One of our most cherished rights in the United States is freedom of speech.
But does that mean you have the right to speak words that may be hurtful to others?
And what about the tensions that may arise when someone’s uttered views do not appear in sync with national norms… specially when that someone is an elected representative of the American people?
No, I am not talking here about Donald J. Trump, although I could.
Instead, I want to focus on the controversy in Washington surrounding Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a newly-elected member of the House of Representatives from the state of Minnesota with what, undoubtedly, is the most unique background of any politician on Capitol Hill.
At a time when we have a president who constantly berates Muslims and refugees, Omar is both. She spent four years of her childhood in a Somali refugee camp and is proud of saying the same Washington area airport that she flew into to begin her career in Congress, was the one that provided her first glimpse of America when she was 12-years-old.
She is a young, outspoken Democrat — part of an extremely diverse party caucus in the House that some say finally mirrors the diversity of this country.
But like the president who has openly mocked her faith and her homeland, she has been making headlines for what some consider bigoted views — views that have raised her profile far beyond what you would normally expect for someone so new to the nation’s capital.
Omar has been a consistent critic of Israel, and some say she has invoked anti-Semitic stereotypes to make her point.
At a recent event, she took issue with the work of pro-Israeli lobbyists in Washington saying “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to another country.”
There were other comments— both in person and online — that raised eyebrows in Washington. But this one — that seemed to question the loyalty of American Jews — set off a firestorm.
It also created a quandary for House Democrats. At a time when they swore their intention was to be a “big tent” party and welcome a wide range of views, Ilhan Omar’s comments were threatening a divide.
For Republicans, who wanted to sow discord among their political opponents, her words became the gift that kept on giving.
As the controversy was growing, President Trump went before a group of conservative supporters and suggested certain members of Congress “hate our country.” Omar became the target of hate mail and death threats. There was even a poster put on display at a Republican gathering in the West Virginia state capital building linking her with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States.
It is a controversy that, in a way, is filled with irony. Whose loyalty is really being questioned here? And is Ilhan Omar playing from the same playbook Trump used when he called for a Muslim immigration ban?
As columnist Dana Milbank recently wrote in the Washington Post;
“Muslims, more than any other group in the United States, are routinely accused of disloyalty. For Omar to turn around and use the same trope against others boggles the mind.”
The Congresswoman has maintained that her criticism is aimed at Israel, not American Jews. Some members of the Jewish community who oppose Israeli policy in the West Bank are sympathetic… but others, especially those who have sacrificed in service to America, have found her words to be offensive and painful.
The Democratic Party leadership in the House of Representatives was urged to take action against Ilhan Omar — perhaps chastising her by name during a legislative session, or removing her from her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Instead, the leadership called for a House vote on a broad measure condemning hate in all its forms — against both Jews and Muslims, as well as many other minority groups.
The resolution did not mention Omar by name, although it alluded to her controversial comments by saying that “accusations of dual loyalty generally have an insidious and pernicious history.” The measure also noted that such language “constitutes anti-Semitism because it suggests that Jewish citizens cannot be patriotic Americans and trusted neighbors.”
Republicans, by and large, considered the resolution a “stunt” while Democrats seemed relieved to put the worst of the controversy behind them.
After the vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly moved to get the party’s legislative momentum back on track, pushing measures on issues like voting rights that had been put on hold while they tried to deal with the fallout from Ilhan Omar’s remarks.
The Congresswoman responded in a statement issued with Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Andre Carson, the two other Muslim-Americans in Congress:
“…at a time when extremism is on the rise, we must explicitly denounce religious intolerance of all kinds and acknowledge the pain felt by all communities. Our nation is having a difficult conversation and we believe this is great progress.”
In other words: let all of this be a “teaching moment” and let’s keep taking.
But making this kind of dialogue work is going to be tough — especially when we have a president who has verbally attacked Muslims, Jews, blacks, Latinos, refugees and just about any other minority group you can think of.
In fact, President Trump wasted no time using the Ilhan Omar controversy for political gain.
At a closed-door gathering with Republican donors at his Florida resort, he declared “the Democrats hate Jewish people.” According to some of those attending the event, the president said he couldn’t understand how any Jew could vote for a Democrat these days. He also exclaimed that if he were to run for prime minister of Israel, he would dominate the polls.
The fact is President Trump has never had broad support among American Jews — even after his decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
They remain the most fiercely loyal Democratic constituency of any religious group in this country and voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for party candidates for Congress in 2018.
And while many aren’t pleased with Ilhan Omar’s comments, they aren’t fans of Donald Trump either.
It may well be that what American Jews really want is that “difficult conversation” that Representatives Omar, Tlaib and Carson refer to in their statement: a dialogue embracing different views carried out with both honesty and respect.
Maybe that is the true meaning of freedom of speech.