A full 24 hours had not yet passed after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam apologized for appearing in a racist yearbook photo before he was facing calls from his fellow Democrats to resign. The narrative has since become muddled—Northam insists it wasn’t him in that particular photo, but he had appeared in blackface on other occasions—but the Democratic verdict on his political career has not. Northam has to go, in the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, so that “the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia can heal and move forward.”
Even if Northam is disinclined to consent to his own exile, Democrats staked out a morally defensible position by calling for his ouster. It is essentially this: Any act of naked bigotry, even the bourgeois sort that stems from ignorance or social desirability biases, is unacceptable and unforgivable. It’s the type of position that doesn’t allow for much nuance and, as such, invites charges of hypocrisy if political imperatives get in the way of its universal application. And Rep. Ilhan Omar is testing her party’s capacity for hypocrisy.
In a recent tweet, The Intercept’s Glen Greenwald’s wrote that “U.S. political leaders spend” a “stunning” amount of time “defending a foreign nation” at the expense of American rights—that “foreign nation” being Israel. Omar affirmatively tagged that tweet with the comment “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!” thereby advancing the pernicious notion that American lawmakers are prohibitively influenced by Jewish money.
In response to this tweet, Pelosi joined five of her fellow House Democratic leaders in issuing a statement condemning Omar for these anti-Semitic remarks. “We condemn these remarks,” the statement read, “and call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments.” And she did just that. After all, why wouldn’t she? It’s not as though this is the first time Omar has had to apologize for making anti-Semitic remarks.
“Israel has hypnotized the world,” Omar tweeted in 2012, “may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Up until just last month, presumably, Omar never saw anything wrong with those remarks. She even appeared on CNN to defend herself. “I don’t know how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans,” she protested. When Jewish Americans like New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss explained the malignancy of the anti-Semitic tropes she legitimized, Omar acknowledged her offense even though she said it was committed “unknowingly.”
No one has called her to account for the time Omar spent appearing on television with agitators who call Israel the “Jewish ISIS” and compare Hamas terrorists to Holocaust victims. Nor have many explored the implicit awareness inherent in the fact that Omar only revealed her support for the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement, which seeks to de-legitimize Israeli public and private institutions, only after she was elected to Congress. Apparently, Omar is going to need a lot more dialogue.
The problem for Democrats here is not only moral but political. Calling for Northam’s resignation was a low-cost engagement—at least, it was before it was learned that his potential successors have blackface and sexual assault controversies of their own. No one is calling for Omar’s resignation or even relieving her of her influential committee assignments so the people of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional district can “heal and move forward,” in part, because it wouldn’t end with Omar.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib invoked the noxious “dual loyalty” canard when she expressed her opposition to an anti-BDS bill before Congress by accusing Republicans of forgetting “what country they represent.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has never had to revisit her claim that the organizers of the Women’s March are the “suffragists of our time,” even though its organizers have since embraced the anti-Semitic Minister Louis Farrakhan and were accused of discriminating against its Jewish members. Indeed, when asked if she would condemn these formerly feted Democratic organizers, she declined to comment with any specifics. She did, however, offer a blanket denunciation of anti-Semitism.
The party has been unable to explain why some of its members vehemently denounce Farrakhan while others, including Reps. Andre Carson, Al Green, Danny Davis, and Maxine Waters, seem keen not only to embrace him but defend their association with the Nation of Islam.
To apply the Northam standard to casual acts of anti-Semitism would purge the Democratic caucus of many of its most valuable members. As such, it’s not really a standard at all. It’s more like a talking point.