Photography by Tony Webster
Letter to My Teacher
Concerning Ilhan Omar’s big mouth, and my hope that she never shuts up.
On Feb. 8, Bret Stephens wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “The Progressive Assault on Israel.” On Feb. 11, Michelle Goldberg wrote a piece entitled “Ilhan Omar’s Very Bad Tweets.” On Feb. 12, I wrote a Facebook post that read, in part: “Between the vile Bret Stephens piece a few days ago about pro-Palestinian demonstrators at LGBTQ march [sic] and today’s equally vile Michelle Goldberg piece about Ilhan Omar, the New York Times is really trying to ram the idea that any criticism of Israel = antisemitism down its readers’ throats.”
On Feb. 26, I received an email from one of my college professors with whom I’ve stayed in touch in the thirty years since I graduated. This woman was and remains an extremely important teacher for me, and though I’m not much given to explaining myself, I chose to explain myself to her. Given the House’s move to formally condemn Omar—without doing her the courtesy of naming her—as well as the fact that this is probably the first time I’ve fully articulated my feelings on both Israel/Palestine and the way that some American liberals like to misuse charges of antisemitism and other forms of bigotry for the sake of shutting down opposition, I thought I would share what I wrote. This version has been edited from the original letter, both for clarity and to reflect later developments about which my teacher and I also corresponded, namely, Omar’s remarks on Feb. 27 at Busboys and Poets bookstore in Washington, D.C., where she spoke about “the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Omar’s latest remarks prompted a House resolution condemning antisemitism—and, after pressure from the left wing of the Democratic party, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry. The resolution quotes the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism as, among other things “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” On March 18, the Washington Post reported that at a March 5 meeting billed as “a chance for Muslim and Jewish House Democrats to ease tensions and find common ground,” Rep. Dean Phillips, “told his fellow Minnesota freshman that [Omar] had to apologize and said the group should publicly affirm Israel’s right to exist and protect itself.”
I’m sure you know that I absolutely hate the idea of causing you any distress. You and a handful of other teachers at Drew made me the writer I am, and I’m profoundly grateful for it every day. As I’ve written to you before, your admonition to “write about the things you love” has been an aesthetic and moral yardstick for me for the past thirty years. There are some lessons that cut right to the core of things, and that was definitely one of them.
Like you, I’ve sometimes been troubled by certain portions of the American left, who use the idea of intersectionality not to make common cause between oppressed or marginalized groups, but to pull the focus from one problem to another by insisting on linking them together. The idea that all oppressions are the same oppression seems to me to be part of a growing movement in the American left, whose frustration at the failures of the Obama presidency and the horrors of the current administration have left them looking for a silver bullet that will end all injustice at a stroke. And this in turn is reflective of the utopian search, by some portions of the left, for a magical future society in which there’s no injustice of any kind, and indeed no misunderstanding of any kind. It’s as if they believe we’ll wake up one day in a world where everyone loves everyone else because we’ve found some transcendental, almost telepathic way to communicate exactly what we feel to other people—a world where where misunderstanding is indistinguishable from difference of opinion, and both are inconceivable. You see this especially in the policing of speech. More and more words and idioms become taboo every day, and in some circles the acceptable vocabulary of political or social discourse has been watered down to an inexpressive series of apologies and caveats. But you also see it in the way certain speakers are enjoined from speaking on certain subjects—particularly in the way some portions of the left like to jump on people who dare to judge others who fall outside of their ethnic or religious or other identity cohort.
Of course it’s often useful to ask who is given a public platform to speak about which subjects, and which ideas are praised over others. The criticism of Green Book, for example, as a film that privileges a white experience of racism over the black experience of racism, reflects Hollywood’s well-established tendency to reward a white person’s coming to consciousness over a black person’s criticisms of white supremacist culture. But to my mind, the criticism of Ilhan Omar is an example of the former phenomenon: of a person being scapegoated for talking about people who aren’t like her, rather than a person being criticized for what she actually said. Goldberg accused Omar of invoking “antisemitic tropes,” a phrase I put in quotation marks not because it’s not a real thing, but because as far as I can tell it doesn’t have any application to what Omar said. I think Goldberg, “consciously or not” (to use her own words), chose to single out Omar for the kind of statement that any number of critics of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians have made because Omar is a Muslim. Needless to say, rightwing pundits and politicians have had a field day exploiting this. How could they not? It was a purported liberal—or what passes for a liberal in the New York Times—who gave them permission to do so.
But what is antisemitic in what Omar said? Or perhaps more to the point, how did Goldberg demonstrate that Omar’s tweet is antisemitic? Goldberg makes a blanket assertion (“Consciously or not, Omar invoked a poisonous anti-Semitic narrative about Jews using their money to manipulate global affairs”) and moves on, acting as though the truth of this statement is self-evident; the rest of her piece only has anything to do with Omar if you believe that Omar is or said something antisemitic. But all Omar did was quote a very famous (and very terrible) rap song about how money tends to trump moral concerns and then apply it to politics—in particular, to the influence of lobbying groups on American government. This is a problem that everyone from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has also taken on; even the Dumpster ran on a campaign of draining the swamp. The amount of money that dozens of lobbying groups, including AIPAC, spends to buy influence in Washington is staggering, and just because the particular organization Omar is calling out happens to be Jewish doesn’t make her statement antisemitic. AIPAC’s influence in Washington has been meticulously documented. It may be “manipulative,” to use Goldberg’s word, but it’s no more manipulative, nor differently manipulative, than what the NRA does, or the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies, or the anti-environment lobby, or the tobacco lobby, or even AARP. It’s simply business as usual in American politics, and calling it antisemitic is just a way of, as the pundits say, pivoting the conversation away from one issue by distracting the audience with another.
Which brings me to the word “vile,” to which you took particular exception. I think you know that I value truth in public discourse far more than I value civility. The essay on which you advised me to write about things I loved was a response to Bellow’s Herzog. The novel infuriated me because it celebrated a Whitmanesque ideal of how one should be an American (Whitman is evoked explicitly and often) without ever acknowledging Whitman’s homosexuality. This made me angry not because I think homosexuality is the key to Whitman’s work, although it’s certainly important, but because both Bellow’s novel and its protagonist are obsessed with and despise homosexuals. As I recall, there are seventeen explicit homophobic statements in the book, ranging from antigay slurs to deliberate narrative choices (by which I mean authorial choices) that depict gay people as abhorrent, culminating in the pseudo-Freudian explanation that all of Herzog’s anger at the world and his failure in his various endeavors and relationships is a result of a sexual assault by a man at a young age. No doubt that would have bothered me on its own, but the hypocrisy of juxtaposing it with Whitman’s vision of America made me nuts. I know the biographical and academic take on Whitman’s sexuality has evolved quite a bit since Bellow wrote Herzog, but from the get-go there have been critics who pointed out that an extraordinary number of Whitman’s poems describe loving and erotic relationships between men, and Bellow was way too smart and too educated not to know this. To use one of the great gay writers as a bludgeon for a homophobic assault was just too galling to me. I had to protest.
And that gall is still a part of me. Whenever I encounter a pundit masquerading as an essayist using the veneer of civilized discourse to make claims that are simply not true, I see red. It cheapens the national conversation, the national ethos, but even worse, it makes it that much harder for people to point out actual instances of bigotry and injustice, because it reduces these charges to ways to score political points rather than to initiate actual discussion or investigation. It becomes a closing statement rather than an opening one. The case of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is another instance. It’s not that Northam doing blackface isn’t racist and offensive; it’s that the words “blackface” and “racism” were deployed as triggers to ignite righteous indignation without ever actually discussing how a single instance of a socially unacceptable behavior thirty-plus years ago should affect our judgment of a man whose life and career have involved a fairly extensive involvement with the black community and the political issues that affect it. Call someone a racist and he loses all credibility; the only acceptable option is for him to slink away in shame. Call someone antisemitic and the same thing happens. If she defends herself against the charge, it’s just further proof of guilt. But if there are antisemitic tropes in the world—and there certainly are—there is also the well-documented trope of using the charge of antisemitism to derail criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and as I said at the beginning of this paragraph, these kinds of bogus charges cheapen the very idea of antisemitism, and have the effect of making it less offensive to us than it should be.
I’m sure you’re also thinking about Omar’s earlier tweet, which Goldberg mentions, the one about Israel “hypnotizing” the world. This, to me, is a very different statement than a throwaway reference to “it’s all about the Benajmins,” which is steeped in the idiom of any American of Omar’s generation. This is clearly provocative and inflammatory, and I understand why it upsets people. It’s meant to invoke anger against Israel, and it deserves to be inspected. But even on close examination, I find the remark angry and frustrated and a bit bewildered, but not antisemitic. Because to many people, the way that the government and the media and the average American talk about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is truly bizarre. And here’s where you and I differ, as much as it pains me to say it. You are a Zionist and I am an anti-Zionist. Although I find the idea of a modern state drawn on religious or ethnic lines medieval (in the way that Salman Rushdie has used the word when he talks about Islamist extremism) and almost designed to ensure conflict, I’m not against the idea of a Jewish state. I just don’t think that Jewish people had any right in 1948 to seize what was then Mandatory Palestine and declare the state of Israel.
“The West allowed the Nakba to happen every bit as much as it allowed the Holocaust to happen, and the West allows Israel to treat Palestinians as a pariah class in land that, by any honest assessment, was stolen from them. But just as the Jews didn’t accept the idea that they’d lost some kind of battle with Christendom and should meekly accept second-class citizenship at the margins of countries that were at best indifferent to their fate, and more often hostile to it, so too have the Palestinians refused to give up. And now the 700,000 displaced persons of the Nakba have become four million.”
To be clear: I firmly believe that the world abrogated its responsibility for Jews both during the lead-up to the Holocaust and during the Holocaust itself. I believe the Holocaust happened not least because Jews had no state of their own, and because antisemitism is entrenched in Western ideology. The Holocaust wasn’t an isolated aberration whose causes can be laid solely at the feet of Hitler and the Nazis. The West allowed the Holocaust to happen, because the fate of millions of European Jews was less important to them than their own economic and political interests. Nor do I believe the Allies went to war with Germany to save the Jews; they went to war to save their own asses, and as soon as the war was over they once again lost interest in the fate of the Jews, or their own responsibility for the Jews’ plight. And so Jews took matters into their own hands. I teach Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union nearly every year, and use it to discuss exactly this question. I don’t know if Chabon defines himself as an anti-Zionist, but he’s certainly made it clear that he finds Israel’s treatment of the Occupied Territories unconscionable. But he also possesses Keats’s negative capability to an exceptional degree, and in Yiddish Policemen’s Union he does a masterful job of making persuasive the Zionist arguments of a group of people who are essentially terrorists, and who murder and bomb their way to an alternate version of Israel because they’re tired of relying on various Western powers to protect them, when it’s very clear those powers have no interest in their welfare. In some very real way, they had no other option but to make their own country: in Chabon’s book, and in the real world as well. It is incumbent upon anyone who cares about this issue to acknowledge that.
Which is to say: I don’t only blame David Ben-Gurion and the Zionists who fought for him for the Nakba; nor do I only blame Israel for the ongoing plight of the Palestinians. The West allowed the Nakba to happen every bit as much as it allowed the Holocaust to happen, and the West allows Israel to treat Palestinians as a pariah class in land that, by any honest assessment, was stolen from them. But just as the Jews didn’t abandon their cultural identity or accept the idea that they’d lost some kind of battle with Christendom and should meekly accept second-class citizenship at the margins of countries that were at best indifferent to their fate, and more often hostile to it, so too have the Palestinians refused to give up. And now the 700,000 displaced persons of the Nakba have become four million in the Occupied Territories, and several million more who live in marginalized circumstances in various countries not their own.
In his youth, Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America, as well as a former German and Zionist who was born under Nazi rule, helped to solidify the young state of Israel. In 2015, Siegman wrote,
Successive Israeli governments have sustained a half-century-long occupation of the Palestinians through the application of deadly violence by the military. What right do they therefore have to demand that Palestinians forgo violence in their struggle to end their suppression? Is the Palestinians’ resort to violence to achieve freedom and self-determination—considered “peremptory norms” in international law—less legitimate than Israel’s resort to violence to deny them their freedom and self-determination?
Siegman has repeatedly denounced the idea that “Palestinians who have lived for half a century under Israeli occupation are the oppressors and their Israeli occupiers are their victims.” And yet that’s the dominant tone of the public conversation in the US: that the Palestinians are to blame for fighting a war to get their homes back and for wanting to be citizens of the modern world rather than an apartheid state. It’s as mystifying to me how that came to be as it is to millions of Palestinians and people who care about them, and using the word “hypnotized” to describe the cognitive dissonance of these conversations doesn’t strike me as farfetched. Provocative, as I said, even inflammatory. Perhaps even dangerous. But the truth is that Israelis and Palestinians have been engaged in a war for the past seventy years, and war is dangerous. As long as Israel refuses to admit its wrongdoing in the Nakba, and as long as it works to keep the Occupied Territories impoverished and weak in order to prevent the development of a viable Palestinian state, and as long as Israel’s Muslim citizens enjoy fewer rights than its Jewish citizens, Palestinians are going to continue to loathe the state of Israel. For them to think any other way would be to ask them not only to justify their own displacement and oppression, but to consign themselves and their children to lives of privation and drudgery. If we couldn’t ask that of the Jews of 1948, I’m not sure how we can ask it of the Palestinians of 2019.
“The idea that Zionists possess a loyalty to Israel in addition to the country of their citizenship is just, well, Zionism. It’s in the introduction to the Wikipedia page. More to the point, though: don’t many Americans have a “dual loyalty” to the United States and the country of their national or ethnic origin? When Teddy Roosevelt denounced so-called 'hyphenated Americans' in 1915, he singled out 'German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans, or Italian-Americans,’ a xenophobic stance that would probably strike most contemporary Americans as quaint if they even knew about it.”
So: though I believe that the state of Israel was founded unjustly, I also believe, to use the desired parlance, that it has a right to exist, and that the Jews who live in the state of Israel have a right to remain there. To ask them to go elsewhere is ridiculous, not to mention profoundly evil. But I don’t believe that the Jews of Israel have a right to a Jewish majority state or the right to keep four million Palestinians penned up in what are essentially a pair of detention camps. I understand that there’s real fear that in a one-state situation Palestinians would gain numerical superiority over Jews and take some kind of revenge. Certainly there are people who have exploited the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories to fan those flames. Some of those antisemites are probably beyond hope. But some are people for whom three generations of war and erasure and injustice perpetrated by a state that justifies its existence on Jewish religious texts has bled over into hatred of the people associated with that faith, despite the fact that many Jews—and indeed many Israelis—protest or otherwise disavow Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand that feeling. I don’t share it, and I think it’s far from universal among Palestinians, but it would take a very cold heart not to understand why some Palestinians think that Israel commits its crimes against them with the support of the Jewish community, when groups like AIPAC are spending millions of dollars to ensure that the United States continues to back Israel regardless of its actions.
But the only way Israel can ever hope to lessen that hatred is if it stops giving Palestinians reasons to hate it. Only Israel can end this war, because it has all the power, not just economically and militarily, but, for reasons that remain unfathomable to me and to most Palestinians, morally. Just as England had to admit the injustice of its anti-Irish and anti-Catholic policies in order to end the Troubles, Israel has to accept culpability for what happened in 1948. And just as Sinn Fein had to admit that Northern Ireland is a geopolitical reality, the Palestinians have to admit that the Jews of Israel are also a geopolitical reality, and cannot be chased away. There are very few countries that can claim they were founded in a just manner; certainly none in the New World. Acknowledging mistakes from the past doesn’t mean we have to be bound to them, or judged solely by them. When people don’t find a way to live together, you get the ridiculousness—and the tragedy—of the Balkans. Separate but equal was no more true for African Americans than it is for Palestinians.
As for Omar’s remarks about “allegiance to a foreign country”: as Paul Waldman points out it in the Washington Post, Omar wasn’t talking about Jews’ so-called “dual loyalty,” but was actually protesting the ways in which members of Congress are routinely coerced into declaring loyalty for Israel. It’s been Nancy Pelosi leading the charge to condemn Omar, after all, not Jewish members of Congress. As Waldman says:
The whole purpose of the Democrats’ resolution is to enforce dual loyalty not among Jews, but among members of Congress, to make sure that criticism of Israel is punished in the most visible way possible. This, of course, includes Omar. As it happens, this punishment of criticism of Israel is exactly what the freshman congresswoman was complaining about, and has on multiple occasions.
The need for ostensibly leftist commentators to distort Omar’s words is an indication of how “spectacularly disingenuous Omar’s critics are being,” as Waldman writes (and also Phyllis Bennis in the Nation). It’s also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the kind of attacks Omar faces. At the same time as the Busboys and Poets story was breaking, we were also learning about a poster on display in the West Virginia statehouse that superimposed Omar’s face in front of a picture of the burning World Trade Center with the caption “‘Never Forget’-You Said..I am the proof-you have forgotten.” This poster seems to have been made by members of the West Virginia Republican Party, and represents the kind of suspicions Muslims in America—and people who are merely perceived to be Muslim—face every day. As one of my Indian students said in disgust last semester, when a class of mostly white students was discussing xenophobia in the context of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone: “Have any of you ever been called a terrorist? I was called a terrorist on the subway this morning, with my wife and children standing next to me.”
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Omar was in fact referring to Jews when she spoke about “allegiance to a foreign country.” I agree that this is indeed an old antisemitic trope (even as I feel that that phrase, and the important history behind it, is being worn to dust right now). Nevertheless, the idea that Zionists possess a loyalty to Israel in addition to the country of their citizenship is just, well, Zionism. I mean, it’s in the introduction to the Wikipedia page. And we’re kidding ourselves if we pretend that some portion of the American Jewish community isn’t advocating for the security of Israel over and above any consideration they might give to the oppression of the Palestinians. As Waldman writes, “Dual loyalty is precisely what AIPAC demands, and what they get.”
More to the point, though: don’t many Americans have a “dual loyalty” to the United States and the country of their national or ethnic origin? Palestinians come immediately to mind. So do Cubans, and many other people whose ancestors came from Caribbean nations, and everyone who came here (or whose parents or ancestors came here) because their native country was taken over by a dictatorial regime—Iranians and Iraqis, say, or Chinese or Russians. Or anyone who fled their country because their sex or sexuality or religion or ethnicity made them a target of oppression. In neighborhood in Queens, virtually every Polish business closed to celebrate the canonization of John Paul II. The American Irish community lobbied extensively both for and against the decriminalization of abortion in Ireland in 2018, and St. Patrick’s Day is observed in more countries than any other national festival. Many Italian, French, German, Spanish, and of course British people identify with the country and culture their ancestors came from. In fact, when Teddy Roosevelt denounced so-called “hyphenated Americans” in 1915, he singled out “German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans, or Italian-Americans,” an isolationist/xenophobic stance that would probably strike most contemporary Americans as quaint if they even knew about it. My point is: shouldn’t we accept American’s so-called “dual allegiance” as a fact rather than pretend it doesn’t exist? Shouldn’t we celebrate it where it makes the US more a part of the global community, and be wary of it or condemn it when it makes the US a party to human rights abuses? In other words, shouldn’t we judge individual actions rather than try to outlaw a sentiment that’s woven into the fabric of American culture? We all know that the sex-crazed homosexual is a hurtful stereotype, right up there with the lazy black person or the inscrutable Asian or the alcoholic Irishman. And we also know that there are sex-crazed homosexuals (guilty, at least in my youth), lazy black people, Asians who play it close to the vest, and Irish who drink too much. But these are individuals, and if sometimes their actions line up with pejorative stereotypes that have been used against members of the same identity group, it’s purely chance, not proof that the stereotypes were right all along.
I suppose the larger question is, why are Americans so afraid of making moral judgments that they’re willing to toe some arbitrary line if it saves them the trouble of thinking for themselves? But that’s a subject for another time. Right now what we need to do is acknowledge that Omar ran her campaign on, among other things, a platform of justice for the Palestinians. Her support for them, and her criticism of Israel and its supporters, isn’t something new. It will distress anyone who recognizes that Israel is a vibrant, culturally rich country, as you and I both do. Alas, it’s all too easy for a country to do amazing things and commit atrocities at the same time. It’s the history of the United States, after all. You can deplore the evil a country does without deploring the entire country, but you can’t let the good blind you to the bad, especially when it’s as bad as the Dumpster’s immigration policies or his embrace of Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin, or Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. This is Omar’s issue. We can’t blame her for fighting for it.
As to your last point, about the harm a claim like mine may do to the left: I don’t know if you’re right, but I certainly wouldn’t disagree with you. I would counter, though, that the dishonest and hypocritical public flaying to which Omar is being subjected is going to do far more to divide the left than any denunciation of that hypocrisy. But in the end the stance I took against Goldberg and Stephens’s pieces had less to do with politics than with the thing I have devoted my life to, namely, truth, or truthful expression. My object in sounding off against Stephens and Goldberg was at least as literary as it was political. The anger I felt at them, and that led me to characterize their writing as vile, is the same anger I felt at the writers I went after in Hatchet Jobs. Dishonest writing demeans both writing and truth. My overweening concern for writing is probably personal, but I think it’s hard to be too concerned about truth nowadays. I was under no illusion that my post would do much of anything to change people’s minds about Ilhan Omar or Israel/Palestine. I just think it’s important to say where one stands sometimes. And I wrote in such an angry tone because Goldberg and Stephens came at me, as it were, on my turf. It was teachers like you who taught me how literature has so often been used to lie rather than tell the truth, to oppress rather than liberate, to pass off as normal and natural the invented evils of patriarchy and white supremacy and heteronormativity and antisemitism. And you also taught me that we have to be vigilant in our stance against those who would deny our reality. That was, honestly, all I was trying to do here.
With tremendous love and respect,