The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan tells the story of waves of immigrants who came to our shores from Europe in the early part of the 20th century. They have much in common with the people fighting to come here now, many from war torn countries or those ravaged by criminal violence, drugs and extreme poverty. Unlike Trump’s demonization of immigrants as dirty and ignorant and of little worth, the people who succeed in making the arduous journey here are the often the strongest, the most ambitious, the ones willing to work hard and risk the most to give their families a better life, a safer life. That was true in the early 20th century, and it’s true now.
Representative Ilhan Omar, whose Minnesota Fifth Congressional district has a large Muslim constituency and a large Jewish constituency, is that kind of immigrant. She’s a Somali-American refugee, a Muslim, a mother of three, a woman of color who wears hijab. She brings to her newly elected office life experience that few others can claim. She’s bright, articulate, and sees the world through a lens that has been heretofore almost entirely absent in Congress.
She’s become caught up in the current political reality that it’s impossible to raise any criticism of Israel without evoking the shrill accusation of being anti-Semitic. She’s also caught in the treacherous cross-current of Republican politics, the effort to pull Jewish voters away from the Democratic Party. None of that is going to get any easier as her time in Congress unfolds.
But I’m optimistic. Representative Omar is a bright woman. She’s speaking from her experience, that of a Muslim woman of color in the United States. Right now her critics are attempting to define her as anti-Israel, and therefore as one whose voice should be silenced. Instead, she’s speaking from her own experience, on behalf of the people and places that U.S. policy ignores or actively hurts. I’m hoping the deflection doesn’t work, and that Rep. Omar is strong enough, resilient enough, for her unique voice to break through.
“To Omar, the controversies surrounding her are an episode not in the Jewish experience but in the Muslim one. “People will talk about the veterans and the people who are in the armed services, but we never talk about the children,” she said. “We’re talking about the number of bombs going off, and there’s, like, two thousand people who have died.” In the special vortex of the Trump era, Omar made the extraordinary leap from being a refugee to being a symbol of a new progressive majority, not in a few generations but in a few years. It isn’t only the left’s changing views of Israel that the Democratic Party is struggling to assimilate; it is also the patriotism and disenchantment, obstinacy and poise, of Omar herself.”