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Ilhan Omar and the anti-Semitic ‘trope/canard’ smear

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The latest brouhaha over Ilhan Omar’s supposed flirtation with anti-Semitism was started by Batya Ungar-Sargon of the Forward, who ignited a twitter debate by challenging Omar’s assertion on February 10 that AIPAC used financial pressure on members of Congress on behalf of Israel. Ungar-Sargon then wrote a column accusing Omar of repeated use of anti-Semitic “tropes,” which has become something of a “mot du jour.” The exchange exploded quickly into a firestorm, leading to rebukes from Democratic Congressional leadership and calls from President Trump for Omar to resign from Congress or at least the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ungar-Sargon, who views herself as politically “on the left,” has perversely become a leading practitioner of the familiar playbook smearing those who stray from the narrow boundaries of acceptable criticism of Israel as anti-Semites who are conjuring some historical anti-Semitic “trope” or “canard.”

There has been plenty of discussion regarding the Omar-AIPAC affair, but for Ungar-Sargon, it is a repeat performance from this past November, when she set her sights on Linda Sarsour. At that time, in a Facebook defense of Omar’s stance in favor of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), Sarsour called out “folks who masquerade as progressives but always choose their allegiance to Israel over their commitment to democracy and free speech.” Sarsour was criticizing those who preach progressive values of equality and inclusiveness while excusing Israel’s innumerable violations of those principles, a rather common phenomenon known as PEP – Progressive Except for Palestine. Enter Ungar-Sargon, who immediately tweeted her dismay: “Really really really disappointed to see this canard of dual loyalties.”

The “canard of dual loyalties” involves accusing an entire Jewish community of being more devoted to their own minority community (or to Israel) than to the interests of their nation. It casts Jews as self-dealing, secretly devious outsiders unwilling to join in a communal effort to benefit the larger polity.

Sarsour’s complaint didn’t remotely resemble this “canard.” She criticized unnamed individuals who are self-proclaimed “progressives” and said nothing about Jews in general. Sarsour accused these PEP progressives of sacrificing free speech principles to protect Israel from criticism, a charge that would be applicable to a large swath of Democratic Party officials.  Bungar-Sargon disingenuously connected Sarsour’s entirely bigotry-free remark to the “dual loyalty canard,” apparently thinking that use of the word “canard” alone was sufficient to demonstrate anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitic “tropes” and “canards” and “slanders” have become the go-to staple of Israel support. In January, a six-year-old tweet by Ilhan Omar during Israel’s brutal 2012 assault on Gaza that “Israel has hypnotized the world” was revived and dragged into the spotlight, most prominently by Bari Weiss in her New York Times column.

Omar’s language was harsh but the nature of her exasperation is obvious: How does Israel establish and maintain a state that harshly discriminates on the basis of ethnicity and religion, killing and immiserating untold numbers of victims in the process, and convince the world, or at least a significant and powerful part of the world, that it is the victim? When recently asked on CNN to justify her 2012 tweet, Omar replied: “I don’t know how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans. My comments precisely are addressing what was happening during the Gaza War and I’m clearly speaking about the way the Israeli regime was conducting itself in that war.”

Weiss, duly horrified, claimed that Omar’s criticism of Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza is another chapter in the long-running “conspiracy theory of the Jew as the hypnotic conspirator.” Weiss says “criticisms cross the line into anti-Semitism when they ascribe evil, almost supernatural powers to Israel in a manner that replicates classic anti-Semitic slanders.” She meandered through a pseudo-scholarly discourse of ancient Rome and the death of Jesus, Goebbels’s 1940 approval of an anti-Semitic movie, and criticism of Jewish neocons for promoting the Iraq War launched in 2003. (On this latter note, Weiss’s claim that Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, because of their Jewish heritage, were blamed for Middle East carnage more than Bush and Cheney were blamed, strikes me as paranoid.)

Not surprisingly, Weiss’s column referenced Omar’s “Israel not Jews” defense but conspicuously failed to acknowledge much less refute the distinction. She was unable to offer any argument, coherent or incoherent, that US Jews should feel threatened by Omar’s or any other criticism of Israel. Instead, Weiss essentially takes Omar to task for referencing Israeli hypnosis without first conducting a thorough historical investigation of the nature of anti-Semitism throughout world history.

Would Weiss think that it “crosses the line” into bigotry to accuse others of hypnotizing, brainwashing, or just plain lying? In fact, Netanyahu recently accused Israeli media outlets of “brainwashing.” He has previously accused Palestinians of “brainwashing.” Other pro-Israel propagandists have leveled the “brainwashing” charge against BDS activists and the “left” and LGBT activists. Does Weiss feel that an accusation of “brainwashing” is okay but “hypnosis” is not?

This trope/canard nonsense could be used to immunize Israel from virtually any criticism. Anyone who dared suggest that Israel, throughout its history, has deliberately killed civilians could be accused of appealing to the anti-Semitic “canard” that Jews place a lower value on the lives of non-Jews. Accusing Israel of conducting espionage in foreign countries, whether spying on the US or stealing New Zealand passports, would invoke the anti-Semitic “trope” of the devious, dishonest Jew. There surely is an anti-Semitic trope, canard, or slander, real or imagined, to fit every criticism of Israel.

These defamations by Weiss and Ungar-Sargon are part of an effort to portray those who oppose ethnic/religious discrimination as perpetrators of discrimination. The smear artists hope to deter future transgressions, warning others who contemplate speaking out for Palestinians that they risk association with historical anti-Semitic slanders that led to genocide of millions. The stench of an anti-Semitism accusation can be quite destructive with far-reaching consequences, electoral and otherwise. Bari Weiss has a long history of such calumny dating to her undergraduate years at Columbia, but it is unfortunate that Ungar-Sargon, who has occasionally taken progressive stands as the Forward op-ed editor, has joined the army of slanderers who use the anti-Semitism cry as a weapon.

Recently, a Harvard Law professor offered this common sense warning about overuse of the accusation of anti-Semitism:

“I think we have to be very careful before we accuse any particular individual of being an anti-Semite…And I think one has to be very careful about using the term anti-Semitic…I don’t think anybody should be called or accused of being anti-Semitic unless the evidence is overwhelming.”

Thank you, Alan Dershowitz, that’s excellent advice, even though you used it to defend Steve Bannon.

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“Anti-Semitic “tropes” and “canards” and “slanders” have become the go-to staple of Israel support.”

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