Stop listening to hate

The recent comments made by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar concerning the nation of Israel has prompted decades-old accusations of anti-semitism. If you critize the government of Israel or the country itself, then one is automatically speaking anti-Semitic views, and the two accusations could not be more incorrect. One can criticize a government while still respecting the country; Americans can disagree strongly with the policies of Israel without being labeled as anti-Semitic.

Omar often speaks before she thinks and has a type of political naivete when she makes certain statements. As a Somali refugee, now a citizen of America, she comes from a culture where every evil in the world was directed toward Israel. In that world and viewpoint, Israel and America are irrevocably intertwined, and whether logical or not, that is what was believed. Omar has a lot to still learn about Jewish Americans and their absolute loyalty to the United States.

As a refuge from Somalia, next living in a refuge camp in Kenya, she brings an experience to Congress that is absolutely unique. Walk in her shoes and ask her what she learned growing up, then coming to America as an immigrant. Wonder what kinds of prejudice she faced in our country as an Arab and a Muslim? Guess!

Jewish Americans are loyal citizens of only one country, America, and they also criticize the government of Israel and its current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Many do not agree with Israeli policies against the Palestinians.

If Jewish Americans can debate these issues, then, of course, any American can criticize Israel without defaming the citizens of Israel or Jews anywhere in the world. This is called freedom of speech, freedom of critical debate, and when the nation of Israel was formed in 1948, it was created as a democracy with free speech enshrined in the founder’s beliefs.

As a retired associate professor of Asian history at Heidelberg University, I have faced the same accusations as Omar. I often was asked to speak in Ohio and other states to Christian churches, and state universities and private colleges on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and negotiations. Having two Fulbrights to study first in Egypt for two months, then another to study in Morocco and Tunisia for two months and later study trips to Saudi Arabia and Oman, I believe I have an in-depth knowledge of early and medieval Jewish history, including the formation of Israel up to its present day. Likewise, I have the same knowledge of Palestinian history and how Arab Muslims view both of these issues.

Wherever I spoke, I criticized Israel and Palestinians for their behaviors and their right of legitimacy. The pre-1948 quest for nationhood for Israel also included acts of terrorism that continued after 1948. Israeli’s treatment of Muslims within their country’s boundaries and in their occupied territories has been harsh and often against the Geneva Conventions. The same absolutely holds true for the Palestinians. In the summer of 1993 in Tunis, I was an unknowing witness to Yasir Arafat writing the Oslo Peace Accords as we spent five hours together with him. These were signed at the White House in September 1993.

Did they change their policies? To some degree, but then Arafat was poisoned and died and Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish citizen of Israel. The formation of Hamas in the Gaza Strip was a giant step backwards, but then the increasingly rigid governments in Israel retaliated with much heavier weapons and sophisticated military forces. So do I criticize both? Yes.

But I am definitely not anti-Semitic and it is this accusation that eventually led me to refuse to speak publicly on this issue; I also received threatening letters from Jewish-America ultra right wing groups. As I discovered in my three years of speaking, most Americans know nothing of Jewish history or beliefs. I’ve encountered anti-Semitism any number of times, locally, regionally, nationally and on an international basis. American knowledge of Islam is even more abysmal and hatred of Muslims is virulent everywhere. A Muslim equals a terrorist to many Americans.

Free and open debate about America’s support of Israel is crucial. Since the end of the Clinton administration, that debate has too often been smothered, and that’s not healthy. Why have incidents of anti-semitism more than doubled in the United States and tripled in parts of Europe? The rhetoric of increasingly authoritarian leadership throughout Europe and in our country has fostered making minorities demons, whether they be Jews, Muslims, immigrants or any “other.” When leaders of countries make crude and prejudiced remarks about any minority groups, then that seemingly gives permission for its citizens to do the same.

So, yes, let the Ilhan Omar’s of the country speak, learn when they make mistaken assumptions, but don’t label them when they speak to an issue that does need to be discussed. Anti-Semitic actually means Jews and Muslim Arabs who share the early Semitic language and belief in the same God. Say no to all prejudice.

Stop listening to hate speech on TV and radio, become educated in facts, not fiction, and form your own opinions. Children can only learn from their parents and adults around them. We all need to be careful of what we say to them because words do matter. Let’s make them words of peace and understanding, not words of hate.

Mary Jo Murray,