Friday, February 01, 2019

Rep. Omar Says Something Very Important on Antisemitism

I don't mean to make today Ilhan Omar day, but while doing reading for my last post I came across an incredible passage where Omar addresses how she responded to criticism of her infamous "hypnosis" tweet. It might be one of the most important remarks from a non-Jewish speaker talking about antisemitism, and being accused of antisemitism, I've ever seen:
On Thursday, when [Trevor] Noah broached the subject, Omar compared her defensiveness about her tweet — denying that she was anti-Semitic — to the way poor white people react when some say they still possess “white privilege.”
“With that tweet, what I finally realized is the realization that I hope that people come to when we’re having a conversation about white privilege,” she told Noah. "You know, people would be like, ‘I grew up in a poor neighborhood. I can’t be privileged. Can you stop saying that? I haven’t benefited from my whiteness!’ And it’s like, ‘No, we’re talking about systematic, right?’ And so for me, that happened for me.
“I was like, ‘Do not call me that [anti-Semitic]. ... And it was like, ‘Oh, I see what you’re saying now.’ And so I had to take a deep breath and understand where people were coming from and what point they were trying to make, which is what I expect people to do when I’m talking to them, right, about things that impact me or offend me.” 
Damn, there's a lot of right in here. For starters, she identifies antisemitism as "systematic", rather than something that you can avoid being implicated in if you inhabit other marginal identities (I am sure 94,000 people are busy prepping their "take that Linda 'antisemitism isn't systemic' Sarsour!" hot takes, and I'm over it even before I hear the first one).

But the biggest deal is the explicit comparison of the reflexive defensiveness she felt upon being accused of antisemitism to the reflexive defensiveness many White people have (especially those Whites who are marginalized along other dimensions) to being told they have "White privilege". This is an analogy I've been trying to promote for years -- I think there is a very clear parallel between "White fragility" and what I might term "Gentile fragility", wherein even the invocation of potential complicity in discriminatory structures is taken as a sort of nuclear weapon -- but this might be the first time I've seen a non-Jewish speaker draw the connection.

This call to "take a deep breath" in response to these concerns is such good advice -- it is the actual payoff demanded from calls to show deference when you're accused of engaging in discriminatory conduct, rather than the caricatured "immediately scream out your capitulation, plead guilty to all charges and throw yourself down at the mercy of the Gods" -- and it led her in the absolute right direction.

At root, this relates to the worries I expressed regarding the antisemitism that keeps me up at night -- namely, the possibility that antisemitism, or defying or standing up to the Jews, will become seen as a positive rather than a negative. There's a clear overlap with how White privilege operates: one cannot even count the number of cases where White people confronted with allegations of racism turtle up, cry victim, furiously fulminate about how abused they were by charges of racism and then make a huge scene of defying the PC police -- and in doing so, they gain political traction and authority rather than lose it. One reason why people respond to the "White privilege" discourse the way that they do is that it generates political capital. It is a productive move.

And indeed, my earlier post specifically explored this as a path open to Omar -- she could very easily have cried victim, double-down, made a big show about how she wouldn't be cowed by those oversensitive PC Jews who are always trying to stifle debate and police language -- and the sad fact is many people would love her for it. That's part of the reality of antisemitism today. You can gain power and authority and credence by being seen as the sort of person who stands up to the Jews.

Which makes it all the more praiseworthy that Omar took that breath and chose not to go down that path. Perhaps a bit belatedly, perhaps after a bit of prodding, she nonetheless decided to model in her own case how she wants others to react in parallel cases. The model is important. The recognition that Jews and antisemitism are a valid case of the model is still more important. For that, Ilhan Omar deserves serious praise. Kudos.

1 comment:

Batocchio said...

Good piece, as well as your earlier related one.