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Ilhan Omar’s Deeply American Message

April 15, 2019 | post a comment | Philip Johnson

I watched Ilhan Omar’s recent address to the Council of American Islamic Relations for the same reason most people did: to see whether she had—as Donald Trump claimed—minimized the 9/11 terrorist attacks. What I found was unexpected. In offering a vision for how to live as an American Muslim, her speech to CAIR beautifully evoked what I treasure about being an American Jew.

Omar’s core argument was simple: We Muslims are not guests here. We are as American as everyone else and, thus, we should bring our full selves into the public square. “For a really long time in this country,” she said, “we have been told that there is a privilege that we are given and it might be taken away. We are told that we should be appropriate. We should go to school, get an education, raise our children and not bother anyone, not make any kind of noise, don’t make anyone uncomfortable.”

Many Jews who have lived outside the United States will instinctively understand what she meant. My father once told me that, after immigrating to the United States from South Africa, he was surprised to meet a Jewish police officer: He had assumed that American Jews, like their South African counterparts, stuck to business and the professions while leaving government service to the Christian majority. In 1994, The New Yorker’s Calvin Trillin wroteabout a controversy over the construction of an eruv (an enclosure designed to allow observant Jews to carry on Shabbat) in London. In explaining why many of the fiercest opponents of the eruv were Jews themselves, Trillin suggested that they worried that, by standing out, Jews might imperil their acceptance in English society. “English Jews felt they had been given a room in the house,” the novelist Dan Jacobson told Trillin, “but were not part of the family.” A Canadian Jewish friend, who marvels at how American Jewish groups unapologetically assert themselves in Washington, once told me such political boldness is harder in Canada because “we still consider ourselves guests in the queen’s country.”

This is the mentality Omar argued against. While keeping your head down so as not to provoke the majority might seem safer, she argued, it’s actually more dangerous because only through political assertion can minorities safeguard their rights. “You can go to school and be a good student. You can listen to your dad and mom and become a doctor. You can have that beautiful wedding that makes mom and dad happy. You can buy that beautiful house,” she told the audience at CAIR. “But none of that stuff matters if you one day show up to the hospital and your wife or maybe yourself is having a baby and you can’t have the access that you need because someone doesn’t recognize you as fully human. It doesn’t matter how good you were if you can’t have your prayer mat and take your 15-minute break to go pray.”

Rather than living “with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen,” Omar argued, American Muslims should “raise hell, make people uncomfortable”—just as African Americans and other discriminated-against minorities have. In so doing, they would inspire others to rally to their cause, because “once you are willing to stand up for yourself … then others will show up for you.”

With political assertion, Omar suggested, comes the political responsibility to oppose injustice even among your own people. It’s sadly ironic that the only part of Omar’s speech many Americans have heard is her reference to the September 11 attacks as “some people did something.” Because, while Omar should have been more explicit in condemning 9/11 and warning about jihadist radicalization in the United States, she forcefully demanded that Muslims call one another to account. “It doesn’t matter if that country is being run by my father, my brother, my sister,” Omar declared in the last section of her speech. “I will criticize that country” if it is “violating basic human rights.”

From a Jewish perspective, this too is deeply familiar. Jews often warn against airing communal dirty laundry. If you want to criticize Israel, they say, do so only within the family. But this argument holds less weight among American Jews than within other diaspora communities. Why are American Jews more willing to criticize Israel? In part because they are more secure and thus believe they can do so without inflaming anti-Semitism. Omar was urging Muslims to act with the same self-confidence: If you don’t want to be treated like an outsider in America, don’t act like one.

Near the end of her speech, Omar explained that rather than keeping her religion private, as both Muslims and Jews are often expected to do in Europe, she expresses it openly as a way of affirming that, in America, she need not hide who she is to enter the public square. “I tweet out verses of the Koran,” Omar explained. “I say As-salaam alaikum and Alhamdulillah”—“Peace be unto you” and “All praise is due to God alone”—“because I want” Americans “to get comfortable” with “what they mean.”

Listening to those words, I remembered a July night in 2004 when, after the speeches were done, 50 or so delegates went to the floor of the Democratic National Committee to sit and read the Book of Lamentations, as Jews do on the holiday of Tisha B’Av. Ilhan Omar envisions an America in which Muslims can one day do something similar. And every Jew who cherishes the opportunity America has given us to be fully, proudly, and publicly ourselves should be cheering her on.

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