Ilhan Omar's courage to wear a hijab is what inspired me to start wearing a kippah
Members of Congress voted this week to strip Representative Ilhan Omar of her foreign affairs committee assignment supposedly in response to statements she made several years ago which have been widely criticized as antisemitic. Now, I don't normally write much about antisemitism, because most of what I say both on and off the internet is about constructive, positive things. I discuss things I'd like to see more of. But in this case, I have such a thing to say about this ordeal.
The central thing is this: I remember the statements that have been used to justify Omar's present public shaming because they were what motivated me to start wearing a kippah at thirty-three. In support and admiration for Ilhan Omar.
This may sound crazy if you've read most news. They don't bother recounting what Omar said that earned her such vitriol, instead content to describe it the way I did above: "widely criticized as antisemitic".
This is a great phrase if you work in journalism, because it makes a subjective thing -- whether comments are antisemetic -- into an objective fact: many, many, people reported that other people happened to state a subjective opinion. And we never need to question whether or not we trust that those opinions were agreeable or even in good faith.
If it's not clear, where I'm going with this is that I don't think what Ilhan Omar said was antisemetic. What she said was in response to a tweet by Glenn Greenwald:
“GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.”
Omar responded that “It’s all about the Benjamins baby." Then, Batya Ungar-Sargon, tweeted, “Would love to know who @IlhanMN thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, though I think I can guess. Bad form, Congresswoman. That’s the second anti-Semitic trope you’ve tweeted.”
Omar responded “AIPAC!”
For those not aware, what Omar said was true. Republicans and Democrats receive enormous sums of money from the American Israel Political Action Committee to advance the interests of zionists. Zionists -- in the modern definition -- are people who believe that people of Jewish descent have a birthright regardless of place of birth to the strip of land that connects Asia to Africa, and that this birthright supersedes the rights of any non Jews born in that area. And to further this and other colonialist projects they raise and spend dollar amounts that can override or outspend every other donor source in a race.
For those unaware, the political zionist movement began in the late 1800s, nearly fifty years before the incomprehensible tragedy of the Holocaust: the loss of six million Jews in one of the worst acts of genocide in a history dripping with competition. Following this near extermination of a culture and its living bearers, the movement achieved its end, securing land rights for a nation state. However 75 years later, the mistakes of this settler project at its founding and the failure to make amends for the colonization and subjugation of the Palestinians occupying the land before their arrival has led to generations of further trauma.
In response to the slow growing awareness of these grave injustices, the modern zionist movement has waged a wildly successful disinformation campaign to convince people that "zionist" is a synonym for Jew, and all Jews are zionists, so any opposition to a political movement founded in the late nineteenth century is definitionally hate speech. It's so effective that Jews themselves will be targeted by zionist groups for merely trying to defy their instance that our culture and heritage belong to them wholesale. The injustice carried out in my name is cause enough for outrage, but I also blame AIPAC for spending down the cultural goodwill Jews built in the twentieth century in America. Antisemitism is clearly on the rise in America, both from the political right and the political left. And a large part of this has to do with the role Israeli politicians and their lobbyists have played in signing "the Jews" under despicable anti-democratic actions and then playing the victim when their own bad deeds tarnish the reputation of a culture others worked to build.
And it's that infuriating act of cultural appropriation that motivated me to start wearing a kippah.
The idea itself came about while reflecting on the pain of watching my cultural identity weaponized against this woman for pointing out what is entirely true: AIPAC participates in a purely transactional exchange with politicians to secure power and shield the Israeli government from accountability. This, by the way, is barely even debatable now that AIPAC had to let its mask slip in 2022 when it chose to fund Christian nationalist insurrectionist candidates who agreed to further its interests and disempower American Jewish politicians arguing for any consistent application of democratic values. But getting back to 2019, I saw the hatred and violence leveled at Omar and thought, 'These people hate her so much. Even Democrats and the apolitical fear her. Why does she wear that hijab? It could easily get her killed one day. And she certainly knows this!'
But the logic is obvious. I assume part of it is just a stubborn insistence to be true outwardly to who you are. I think that's an American virtue that many people forget. Maybe it's to educate people and represent her people, rather than succumb to their prejudice. But something clicked.
I could relate. Growing up, my mother insisted that I never wear a kippah outside of school and synagogue. I wore this thing -- I didn't even like it -- every day at my school, and then had to hide in public in my own neighborhood?
So here I was, enraged that my culture was being taken from me and abused in order to try and erase this woman from the public eye for challenging cultural assumptions. And the solution was clear: just follow her lead.
That's why I started wearing a kippah. A part of me feared being mistaken for the kind of people attacking her, but I knew that if I gave into that then I was ceding Jewishness away. And I've been wearing it every since.
I hope she stays safe. I don't know all her positions, and like any politician I know better than to put her on a pedestal. But I appreciate the way she inspired me with her courage, and I hope she keeps doing it. I hope more people see it and find their own courage too. Because as I told my mother when she asked why I had to start wearing this thing that made her worry about me: I'm under WAY less threat than a lot of other people who won't or can't blend in, so I have no excuse to hide.