On October 16, MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan spoke with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on a number of subjects, ending with a question about antisemitism. Given Hasan’s history, it is unsurprising that the question exuded bad faith. To begin, he wields discussions of antisemitism as a weapon for his own partisan interests. Then, he seeks to downplay Omar’s antisemitism as just “criticism of Israel.”
Here is Hasan’s question in full:
“You have been demonized in recent years as an antisemite by many, especially by Donald Trump and the GOP over your criticisms of Israel and of Jewish groups’ support of Israel, some of which you have regretted and apologized for, that you should have been more careful with some of your language in the past. And yet this morning, former President Trump tweeted, and I quote, ‘Jews need to get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel before it’s too late.’ This coming from the guy who said you should’ve resigned from Congress for your comments. What do you make of Trump’s post this morning? What do you think the right would be saying if you or Rashida Tlaib had threatened American Jews, which of course I know you wouldn’t have done?”
Partisan Exploitation of Antisemitic Incidents
Begin with the partisanship. From the start, his segment is not one of concern about antisemitism, but instead a rather blatant employment of political whataboutery. Hasan immediately declares that the concern about Omar’s history of antisemitism came “especially” from “Donald Trump and the GOP.” Hasan also tells us Omar, the “progressive” member of the Squad, has regretted her words, and that he “knows [Omar] wouldn’t have” “threatened American Jews” like Trump did. After all, the accusations of antisemitism against her came from that guy who said antisemitic things and “who said [Omar] should’ve resigned from Congress.”
Hasan seems to be suggesting that because Trump said antisemitic things himself, the accusations against Omar aren’t valid. It’s only a slightly more sophisticated version of the childish attempt to justify one’s actions by suggesting two wrongs make a right.
Of course, “Trump and the GOP” weren’t the only ones condemning Omar’s past remarks, and whatever their faults, they obviously do not reflect on other individuals and political groups condemning Omar. The Democratic leadership denounced her antisemitism, as have Jewish Democrats. The Anti-Defamation League, headed by the progressive Jonathan Greenblatt, has also recoiled from Omar’s obvious anti-Jewish animus.
Combating antisemitism, including that espoused by Ilhan Omar, is not and should not be a partisan issue. Hasan’s attempts to make it one strongly suggests a disinterest in combating antisemitism for the sake of equality and the Jewish people. Instead, it suggests he treats the topic of antisemitism as a device with which he may exploit for his own partisan interests.
This exploitation is particularly notable when one looks at Hasan’s obsession with using examples of Republican or right-wing antisemitism to excuse or diminish Omar’s history of Jew hatred.
In Hasan’s question from Sunday night, he asked what Omar thinks “the right” would be saying “if you or Rashida Tlaib had threatened American Jews.”
A simple search of Hasan’s Twitter account returns example after example of Hasan playing this game, whereby he tweets about an offensive statement by political opponents and asks variations of “imagine how big a story this would be if Ilhan Omar had done this.” He resorts to this playbook again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and ag-, well, you get the point by now.
It’s almost as if Hasan is uninterested in condemning antisemitism unless it can advance his partisan interests, or unless he can use the incident to depict Ilhan Omar as a victim, too. That’s not exactly true allyship with the victims of antisemitism.
Misleading Descriptions of Omar’s Antisemitism
Hasan’s tactic of trying to portray antisemitism as “criticism of Israel” fits together well with his partisan habits.
Any sensible definition of antisemitism will not be blind to the employment of classic antisemitic tropes used against the world’s only Jewish state. When Omar tweets that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” that’s playing on the classic tropes of Jewish power manipulating the media and governments.
When Omar tweets “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” to suggest that supporters of Israel are only doing it because of money, and then specifically mentions the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that’s not criticism of Israel either. That’s employing the monied Jew and dual loyalty tropes against American Jews and their allies.
Last year, when Omar responded to a question from CNN’s Jake Tapper about whether she understands the concerns of her Jewish colleagues about those past statements, she responded not with empathy, but by accusing her Jewish colleagues of not being truly interested in justice. Omar told Tapper: “I think it’s really important for these members to realize that they haven’t been partners in justice, they haven’t been equally engaging in seeking justice around the world…” Categorically declaring that Jewish congressmembers are not interested in justice has nothing to do with Israel.
Hasan’s lame attempts to cast Omar’s repeated employment of classic antisemitic tropes as merely “criticism of Israel,” alongside his constant efforts to politicize antisemitism, serve as a reminder that bigotry, including antisemitism, must be combatted because it is morally reprehensible, not because it is politically convenient.