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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Michael Barclay

We Must Not Be Bystanders to the Anti-Semitism of Ilhan Omar and the Foreign Affairs Committee

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

Holocaust Studies Professor Yehuda Bauer once said, “Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. But above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” Everyone needs to remember these words, especially our elected officials. But it would seem that not only has the House of Representatives forgotten them, but that there is a conscious movement in Washington, D.C., to deny the atrocities of the Holocaust of the last century: the most horrific example of evil in human history.

Nowhere is this conscious denial more obvious than in the recent post from the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Yom HaShoah, the international holiday memorializing the Holocaust. The Committee consciously posted a tweet about the holiday without ever even mentioning Jews, and saying the memorial holiday is about being “vigilant against the forces of prejudice,” rather than as a memorial for the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. This was followed in the same day by a post from Committee member Ilhan Omar in which she tried to shame Israel for not wanting American dollars to be given to the UNWRA, which has Hamas members on its payroll, underwrites anti-American education programs, commits anti-Israel terror acts, and rewards the families of Palestinian suicide bombers for their murders of Israelis. To do this on the Holocaust Memorial Day demonstrates not only Omar’s audacity, but her unbridled passion for the destruction of Israel and the death of all Jews. Sadly it also reveals her well-justified confidence that other members of Congress will not take her to task for her vitriolic anti-Semitism.

The members of Congress have continued their behavior of being “bystanders” by failing to censure Omar for her hundreds of anti-Semitic comments. Not a word was said by Jewish leaders in Congress such as Adam Schiff, Chuck Schumer, Jerry Nadler, and more about the Foreign Affairs Committee’s attempt to take a day meant to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, which killed more than 6 million Jews and turn it into a day about all prejudices. The lack of action from these political “leaders” is a silent endorsement of anti-Semitism at the deepest level.

There have sadly been many times in history where some men acted evilly towards others. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 killed nearly 500,000 people as part of a civil war. The Muslim Ottoman Empire killed a million Armenians in the early 20th century (1915-1922) for both economic gain and as a religious war against the Armenian Christians. And in 1975, the Cambodian genocide snuffed out over 1.5 million souls as the Khmer Rouge sought to make Cambodia a communist nation.

But the Nazi Holocaust is unique in all of human history. Nowhere before had there ever been a systematic genocide against a people for no practical or theological reason. The Nazis did not kill Jews for monetary gain, and in actuality, the concentration camps were extremely costly to the Nazis. The Nazis were not fighting a religious war with the intent of converting Jews (a Jew who had converted was still considered Jewish by the Nazis and sent to the camps), and in fact even being ¼ Jewish qualified a person as a “Mischling” (mixed blood) and was a death sentence. They were not trying to convert the Jews, only to kill them. The Holocaust was a unique project to destroy the “sub-human” Jews for no practical or theological reason but purely out of hate.

The Holocaust was the result of two thousand years of anti-Semitism that included the horrific myths of Jews having horns (based on a mistranslation of the Vulgate), the blood libel that Jews make Passover matza with blood, and repeated pogroms for centuries in Eastern Europe. But the Nazis took evil to a greater level than could ever be imagined as they systematically killed the objects of their hate: over 6 million Jews in the space of only a few years.

It is so that humans never forget these horrors of the Nazis that the holiday of Yom HaZikaron l’Shoah ve-la’Gevurah, commonly known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, was created in 1951. It is not a day of remembering all prejudices or injustices, but about specifically remembering the ultimate darkness to which humans can sink through unbridled hate. It is to commemorate the heroism of those who resisted the Nazis and to vow that this manifestation of evil will never happen again. It is a reminder that no one should ever see evil and just be a quiet bystander.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee knows all of this history, as do certainly at least the Jewish members of Congress such as Messrs Schiff, Nadler, and Schumer, all of whom were educated in Judaism as children. And yet, the Committee consciously chose language (all official posts are reviewed multiple times) that takes the anti-Semitism that needs to be remembered and hides it among all “prejudice and injustice” as if it were another Martin Luther King Day. This was not an oversight: it was just another part of the institutional anti-Semitism that has been conquering both the Democratic Party (which a few years ago had originally put the non-recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in its platform) and all of Washington, especially since the recent election.

Despite Omar’s hundreds of repeated anti-Semitic comments during her tenure, her audacious anti-Israel comments on the very day of Holocaust Remembrance went unnoticed by Congressional leadership. Congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle, Jews and non-Jews, have ignored the depths of the meaning of the posts by Omar and the Committee. They have justified themselves as “bystanders” rather than “perpetrators,” but the reality is that their silence is a tacit approval of the anti-Semitic hate of Omar, the Foreign Affairs Committee, and all too much of Washington and the new administration.

In the midst of this darkness there is an opportunity, however. The actions and silence of these Congressional leaders need to be pointed out loudly and publicly so that the world, all people of faith, and especially American Jews recognize the anti-Semitic hatred that is taking hold of Washington through the actions of certain politicians. None of us can afford to be bystanders any longer, and we have an ethical obligation to shine a light on the hate and corruption that is taking hold of our nation. We have the moral imperative to stand up against hatred and to be vocal in our opposition to accepting this type of insidious behavior from governmental leadership.

Racism sadly still exists, and we all need to embrace the teachings of Dr. King that we should judge people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Anti-Semitism has dramatically increased, and we are all obligated to fight to stop it at every opportunity. There have been recent attacks on all people and institutions of faith, and we need to stand up for each other so that all people can worship without fear of governmental reprisal. Only in this way, by standing together against all hatred as most recently exemplified by Omar and the Foreign Affairs Committee, can we triumph in this battle for the soul of this nation.

Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Now, more than ever before, we must all bear witness to the hatred coming from the current political leaders, shine a light on their progression into darkness, and combat the hatred that they are attempting to institutionalize into this country. It is our blessing to no longer be bystanders, and our obligation to act to help these leaders to change, or to remove from office those who will not change and replace them with leadership that truly respects all cultures, faiths, and people.

2000 years ago, a great Rabbi left us a reminder on how to act in times like these. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

May we all act in righteous ways to make ourselves, our leaders, and the world a place of more harmony and peace in our time.

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