On Ilhan Omar and Anti-Semitism

There is not much new in the recent controversy surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). As an intellectual and sometime activist, I can attest to instances in which I too have been falsely accused of being anti-Semitic. A few vignettes may illustrate an experience that spans some sixty years.

The first occurred when I was an undergraduate at Boston University. I presided over a student talent show that happened to coincide with “parents weekend.” For those who may not know, one-third of the students came from Jewish families at the time. Over the course of the evening, I told a few jokes, including one that I had heard told by Cardinal Cushing of Boston, in which he complimented a certain Mr. Schwarz, who was a known philanthropist but one who also felt a need to publicize his bakery. I was surprised to be called to the office of the university president to answer charges of anti-Semitism. The university’s resident rabbi gave a statement to the local media asking for a public apology. I called his office offering to meet. The surprise ending: as I approached his offices I saw dozens of students carrying placards. These were not students supporting the rabbi, but Jewish students telling the good rabbi to leave Fuad Suleiman alone, for they knew that I was innocent of the charge; leading them was the president of the students’ Zionist council. Buoyed by the students support, I met with the rabbi in an attempt to discover what wrong he felt I may have committed. The rabbi told me that by telling a story that lightly highlighted the materialism of Mr. Schwarz, I was perpetuating a stereotype of Jews, despite both the story’s truth and its provenance.

A second encounter occurred in my graduate years when I wrote a research paper dealing with the Arab boycott of Israel. In the paper I referred to support for Israel within the American Jewish community, attributing this support to a desire by American Jews to support their fellow religionists. The professor who reviewed my paper was known to be an avid Zionist. (I had expressly asked the dean to assign this man as my mentor and eventual doctorate reader.) The good professor told me that I was wrong and that Jews in America supported Israel for its promise to be a humane and democratic state. To support his case he called to his office half a dozen of Harvard’s distinguished Jewish faculty, including a couple of Nobel Prize winners. I can not recall a more satisfying discussion, as these well-known personalities gave me a great tutorial. I sat there wondering how they can maintain on humane grounds the superiority of a state that was already committing inhuman crimes by then, and which has gone on to commit far worse crimes. Perhaps I underestimated the reasons my distinguished professors needed to believe in better.

In the next decade, I was fortunate to land a teaching position and then to receive an appointment as vice president of a university in Ohio. I enjoyed some popularity as a public speaker and often spoke to academic, charitable, religious, and civic groups. I often spoke on the Arab-Israeli conflict. For nearly two years I teamed up with a professor from the University of Dayton, who took the Israeli side in our debates. What made our routine even more interesting was the fact that my Israeli opponent and I were born a few blocks apart in Jerusalem, to grow up as “enemies.” This professor and I developed a debating routine but often closed by having dinner or drinks together. Some in the leadership of the local Jewish community had other ideas. Around that time, our university was hit by the largest tornado in the history of the country, and as the officer in charge of raising recovery funds, I called on the community for help.

To my surprise, a local rabbi and a prominent attorney came to the office of the university’s president to inform him that no help was coming from the Jewish community as long as the university had an “Arab propagandist” as its vice president. They correctly told the president that I had recently criticized Israel in a speech I gave before the Dayton business club. They had no problem asking for my dismissal, the end of my professional career, and the deprivation of my children’s daily bread. When asked if I had advocated anything criminal or immoral, they could not point to anything. My boss showed them the door. With thanks, I promised the president that I’d not speak on Israel in the Dayton area for the coming year. True to my promise, I continued to criticize Israel only outside the area. A year later, I addressed the same business club and told them what took place a year earlier. I addressed the rabbi and the lawyer, accusing them both of attempting to limit my right of free speech, and of their violation of the rights of other members to hear opposing views. As a gesture of goodwill, the rabbi asked me to have coffee with him at his synagogue, and I was pleased to accept his invitation.

A decade later a colleague of mine at a Washington, D.C. consulting firm, who was Jewish and who I had invited numerous times to have dinner with my family, asked me if I knew that he was Jewish. “Of course,” I told him. He asked if I knew that he was a Zionist, and my reply surprised him. I told him that I was sorry for anyone who chose to follow a faulty ideology. We continued to be friendly colleagues.

I am telling these personal experiences now, decades later, to reflect on the terms “Jewish,” “anti-Semitic,” “Zionist,” and “Israeli,” and how they differ from each other.

Judaism has been around for over three thousand years but always followed by a limited number of adherents, as compared to the other major religions of the world. Judaism’s adherents have been connected to the Holy Land, although their dominance there was questionable and of limited duration. By the nineteenth century, Jews in Palestine numbered only a few thousand; most Jews resided in other lands of the Middle East or in Europe.

Nineteenth-century Europe experienced a new world phenomenon, nationalism, but also, unfortunately, saw a rise in the severe oppression of the Jewish minorities. There were pogroms in almost every European country. Using the fad of the day, that nationalism can free oppressed people (as was happening in Greece or Italy), a few Jewish intellectuals opined that Jews were also an ethnic group, thereby dropping the religious community in favor of an ethnic community identity. The idea did not arise in Germany, Poland, or Russia, where suppression was greatest, but in Switzerland and England, where it could be advocated and debated openly. Most European Jews were not involved initially in this new political ideology. The Jews within the Ottoman Empire did not express support, and that included Jews in the Holy Land. It did not take long for Zionists to advocate a homeland for all Jews; defined homelands for oppressed minorities were what these minorities recognized as imperatives for future survival. Biblical affiliation with a Jewish Palestine was an easy next step. Many Jews have opposed the transition from theology to a political ideology. One can certainly support Judaism without accepting Zionism.

Zionism has been successful mainly because of the success of its leaders in garnering support from European colonial powers. They found allies when England assumed control of Palestine in 1917 and later secured Britain’s promise to establish a homeland in Palestine. Creation of a Jewish state in Palestine under Ottoman rule would have been most unlikely.

In order to see Israel founded, Zionists had to deal with which portion of the Holy Land would constitute the new state, and what to do with the large non-Jewish population that then constituted the overwhelming majority of residents. Seventy years later there is no resolution to these two questions. In the meantime, the political elite in Israel has been pursuing illegal, inhuman, and brutal means to keep non-Jews from exercising political, economic, and social rights in the area. As one of nearly two hundred states in the world, Israel cannot be exempt from criticism or allowed to escape the norms applied to every other state. Holding Israel responsible for its conduct to its citizens or its neighbors is a far cry from condemning all Jews.

The definition of anti-Semitic has been expanding steadily over the last 60 years. It has recently enlarged to include anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli. Some are now trying to include anti-Individual Jews. This expansion did not come at the hands of those who are anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli. Rep. Ilhan Omar is pleading with all of us, and especially with American Jews, to take another look at these terms. As an Arab-American, I freely admit to being anti-Israeli because of the current policies of Israel, and to being anti-Zionist because of Zionism’s deep disrespect for others; but I resent being called anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. I, too, am a Semite. As a Palestinian-American, I know what it feels like to be an object of discrimination, including by those who also assume illogically and erroneously that legitimate Palestinian concern over Israel’s behavior somehow makes Palestinians anti-Semitic.