A text version of my sermon from Shabbat morning services on 2/17/19 –
It has been quite a week for Ilhan Omar, the freshman congresswoman from the state of Minnesota. The 37 years old has a powerful background story. She was born in Somalia, the youngest of seven siblings, and lost her mother when she was only 2 years old. When she was in her early teens the Somali civil war began, and she fled the country with her family, spending four years in a refugee camp in Kenya. When she was 14 her family’s application to come to the US as refugees was approved, and after living in the Virginia area they moved to Minnesota where she went to high school, and then on to college. When she first came to this country she did not speak a word of English.
By the time she was in high school she was already interested in politics, and throughout college worked on various political campaigns and issues. Her rise in the political system has been rapid. Three years ago she became the first Somali born Muslim legislator in the United States when she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. And then just a month ago she was sworn in as the first ever Somali born Muslim member of congress. In her personal life she is a wife, and a mother to three children. She is smart, charismatic, and out spoken. She is also young and has grown up in the world of technology, and like many politicians these days, she is a Twitter user.
And that is what got her into some trouble this week, and brought her into the national spotlight. Mrs. Omar has a history of strongly supporting the Palestinian cause, and has in the past not hesitated to criticize Israel. But earlier in the week she sent out two tweets that contained traditional anti-semitic motifs, one the idea that Jews are overly concerned with money, and the other that Jews somehow are secretly controlling the government.
Reaction to these comments was both swift and furious. The Jewish community was quick to condemn the tweets, and various and sundry Jewish organizations from around the world released statements that called attention to the anti-semitic tone of what she wrote. Mrs. Omar was also severely criticized from both sides of the aisle in Washington, and she was called to what our past president Jerry Schnydman would call a ‘come to Moses’ meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Not long afterwards Mrs. Omar sent out a tweet that apologized for her previous statements, which in part read as follows:
“Anti-semitism is real, and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”
Some in the Jewish community have not been satisfied with Mrs. Omar’s efforts to mend fences, but at this point I think we need to take her at her word. The truth is an apology is worthless unless it is backed up by action, so we’ll see in the months ahead whether her actions show a deeper sensitivity to the Jewish community and a stronger understanding of what anti-semitism actually is. As the saying goes, time will tell the tale.
We night have expected better from Mrs. Omar. After all, her story is in many ways the same as the stories of our own families. An immigrant, escaping war, time spent in a refugee camp, arriving in this country with no money and unable to speak the language, working hard, obtaining an education, and becoming successful, making a better world for her children. That is a story that fits my family, it fits Becky’s family, and I am guessing many of your families, because it contains all of the classic elements of the Jewish journey to America. Certainly Mrs. Omar knows what it feels like to be an outsider, to be marginalized, and we might have hoped that precisely that experience would have helped her to understand what Jews have struggled with historically. It is a curious irony of this whole business that if anyone should understand Mrs. Omar’s experience it is the Jews, and if anyone should understand our experience it is someone like her – because we’ve both been looked at and treated as ‘other.’
Mrs. Omar is easy to spot in halls of Congress as she is punctilious about wearing her hijab – what is that? The religious head covering worn by observant Muslim women as a sign of their connection to their faith and respect for God. Her commitment to wearing the hijab if anything shows the courage of her convictions, and it is yet another connection to the Jewish experience, b because as Jews we certainly know what it means to wear religious garb. We have, for example, the tallit that many of us are wearing this morning. We also have the kippah, and I suspect that if there were a young Jewish member of congress who showed up to work each day wearing a kippah as a Jewish community that would be something in which we would take a lot of pride.
In fact you might be able to make the argument that we were the ones who invented religious garb. All you have to do is spend a few minutes reading through this morning’s Torah portion to get a sense of how important the ritual clothing of the priests was in ancient times, specifically from this morning’s portion what the High Priest wore, not only the robes but the special breastplate, and the head covering, and all of the intricate details the Torah discusses. I don’t know of any other tradition that codifies the use and type of ritual clothing the way does. The High Priest’s special garments made him stand out, and he was immediately recognizable to the entire community. Also the clothing he wore held him to a higher standard, serving as a reminder of the special duties that he had to serve the people and to serve God.
Certainly Mrs. Omar’s hijab makes her highly visible, to the point where she is one of the most immediately recognizable members of the House. I would argue that it is precisely because of her visibility that she has an opportunity to be an example, both to the Muslim and the non-Muslim world. I think the question she has to answer for herself is what does she want to be an example of? If the answer to that question is fairness and tolerance, justice and understanding, and equality and possibility, then her apology is a step in the right direction. We can only hope and pray that she will take the lessons from this experience to heart, and that she will continue to walk on that path towards a better, brighter, and more tolerant future for all.