In Minnesota's Twin Cities, Jews and Somali immigrants have been partners for decades.
When Somali refugees arrived in Minnesota, starting in 1993, Jewish leaders saw echoes of their forebears who faced virulent anti-Semitism as newcomers to the state more than a century before. The communities developed strong ties, joining to fight hunger and illiteracy and raising money for one another in response to discrimination and threats of violence.
Then came the election to Congress last year of Ilhan Omar, a Somali immigrant who spent four years in a refugee camp as a child and arrived in Minnesota as a teenager.
An outspoken critic of Israel, Omar has courted controversy with provocative remarks that some say invoke anti-Semitic stereotypes. The pattern has alarmed many Jews, and as Omar faced yet another firestorm last week, community leaders on both sides voiced pain and confusion, fearing that the comments could damage an alliance they have spent years trying to nurture.
Somali community activist Omar Jamal of St. Paul said he is in touch with local Jewish leaders about how the two sides can reaffirm their solidarity at a moment of crisis. He said that he supported Omar's congressional campaign but that her comments are “wrong, period.”
“She can solve this problem if she wants to,” Jamal said. “This is up to Ilhan Omar. She has really spoken in a very dangerous way, and it's going to be up to her to reach out to people and fix this.”
The controversy has roiled the Twin Cities, where Omar, a Democrat, represents Minneapolis and its large Somali-American community, as well as several neighborhoods that have been home to Jews for generations.
Omar joined the House this year as one of its first two Muslim women, drawing national media attention, as well as ugly and Islamophobic attacks from the right.
She has been both apologetic and defiant as she faces backlash for comments she says were intended to criticize Israel, not Jews.
“I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel,” Omar tweeted March 3 in response to critics. “I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks.”
This perspective has drawn sympathy from some Jews who oppose Israeli policy in the West Bank and see accusations of anti-Semitism against Omar as politically motivated attacks. But others have doubts about her underlying feelings.
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said he recently told Omar why many Jews are offended when they are accused of dual loyalty, showing her a picture of a cousin who was killed in action during World War II.
About a week later, on Feb. 27, Omar told an audience at a town hall event in Washington that accusations of anti-Semitism were meant to silence her criticism of Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. She said she wanted to talk about “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
“It appalled me,” Hunegs said. “It appalled me because we had had at least a one-way discussion in her presence with the picture of my cousin. You have to ask: Did she understand?”
Omar tweeted in 2012 that Israel had “hypnotized the world” about its “evil doings” and in February that support for Israel among members of Congress was “all about the Benjamins,” a reference to hundred-dollar bills. She has apologized for both tweets and said she was unaware of the phrases' dark history in reinforcing negative stereotypes about Jews.
Omar and her staff have sat down with Jewish groups and leaders in recent weeks. But that has not quieted concerns among some critics.
“Her words and her communications are anti-Semitic,” said state Sen. Ron Latz, a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Latz, who is Jewish, spoke with Omar last year about her 2012 tweet.
“I'm not going to try to judge what's in her heart, but I see the pattern of what she's saying. She clearly learned the attitude and the behavior from somewhere.”
Omar declined interview requests from the Post, and her office declined to answer wide-ranging written questions.