Busboys & Poets is a bookstore and event space in D.C. that wears its progressive credentials proudly. The café offers “conscious cuisine” and its website boasts that it is “a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted.”
This week, that uplift included creating a safe space for anti-Semites: freshman Democratic congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. The event, organized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was originally supposed to be moderated by Linda Sarsour, Women’s March co-founder and Louis Farrakhan fan-girl. Washington, D.C. is an overwhelmingly liberal city, but Sarsour’s name on the announcement was controversial enough to elicit comments on a local neighborhood blog, Prince of Petworth, from people concerned about this particular trifecta of anti-Semites. (Sarsour was quietly dropped from the program a few days before the event).
In fact, Busboys & Poets is the perfect venue for progressive anti-Semitism; as the Free Beacon has reported, the owner of Busboys & Poets, Andy Shallal, is a left-wing activist who has claimed that Israel is “terrorizing” the Middle East and that the U.S. is “getting its marching orders from Tel Aviv;” he once held a fundraiser in honor of a man tried to kill an Israeli soldier. His supposedly welcoming community coffee shop sells anti-Israel T-shirts and staff are encouraged to wear clothing “in line with the beliefs of Busboys & Poets owner Andy Shallal.”
So it wasn’t a surprise that Omar was comfortable making anti-Semitic statements before the large and friendly crowd that gathered on Wednesday evening. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar said. “I want to ask why it is okay for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, or fossil fuel industries, or big pharma, but not talk about the influence of a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policy.”
The reason it’s not “okay” for Omar to make claims about dual allegiance is that it is a common anti-Semitic trope, one that questions whether Jews can be loyal Americans, and it’s one with which her fellow lawmaker on the stage that night is all too familiar: at the beginning of the year, Tlaib said that lawmakers who voted for anti-B.D.S. legislation had “dual loyalty.”
Perhaps to preempt criticism, however, Omar offered a new rationalization for her way of thinking: Islamophobia. “What I am fearful of, because both Rashida and I are Muslim, is that a lot of our Jewish colleagues and constituents go to thinking that everything we say about Israel is anti-Semitic because we are Muslim,” Omar said. “It’s something designed to end the debate.”
This is an odd claim coming from someone who is currently being celebrated as one of Rolling Stone’s “Women Shaping the Future” in large part because she is a Muslim woman. Omar is attempting a clever trick here: she’s arguing that she’s being called to account for her statements not because they are anti-Semitic but because she (and Tlaib) are Muslim, and Muslims have been the victims of animus. By this logic, the mere existence of anti-Islamic feeling offers blanket immunity for any anti-Jewish sentiments she broadcasts.
The identity card is also an odd one for her and Tlaib to play given that Omar recently told The Intercept, “There is an interest in putting us in a box of constantly defending our identities and I am not interested in being in that box. I am interested in defending my ideas and not my identity.”
Omar has repeatedly made anti-Semitic remarks and tweets about Israel and Jews, such as this statement and her now-deleted tweet that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins, baby.” She issued a half-hearted apology after being strongly rebuked by Democratic leaders, but according to a reporter present at the event at Busboys & Poets this week, when an audience member laughingly shouted, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!” both Omar and Tlaib smiled. Omar could have taken the opportunity to reiterate her reasons for deleting her tweet and to condemn anti-Semitism, but she played to the crowd instead.
Here’s a thought experiment: imagine a MAGA-hat wearing dude at a Trump rally shouting something racist and Trump responding by smiling and saying nothing. Who thinks progressives and the mainstream media (which eagerly calls out dog-whistles on the right) wouldn’t view that as a tacit endorsement by Trump? Rep. Tlaib, who thinks inviting an African-American government official to a Congressional hearing is racist, likely would.
But Omar isn’t sorry; she’s sorry-not-sorry. As Abe Greenwald noted in our pages after her first apology, “In the public sphere, these apologies become a licensing fee paid by people like Omar every time they want to sound off about the evil Jews.” If you look closely at what she’s been saying recently about that apology, she’s backtracked even further. Asked this week by The Intercept, “What were you apologizing for? Was it a badly worded tweet that you apologizing for or was it for being anti-Semitic wittingly or unwittingly?” Omar answered, “Absolutely not, I apologized for the way that my words made people feel.”
But anti-Semitism is more than a feeling; it’s an all too disturbing reality. As Jonathan Chait, one of the few mainstream journalists to call out Omar for her most recent remarks noted, Omar is using the cause of Palestinian rights “to smuggle in ugly stereotypes. And whatever presumption of good faith she deserved last time should be gone now.”
Criticizing Israel for its leaders’ policy decisions does not make someone anti-Semitic. Repeatedly trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes; attempting to demonize a state and its people by calling its actions “apartheid” and “genocide” (while defending murderous dictators in other states, such as Venezuela); and supporting a movement (B.D.S.) that has as one of its goals the elimination of the only Jewish state in the world? That’s anti-Semitism.
As for donning the mantle of identity politics victim or “apologizing” for how you made someone feel rather than for what you did? That’s just a typical day at the office for an increasing number of progressive politicians like Omar.