Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women elected to Congress last November, wears a hijab or headscarf as part of her religious observance. In January, lawmakers voted to accommodate Omar by ending a 181-year rule that banned headgear on the House floor.
The new representative from Minnesota tweeted, “I thank my colleagues for welcoming me,” and for making the Congress “more inclusive for all.” The change was applauded by Jewish voices, including Avi Shafran, spokesman for the Orthodox organization Agudath Israel: “Just as we would want a Jewish congressman to be able to wear a yarmulke (religious skullcap) in chamber, we would want a Muslim or Sikh representative to be able to hew to his or her religious convictions.”
That moment of tolerance and goodwill was quickly shattered after Omar, who was born in Somalia, resurrected ancient anti-Semitic tropes that accuse Jews of buying sinister political influence and harboring divided loyalties between Israel and America.
Jewish members of Congress angrily drafted a resolution condemning Omar. The measure was eventually altered to reject all forms of bigotry, but scars remain. Back in Minnesota, reported The Washington Post, Jewish and Muslim leaders “voiced pain and confusion, fearing that the comments could damage an alliance they have spent years trying to nurture.”
Somali activist Omar Jamal told the Post that the congresswoman “has really spoken in a very dangerous way, and it’s going to be up to her to reach out to people and fix this.”
This deeply unfortunate episode is overshadowing the earnest efforts of well-meaning Muslims and Jews -- like those in Minnesota -- to connect their communities and diminish the ignorance that has often divided them.
HIAS, for example, was originally founded as the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society to resettle Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, but today the majority of its clients are Muslims. Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, told us that in the Old Testament, “God says no less than 36 times to love the stranger as yourself.” The admonition is repeated so often “because it’s too easy to mistreat or shut out somebody who’s an outsider.”
HIAS helps Muslims, Hetfield is fond of saying, “not because they are Jewish, but because we are Jewish.”
The gunman who killed 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue last October emphasized hatred of HIAS as a reason for his attack, and Muslims quickly rallied in support of the grieving Jewish community. Tarek El-Messidi, a Chicago-based activist, organized two online fundraising campaigns to help families of the victims with a goal of $25,000.
Almost $200,000 poured in, and El-Messidi told The New York Times: “Putting our religious differences or even your political differences aside, the core of all of us is that we have a shared humanity. We really wanted to reach out as human beings to help.”
Rep. Omar’s comments were particularly confounding -- even tragic -- because she should know better. In the Age of Trump, Muslims are subjected to greater persecution and prejudice than any other group -- including Jews.
During the campaign, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and while his mean-spirited efforts have been hampered by the courts, they have largely succeeded. Only 3,000 Muslim refugees were admitted to the U.S. last year, a drop of over 90 percent from 2016.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported a sharp jump in anti-Muslim incidents during the president’s first year in office and argued: “Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric ... emboldened those who sought to express their anti-Muslim bias and provided a veneer of legitimacy to bigotry.”
That bigotry is shared by many of Trump’s most ardent supporters, including Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host who weaponized the same calumny Omar had leveled against Jews -- divided loyalty. Pirro cited the congresswoman’s decision to wear a head scarf and ranted: “Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?”
Sharia is a set of legal and ethical precepts followed by devout Muslims, but as The Washington Post put it, “the term has become central to a right-wing conspiracy theory claiming that Muslims are secretly attempting to take over the U.S. government.”
Omar and Pirro are both wrong. Americans can cherish their traditions and still be totally loyal to their country. This is demonstrated every day by Muslims and Jews alike who dispel the noxious fumes of fear belching from the White House by building ties across religious lines. They are true American patriots.