By Ben Friedman
To my progressive, non-Jewish friends:
Let me start out by saying that nobody has to convince me that some of the people blasting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for making anti-Semitic remarks are operating in bad faith — I already know that. I have publicly come to the defense of those whom I believed were being unfairly labeled as anti-Semitic, and I share your concerns about the resurgence of right-wing bigotry in the United States. I have directly addressed this before, and I will continue to do so aggressively.
I also know it is not insignificant that a woman of color who escaped horror to become a groundbreaking elected official, and who in many ways exemplifies the American dream, is the prime subject of this controversy. That she has faced disgusting and vile Islamophobia is sickening — we should all unequivocally say so.
None of that — absolutely none of it — excuses promoting harmful anti-Semitic conspiracy theories such as implying foreign allegiance. This is not a false accusation or right-wing smear. Congresswoman Omar’s comments are anti-Semitic, and if the progressive community wants to lift up all marginalized groups, we must be willing to acknowledge shortcomings from our side of the aisle.
If your reaction is “but why are we so focused on this when there’s lots of [other bigotry] as well?” I understand your concern. We must aggressively combat all forms of bigotry, though we should not allow the existence of multiple forms of hate to minimize the real harm caused by any one of them. If I say to you, “anti-Semitism is bad” and your response is effectively “all hate matters,” you may want to reconsider your frame of reference. If progressives are truly an enlightened movement, we should not resort to whataboutism to avoid uncomfortable situations.
You also may be thinking, “Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic!” Of course, you are correct. I have heard this line a thousand times, but who is actually claiming that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic? I am certainly not, and I will not. I have criticized Israel a great deal, and I have seen many others do so passionately without resorting to anti-Semitic tropes, as Congresswoman Omar has done repeatedly. If you are retreating to this straw man line of defense, then you — like some conservatives — are not engaging in this conversation in good faith.
I am not here to explain in detail why Congresswoman Omar’s comments are anti-Semitic. There are plenty of thoughtful and informational resources readily available to anyone who wants to learn more about the painful and bloody history of Jewish conspiracy theories. More importantly, though, I am not taking the time to explain it to you for the simple reason that I do not owe you an explanation.
While Congresswoman Omar’s comments are independently disturbing, what truly wounds me is how frequently I have seen fellow progressives erasing Jewish voices in a conversation about what is or is not offensive to Jews. It is true that not all Jews view this issue the same way, but when the broader Jewish community says something is anti-Semitic and your immediate response is to defend and deflect, or tokenize the small minority who share your viewpoint, you are not truly valuing Jews or approaching the issue sincerely. If you come to me because you want to deepen your understanding of my perspective, I will jump at the opportunity to engage with you. But when you callously demand that I legitimize my lived experience to you — or worse, you write it off completely — you are trivializing and perpetuating generations of trauma suffered by the Jewish community for the simple reason that acknowledging it is inconvenient for you.
Let me be perfectly clear: I do not have to legitimize my lived experience to you. You are not entitled to sit in judgment of the merits of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. It is not your right to dictate to the Jewish community what is and is not anti-Semitic. That is not a standard progressives apply to communities of color around racism, the Muslim community around Islamophobia, or the LGBTQ community around homophobia. As such, it must not be applied to the Jewish community around anti-Semitism.
Undermining impacted communities to avoid addressing an unfortunate reality is not a progressive value. If progressives want to fight anti-Semitism — and I believe the vast majority do — a good way to start would be to actually listen to the Jewish community when we speak.
So pass the mic.
Ben Friedman is an attorney and director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the Jewish Federation’s policies or positions.