How targeting Ilhan Omar instead of white supremacy furthered both anti-Semitism & Islamophobia
White supremacy normalizes the violence that maintains this status quo while marking those who speak truth back to power as immoral.
By Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Margari Hill, Rakel Joseph, Asha Noor, and Rebecca Pierce
Last week, House Democrats passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy. As Black women, Muslim and Jewish, we agree that anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and Islamophobia must be condemned.
Reports of anti-Semitism are on the rise: according to the FBI, hate crimes targeting Jews surged 37% in 2017, and hate crimes against Muslims rose 17%. Likewise, the murders of nine Black worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015 and the white supremacist march in Charlottesville last year point to the resurgence of a particular kind of overt white supremacist violence.
Yet condemnations of Islamophobia and white supremacy were only added to the resolution after it was initially introduced, with pressure from Black and progressive lawmakers. Given that, it was clear to many that the resolution did not come out of a sincere effort to put an end to real threats to Jews, but rather from an effort to target someone who is already a marked woman, Ilhan Omar, after her criticisms of the U.S.-Israel relationship were rebuked by lawmakers in both parties as anti-Semitic.
Ilhan Omar is not anti-Semitic because she questions U.S. policy in Israel, but it does make her a target, especially as Black, Muslim and a Woman. When WEB DuBois famously asked “How does it feel to be a problem?” he was referencing how whites have historically viewed Black people as “a problem,” as that nagging reminder of their own humanity and impediment to their unfettered supremacy. And, of course, Black folks are seen as a threat to white society—its women, morality and success.
Being both a problem and threat has marked Black life in this country as expendable. Indeed, as a Black Muslim woman who is also an immigrant, Omar is a problem and threat on multiple registers. This makes her alleged crimes even more objectionable—she shouldn’t even be here, how dare she question and criticize! And this puts her life, and the lives of those like her—Black Muslims, Jews and others—at even more risk.
Her race, religion and gender make her vulnerable, and her vulnerabilities are our vulnerabilities. Anti-Blackness, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia all stem from the same source: white supremacy. That must be the real target of our resistance if we really want to combat bigotry and racist violence.
Anti-Semitism is an ideology that insists Jews are the source of all of society’s problems, in turn justifying the dehumanization of and violence against Jewish people. In contrast, Omar is critical of the pro-Israel lobby, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and its impact on U.S. policy regarding Israel, which data shows is largely driven not by American Jews but Evangelical Christians, in part because of the “prophecy that Israel has a major role to play at the end of days.”
While we recognize that AIPAC’s core membership is Jewish, we also know that AIPAC hardly speaks for all Jews, especially younger Jews who are increasingly critical of Israel and Zionism. It is not fundamentally anti-Jewish to disagree with AIPAC’s mission to strengthen ties between the United States and Israel, particularly since AIPAC does not openly articulate itself as a Jewish organization, but rather an organization supporting what they call “the Jewish State.”
The false charges of anti-Semitism divert public attention away from the real substantive issue at hand: human rights abuses by the Israeli government in Occupied Palestine and Israel itself. According to the UN Human Rights Council, over 6,000 unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, including children, journalists and medical personnel, were shot by military snipers during the “Great March of Return” protests in Gaza in 2018.
Israel also maintains its blockade of Gaza, where 1.9 million Palestinians struggle to survive in what has been called the world’s largest open-air prison as the movement of all people and goods in out of Palestinian territories is controlled by Israel. Meanwhile, Israel continues the forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes through supporting illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Within Israel, Arab-Israelis live as second-class citizens—as recently declared proudly by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—and anti-Blackness is present and systematic. Ethiopian Jews face systemic discrimination and police brutality. Netanyahu also attempted to deport every single non-Jewish African asylum seeker last year, and Israel is currently dragging its feet in granting group protection for Darfuri refugees.
But instead of talking about what Israel is doing, there is a bipartisan push to police how this can even be discussed. This further perpetuates both forms of bigotry by obscuring their roots: white supremacy. For example, Donald Trump has used anti-Semitic tropes throughout his campaign, but this did not prevent him from ascending to the presidency—in part due to his unequivocal support of Israel.
Like anti-Semitism, Islamophobia also traffics in dehumanization, and justifies everyday and systemic violence against Muslims. In the United States, Muslims don’t necessarily get pegged as the root of society’s problems, but rather as the most potent threat to society’s very existence. Indeed, this was the message of the anti-Muslim poster displayed at a GOP event in the West Virginia Capitol that falsely linked Omar to 9/11. The poster marked Omar as “evidence” that we [Americans] have “forgotten” [what the Muslims did to us on] 9/11, and thus we have forgotten the threat Muslims pose to the American way of life.
The supposed threat of the Muslim boogeyman and woman has fueled policy, from Trump’s Muslim ban and pledge to keep Guantanamo open indefinitely to his insinuation that Middle Easterners were among migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border to ramp up xenophobic fears.
This threat also fuels everyday violence against Muslims, like the bombing of Omar’s local mosque in 2017 in an incident that, according to statistics, is part of a disturbing and steady increase in such acts across the country over the past several years. According to a Pew Foundation report issued in the same year, the number of anti-Muslim attacks surpassed the elevated levels of harassment and violence that U.S. Muslims experienced in the intense period following 9/11.
Before being targeted by her own political party, Omar was on the hit list of white supremacist and U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson, which underscores the real problem. White supremacy is a system of exploitation and power that defends, at all costs, the political, economic and intellectual dominance of white people and pits marginalized groups against each other by offering them illusions of access to power. White supremacy normalizes the violence and injustice that maintains this status quo while marking those who speak truth back to power as immoral.
White supremacy targets Ilhan Omar because she calls attention to the violence and harm that United States has inflicted on the world through direct actions like coups and backing oppressive governments. Omar has called out Israel and U.S. imperialism in Latin America, and US support of Saudi Arabia. White supremacy targets Ilhan Omar because she highlights the limitations and hypocrisy, as well as the racism and Islamophobia, of our political system.
Both political parties fear Ilhan Omar, not because she is anti-Semitic, but because she is refusing to wear rose-colored glasses about the U.S., both at home and abroad. And that’s the kind of politics we need right now, and in the future.
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is a scholar-artist-activist. She is senior editor of sapelosquare.com and associate professor at the University of Michigan.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist. She is proud to be a member of a Boston-area synagogue as well as the Boston Workmen’s Circle.
Rakel Joseph tries to live out her values and commitment to Black liberation and Judaism every day. Rakel is a social worker, researcher, adjunct lecturer and organizer.
Margari Hill is the Co-founder of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), a human rights education organization.
Asha Noor is a racial justice and human rights activist, with a background in conflict analysis, and resolution. Asha currently serves as the Safe Spaces Director with CAIR-Michigan to implement inclusive policies statewide.