About a year ago I wrote an article for the Good Men Project about the ongoing Colin Kaepernick saga. Although I gave the quarterback credit for his courage and his intentions, I concluded that ultimately his actions were not helpful to his cause. Kneeling during the National Anthem may have been a powerful statement against police brutality but in the long run, his protests were going to degrade into a noisy distraction that would repulse the very people—conservative and moderate white Americans— whose support would be needed to institute comprehensive reform in law enforcement.
With America no closer to protecting the integrity of black lives, a new political scandal involving vulnerable minorities has engulfed the country. And, once again, it is the apparent gap between actions and intentions that has driven the narrative.
The controversy I’m referring to involves the series of tweets by Representative Ilhan Omar regarding the support of some Americans for Israel. Omar had declared, among other things, that Israel had somehow hypnotized its supporters in America, that politicians only supported Israel because of the money proffered to them by lobbying groups like AIPAC and that pro-Israel advocates suffered from the problem of dual loyalty. Although Representative Omar did not mention any particular ethnic groups by name, she did manage to utilize the kinds of accusations that have been hurled against Jews for centuries in order to justify violence and persecution.
I could write many paragraphs about the pain that this kind of language has caused the American Jewish community and the potential harm it could lead to. For the purposes of this article, however, I want to focus on the other group harmed by this kind of language, the very people Omar is presumably trying to help: the Palestinians. Whether by accident or intention, Representative Omar has created such a predictable firestorm with her words that the question of Palestinian treatment by the Israeli government gets lost in the blaze.
Now, of course, there are as many opinions on how to best resolve the tensions in the Middle East as there are people between the Jordan River and the Nile. In fact, in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Representative Omar offered a perfectly reasonable vision for a just peace in the region. As a former Somalian refugee, she surely can be a forceful voice to ensure that the rights and essential humanity of Palestinians, as well as Israelis, are fully respected. Unfortunately, the language of her tweets has instead made her a divisive figure in her own party.
Perhaps this could have been avoided with clear thoughtful language presented with an awareness of audience. As others have suggested, this is fairly easy. It would seem simple enough to formulate a tweet-sized condemnation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, to criticize his harsh policies in the West Bank or his brutal security operations in Gaza. It would not appear too difficult to point out that Netanyahu’s housing policies in East Jerusalem have the effect of undermining any decent resolution between Israeli’s and Palestinians. Representative Omar could have used the power of her office and the platform of Twitter to offer Americans new insights and potential new approaches to one of the most intractable conflicts in the world. If she works to repair the damage she has done, perhaps she still can.
There are two caveats that must be mentioned in the case of this episode, one regarding the congressperson’s intentions, the other regarding the reaction to her statements. About the vile poster in the West Virginia Capitol, there is no ambiguity. The linkage of Representative Omar to the 9/11 attacks is hateful and unacceptable. Islamophobia—like anti-Semitism—should have no place in our national discourse. There are plenty of ways to disagree with Representative Omar without feeding into the basest stereotypes and prejudices about her faith and her cultural background.
Which brings us full circle to the issue of Omar’s controversial tweets and the intentions behind them. As I mentioned, for the purposed of this article, I chose to assume that Omar’s errors were a matter of poorly chosen words. I chose to assume that her goal was not to introduce an element of antisemitism into American politics in order to better rally opponents of Israel. I choose to assume that Omar had not decided to take a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, simply substituting Jews for immigrants or people of color. But I cannot be fully confident that these assumptions are warranted.
Along with many other American Jews, I will continue to look at Representative Omar with a degree of skepticism, hoping that in time my doubts will be dispelled.
But as we wait to learn more about the freshman congressperson’s intentions, we can draw an essential lesson from her actions: language matters. Politics is the art of the possible. Language that clarifies our ideals and draws people to support our vision increases the possibilities.
Language that inflames and polarizes tends to decrease them. We live in an age of inflammatory speech that sends us into angry caves of reaction, where we bitterly tweet our dissatisfactions out to the world. To address the many crises that we face—from the Middle East to global warming—we need to come out of our caves to find a way to address each other in a language that we may not always agree with but can at least listen to and, perhaps, understand.
Photo Credit Leo Paltik