Ilhan Omar: It’s All About the Ad Hominems, Baby

Rep Ilhan Omar censored as anti-semitic
Rep. Ilhan Omar gets her lips locked quickly after criticizing the Israel lobby.

Ilhan Omar says she did not realize her statements about Israel could be construed as anti-Semitic. Maybe we should take the Minnesota congresswoman at her word — except that she is manifestly unwilling to give people who disagree with her the same courtesy.

Omar’s comments, which last week yielded a broad, anodyne House resolution against bigotry that satisfied no one, evoked a trifecta of anti-Jewish stereotypes. But they also embodied a bipartisan tendency to question people’s motives rather than rebut their arguments, a tactic that is poisonous to civil and rational debate.

“Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel,” Omar, who was elected to Congress last fall, said on Twitter in 2012.

Last month, in response to a tweet about congressional support for Israel from journalist Glenn Greenwald, Omar said, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” alluding to the financial influence of Jewish donors. After she deleted and apologized “unequivocally” for that tweet, Omar provoked fresh controversy by saying she wanted to talk about “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

Many people, representing a wide range of views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, heard in those comments echoes of charges that Jews use occult powers to manipulate world events, use their wealth to buy political influence and cannot be trusted because they place tribal loyalties above their country’s interests. Putting those interpretations aside, Omar’s statements clearly portrayed Israel’s supporters as mesmerized dolts or paid shills — and in either case, unworthy of engagement.

Such ad hominem attacks are logically irrelevant, since a person’s motives tell us nothing about the merits of his opinions. They encourage the demonization of political opponents, reinforcing a reflexive mutual hostility that makes a productive exchange of ideas impossible.

That’s what Donald Trump was doing when he averred, during a March 2 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, that “we have people in Congress that hate our country.” It is what Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, was doing when he suggested the next day that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., lends credence to the charge that Trump is guilty of obstructing justice only because billionaire Tom Steyer, who favors impeachment, is a major supporter of Democratic candidates.

Nadler called Jordan’s tweet “inane AND anti-Semitic” — the latter because Jordan had replaced the “S” in Steyer’s last name with a dollar sign and Steyer’s father was Jewish. I’m not sure about the anti-Semitic part, but Jordan’s accusation certainly was inane, both because Democrats hardly need a financial incentive to entertain claims about a Republican president’s misdeeds and because Jordan substituted a red herring for an actual argument against those claims.

Coming to Omar’s defense last week, Glenn Greenwald suggested there is nothing wrong with attacking “the Israel Lobby,” as “everyone feels fine saying members of Congress place guns over Americans due to fear of NRA.” He thereby illustrated the pitfalls of attacking motives instead of arguments.

Greenwald’s “everyone” excludes all the people who sincerely disagree with him about gun control. His framing assumes such people do not exist, that the debate pits sensible, well-intentioned guardians of public safety against cowards who shrink from doing the right thing lest they antagonize the National Rifle Association.

Unlike Greenwald, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote that Omar “deserves criticism” for her “mild anti-Semitism,” but Goldberg was angrier with the legislator’s Republican critics. Noting that 23 Republicans voted against the anti-bigotry resolution, she said, “Republicans don’t seem to recognize” the “ideals of multiethnic democracy.”

That is not exactly a charitable interpretation, as the resolution’s opponents complained it had been watered down so much that it had become meaningless. When you are convinced that you are fighting for all that is good and right against the forces of darkness, you can’t agree with your opponents even when you agree with them.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.