the Pittsburgh synagogue murders, both events rooted in white supremacy.
But the double standard does not end here
While politicians are quick to condemn anti-Semitism – as they should with the clearly anti-Semitic statements and actions described above – they are often slow to condemn, or simply refuse to condemn, the Islamophobia that has shown itself to be dangerous and even deadly. On the same day that Representative Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, publicly criticized Representative Omar for her comments about Israel, a poster equating Representative Omar with the 9/11 terrorists was on display in West Virginia’s Capitol Rotunda. The words “Assassinate Ilhan Omar” were written on a local gas station bathroom stall and posted on social media. GOP strategist and advisor for President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign Jeff Ballabon described Representative Omar as a “filthy, disgusting hater” during a March 4 appearance on the Fox Business Channel. He told host Stuart Varney, “The problem is that her beliefs are deeply rooted in hatred and anti-Semitism. She is a hater. I’m going to say it: she is filth. She has no place in the Congress. She has no place on the Foreign Affairs Committee.”
These statements echo the widespread vitriol and hate that has been spewed against Representative Omar on social media and beyond. Yet where is the outcry against these clearly Islamophobic and dangerous attacks? Where are the resolutions condemning such acts? Is bigotry a source of outrage in some cases but tolerable in others? Clearly there is a double standard which finds one type of bigotry acceptable while expressing outrage over another. Poll after poll documents growing Islamophobia: 2017 Pew reports found that 41% of Americans believe Islam encourages violence more than other faiths, that 50% of Americans believe Islam is not part of mainstream American society, and that Muslims are viewed most negatively of all religious groups. And these attitudes often have real life consequences. Anti-Muslim hate crimes increased 15% in 2017 over 2016, after increasing 44% in 2016 over 2015. As Representative Omar herself stated in the same town hall speech she is being censured for: “No, we know what hate looks like. We experience it every single day. We have to deal with death threats. I have colleagues who talk about death threats. And sometimes…there are cities in my state where the gas stations have written on their bathrooms ‘assassinate Ilhan Omar.’ I have people driving around my district looking for my home, for my office, causing me harm. I have people every single day on Fox News and everywhere, posting that I am a threat to this country. So I know what fear looks like. The masjid I pray in in Minnesota got bombed by two domestic white terrorists. So I know what it feels to be someone who is of faith that is vilified. I know what it means to be someone whose ethnicity is vilified. I know what it feels to be of a race—like I am an immigrant, so I don’t have the historical drama that some of my black sisters and brothers have in this country, but I know what it means for people to just see me as a black person, and to treat me as less than a human. And so, when people say, you are bringing hate, I know what their intention is. Their intention is to make sure that our lights are dimmed. That we walk around with our heads bowed. That we lower our face and our voice.”
We need also to heed the words of another freshman Congressperson, who is not a Muslim but knows well what is at stake here: “I’m pretty heartbroken that there isn’t more denunciation of this outward and blatant expression of bigotry and Islamophobia by a state party,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. She further suggested it was hypocritical for some leaders to remain quiet about the poster when many last month quickly admonished Representative Omar for sentiments they deemed anti-Semitic. “Those who stood up against anti-Semitism a few weeks ago should also be calling out the Islamophobia here, too.”
At this time of increased polarization and divisiveness, let us renew our commitment to peace — Muslims and Jews and all Americans —
At this time of increased polarization and divisiveness, let us renew our commitment to peace — Muslims and Jews and all Americans — to combat intolerance, bigotry, and hate, regardless of who is behind it and whom it targets; let us use this opportunity to call out all forms of racism and xenophobia and work to understand a little bit more about all Americans. We are blessed to live in a nation built upon notions of pluralism and religious freedom and the right to follow our conscience. Let us uplift these values for all Americans; we will be a better nation if we do.