Freshman member of Congress Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, has become a lightening rod in a new form of character assassination and ad hominem argument: to the effect that any criticism of the policies of the State of Israel — or even of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — means that the speaker is automatically labeled an anti-Semite or at least an anti-Zionist. In fact, one current line of argument is anti-Zionism is nothing more than covert anti-Semitism. This line of malicious and ill-informed argument cannot be allowed to stand. It is in error, and please let me explain why.
First of all, Zion (the root of “anti-Zionism”) is a place, a hill in Jerusalem and a poetic name for the city. A Semite (the root of “anti-Semitism”) is a descendant of Shem, the son of Noah and ancestor of Abraham, the father of monotheism in Hebrew Scripture. Anti-Zionism has to do with opposition to a place and a political/ethnic/religious program whereas anti-Semitism has to do with hatred of a people and their bloodline. These are very different things. If one has reservations about Zionism, that is about a policy and geography, not persons.
Secondly, Zionism — the 20th-century program to create a “homeland for the Jewish People” in Palestine — can be embraced (or rejected) by both Jews and Christians. The fact is today there are actually far more Christian Zionists than there are Jewish Zionists. In fact, modern Zionism had its origins not among the Jews of Europe, but among Christians in England in the 19th century, when they called it Restorationism — that is to say, the restoration and resettlement of the Jews back into the area long known as Palestine. In the U.S. today, there are millions upon millions of fundamentalist evangelical Christians who are fervent supporters of the State of Israel and all its policies. It has come to be called the “New Christian Zionism.” Most Zionists are not even Jewish.
Thirdly, there are (and have always been) plenty of Jewish people who are anti-Zionist. For almost 2,000 years, the consensus teaching of Rabbinical Judaism (the form of Judaism that took shape after 70 CE and continues down to today) always held the Jewish People were not to return to their “homeland,” not until God sends the Messiah, who will be recognized by all and will accomplish the miraculous Restoration of the Temple and the original “Land of Israel” (Eretz Israel in Hebrew). There are Orthodox Jewish sects in New York and in London who hold fast to the teaching that the modern creation of the State of Israel is against Torah law and teaching. Every few years, members of these Orthodox sects demonstrate in the streets to this effect.
Fourthly, unwavering support for many of Israel’s current policies (especially under right-wing Netanyahu and the Likud Party) — in relation to the Palestinians and other issues — is just barely held by a slim majority of the Jewish population in Israel and by nowhere near the majority of Jews in the U.S. This has been shown in a number of polls from various sources, including even the Jewish American, conservative Republican consultant/pollster Frank Luntz, as reported in the Times of Israel (Sept. 11, 2016). Also see “Are American Jews Turning Away from Israel?” in the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine (online edition, March 10, 2016).
I don’t want to be misunderstood: I never have denied and do not now deny Israel’s right to exist. After World War II, there had to be a “Homeland for the Jewish People.” But it is also true there has always been, since the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine of 1947, the clearly stated and understood requirement that there had to be a Homeland for the Palestinian People as well. This has not happened, and this is why only 161 of the 192 United Nations member-states recognize Israel. And this is why the world does not accept or condone Israel’s 1967 occupation of the Palestinian Territories.
Now to return to our new member of congress, Ilhan Omar: She did not make accusations about the above issues — issues about which the Jewish People themselves disagree strongly. Omar merely asked why, for all practical purposes, it is disallowed even to raise the issue of AIPAC’s power in Washington as a lobbying group while many, many Americans constantly criticize and object to so many other lobbying groups working the halls of Congress and throwing money around. Omar never said Israel did not a have a right to exist. Omar never slandered the Jewish people or the religion of Judaism. (Nor will I ever do so.)
Nonetheless, the fact remains: The actions of any nation’s democratic government must be constantly subjected to study and critique. This is necessary both unilaterally within a nation state and multi-laterally between that nation state and other states. Modern nation states exist not merely via their own self-declaration, but, even more importantly, via their dialogue, diplomacy and bilateral agreements with other states and with the United Nations. That is how the merely theoretical “right to exist” of a nation state is translated into a sustainable reality of ongoing existence.
And finally: Why are those of us who are not Jewish and not living in Israel entitled to voice opinions about these issues? It’s very simple: If a World War III is going to start, it’s most likely going to start in or in relationship with Israel. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Israel does not stay in Israel. The world has to speak up and speak loudly. We have to demand peace and demand a two-state solution, which has been the position of the United Nations since day one in 1947.
The U.S. can and must do more to make that happen.
Most certainly and most importantly, we cannot allow meaningful dialogue and debate to be derailed by those who hurl the words “anti-Semite” (or “Islamophobe” for that matter) like weapons in a gladiator stadium. That way lies death, not only for the gladiators, but for many millions of people.
Representative Omar, keep it up. Keep demanding full and fair dialogue and real results. The world is depending on your generation to break the stalemate. The old guard is not going to get the job done. It’s up to you young mavericks, whatever religion you may follow — Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Godspeed.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.