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Barbershop: Rep. Ilhan Omar Divides Jewish Community

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time for our Barbershop roundtable. This is the place where we try to dig a little deeper into stories that people have been talking about. So, today, we want to turn to the issue that roiled the House of Representatives for days this past week - the debate over how to respond to comments from the freshman Democrat, Ilhan Omar, that some, maybe many, people considered anti-Semitic. The congresswoman has been accused of anti-Semitism before. Last month, she suggested in a tweet that members of Congress support Israel because of contributions from the pro-Israel lobby APAC. She apologized for that tweet. But, later, at a Washington coffee shop, Omar suggested that American politicians were under pressure to show loyalty to Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ILHAN OMAR: I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.

MARTIN: Now, I know the audio is hard to hear. But I want to focus on Omar's words about allegiance to a foreign country. That conjured up, for some people, the historic anti-Semitic attack that Jews are somehow always a group apart, that they are less than loyal citizens of the countries where they live, that they can't be trusted. Now, Republicans - who've been smarting for months of criticism about one of their own, Representative Steve King and his comments about white supremacy - were quick to jump on this. But a number of Democrats were outraged as well and wanted to go on record with a response. So, on Thursday, the House passed a resolution that did not name Congresswoman Omar but condemned anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry.

We wanted to talk about this, what it brings up, what it means and where this might go from here. And, in looking at this, we notice that the Jewish community is not of one mind about this, so we've called three people who have been writing about this and who all identify as Jewish. Joining us in our studios in Washington, D.C., is Philip Klein, executive editor of the Washington Examiner. Welcome back.

PHILIP KLEIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for The Washington Post. Welcome.

PAUL WALDMAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Emily Mayer is joining us on the line from New York. She is a founding member of IfNotNow. That's an organization of young Jewish people who oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Welcome to you as well.

EMILY MAYER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Philip Klein, I'm going to start with you. I want to note that a number of major Jewish organizations - while some said that they appreciated the resolution, some of them agree with the 23 House Republicans who voted against it. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, for example, said that it was politically expedient and failed to take into account the historically unique dimensions of the anti-Semitic themes trafficked by Representative Omar. Agree?

KLEIN: Yes. We've had a debate before in terms of the mistreatment of blacks in the criminal justice system. And when African-Americans tried to bring that out and people said all lives matter, that was seen as something that was trying to drown out the very specific impact of unfairness in the criminal justice system. And, in this case, we have a specific case of an anti-Semitic comment that many Jews, not just Republican Jews, Democratic Jews saw as anti-Semitic. And there was an effort to minimize that. And, again, Nancy Pelosi came out and said, this isn't about Ilhan Omar. Well, if it's not about Ilhan Omar, then let's not pretend that Democrats did anything to address this specific anti-Semitic...

MAYER: I want to bring the other guests in, but I do want to ask you about one specific point, which is that Congress has tried and failed for years to also condemn bigotry and Islamophobia. Members of Congress have put in resolutions before that were never even taken up. So the question I think some might have is - what's so terrible about also condemning Islamophobia and bigotry?

KLEIN: Because the problem is that it's the same thing - again, to go back to the argument, it's saying all lives matter. Of course, all lives matter. No one's saying that all lives don't matter, and there are plenty of forums to discuss that. But when there's a specific incident of prejudice against a specific community, it minimizes it to then say, oh, well, let's bring in all of these other, you know, other issues, which, of course, are issues. And I think there was an effort to water down and marginalize anti-Semitism at a time where Jews are the No. 1 victims of anti-religious hate crimes by a wide margin, even if you - when they're only 2 percent of the population.

MARTIN: Paul Waldman, I - you wrote in one of your opinion pieces that you grew up in an ardently Zionist home with a deep attachment to Israel. But you say that Congressman Omar has been smeared, and I quote you, "for things she didn't say."

WALDMAN: Yeah. I think that there's a lot of people who are basically attributing to her a set of implications that were not actually in what she said. Now I think, to understand that, you have to understand the context of this idea of dual loyalty. It's true that, historically, it was something that was used against Jews to imply that they weren't quite American enough, that they couldn't be trusted. But there's been a - kind of a curious kind of inversion. If you go back up until around the 1980s or so, when you said supporters of Israel, what you meant was Jews. But, then, what happened starting in the 1980s but really accelerating after 9/11 was that more and more support for Israel began to be the province of conservative Republicans, especially evangelical Christians.

And so, now, today, the most prominent supporters of Israel are people like Mike Huckabee, who leads tours to Israel, or Sarah Palin, who hung a - an Israeli flag in her office when she was governor of Alaska. And so what has happened is we're at a point where everyone in politics is often asked to show their commitment to the state of Israel. And instead of the idea of dual allegiance being something that shows that Jews aren't American enough, now, people are being asked to show they're American enough by showing loyalty to Israel.

MARTIN: I want to bring in Emily Mayer, who represents another organization, IfNotNow - which I think it's fair to say is quite different in its use from a number of the other major Jewish organizations - that a lot of people will have heard about. So, Emily, I have two questions for you. I mean, obviously, we've raised two issues here. One is Ilhan Omar herself and whether people believe that she is or is not an anti-Semite. And then, the second question is the resolution. So I have to ask you. Do you - are you not at all bothered by her comments?

MAYER: Listen, I am by no means under the illusion that Ilhan Omar's word choice was not fortunate. I think it played into age-old anti-Semitic tropes, and it wouldn't be the wording that I would use. But I think that, like, we've sort of talked about - there has been a pile-on to Ilhan Omar that is incredibly disproportionate to the actual statements that she's made. And I think that to point to Ilhan Omar as, you know, the epitome of what anti-Semitism looks like in this country is just completely wrong and is actually far more due to her position in the Congress as a young freshman who's black and Muslim and has a strong critique of Israel and way less to do than anything about anti-Semitism.

And so I think it's actually far more important to look at the context in which, you know, anti-Semitism - we're seeing it increase and rise. But where is the actual culpability? It's actually in Trump's government and his open embrace of white nationalists into the coalition.

MARTIN: Let me bring in the piece - the argument that Philip made, and I think it's an interesting one. Is the analogy here to Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter, or is the right analogy #MeToo, the #MeToo movement? Now, you remember when the #MeToo movement surfaced, you know, a certain group of people raised it. Another group of people wanted to associate themselves with it because they wanted to say, look, my experiences are not the same but similar. Which is the right metaphor in your view, Emily?

OMAR: I totally agree that I think the right metaphor is #MeToo. I mean, what we're seeing in this country right now is that there is a rise in hatred and bigotry that targets many groups, not only Jews. And I think it's actually to our benefit as Jews to say - you know what? - in this moment we're actually going to unite in our fight against bigotry and hatred with other groups who are targeted in this moment by a white nationalist president and coalition.

MARTIN: Is it, in your view, more important to condemn her for her specific - her because she is the person who said these things or anti-Semitism more broadly? Paul?

WALDMAN: Well, to get back to the the all-lives-matter question, that was really an attempt by some people to say that we don't even have to think about the specific claims that African-Americans have. And I don't think that anyone is saying that we don't have to think about anti-Semitism. But, you know, Democratic members of Congress and their tweets are not the source of anti-Semitism. They're not the problem. A lot of that can be traced to Trump. And I think, when it comes to Israel, we have to separate I think three different things. There's Israel's policies in particular. There's the way that U.S. foreign policy deals with Israel. And then, there's the way that U.S. foreign policy is made in Congress.

And that's the thing that Ilhan Omar was addressing and complaining about. She was saying that in Congress, for people like her, members of Congress are being pushed to demonstrate loyalty to Israel. And, you know, when she talks about APAC, I would agree that her - that talking about APAC and money is a simplistic way to look at the issue. But there is no question that APAC is an extremely powerful lobby, and they have achieved what every lobby wants, which is to get to the point where the issues that have - are of concern to them aren't even debated on a substantive level because everyone says, well, let's not just get into that because we don't want to make APAC angry.

MARTIN: Well, thank you all for having a civil conversation about something that I know people feel very strongly about. And I do appreciate your letting everybody know that - you know what? - you can do that. That's Paul Waldman. He's an opinion writer at The Washington Post. Philip Klein is the executive editor of the Washington Examiner. They're both here with me in Washington, D.C. Emily Mayer is a founding member of the group IfNotNow, which advocates for ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank. She was with us from New York. And I thank you all so much for speaking to us today.

WALDMAN: Thank you.

MAYER: Thanks so much.

KLEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.