Anti-Semitism Is Hard to Unlearn, but It’s Possible—Even for Ilhan Omar

July 16, 2019 | Ayaan Hirsi Ali
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Born in Somalia, and having spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, Ayaan Hirsi Ali never heard the word anti-Semitism until she came to Western Europe as an adult—but she was exposed to abundant expressions of anti-Semitism itself. No doubt, writes Hirsi Ali, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, also born in Somalia, had similar exposure to anti-Semitism in the country of her birth, or in the refugee camp in Kenya where she spent four years as a child, or in the Muslim community in Minneapolis. Any of these possibilities would explain the antipathy toward Jews expressed by Omar in various public statements. Yet many in the West, Hirsi Ali goes on to argue, fail to understand the extent to which anti-Semitism permeates much of the Muslim world:

When I was a little girl, my mom often lost her temper with my brother, with the grocer or with a neighbor. She would scream or curse under her breath “Yahud!” [Jew!] followed by a description of the hostility, ignominy, or despicable behavior of the subject of her wrath. It wasn’t just my mother; grown-ups around me exclaimed “Yahud!” the way Americans use the F-word. I was made to understand that Jews—Yahud—were all bad.

No one took any trouble to build a rational framework around the idea—hardly necessary, since there were no Jews around. But it set the necessary foundation for the next phase of my development. At fifteen I became an Islamist by joining the Muslim Brotherhood. I began attending religious and civil-society events, where I received an education in the depth and breadth of Jewish villainy. . . .

[In many Muslim countries], corrupt rulers play an intricate game to stay in power. Their signature move is the promise to “free” the Holy Land—that is, to eliminate the Jewish state. The rulers of Iran are explicit about this goal. Other Muslim leaders may pay lip service to the peace process and the two-state solution, but government anti-Semitism is frequently on display at the United Nations, where Israel is repeatedly compared with apartheid South Africa, accused of genocide, and demonized as racist.

Media also play their part. There is very little freedom of expression in Muslim-majority countries, and state-owned media churn out anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda daily—as do even media groups that style themselves as critical of Muslim autocracies, such as Al Jazeera and Al-Manar. Then there are the mosques, madrassas, and other religious institutions. Schools in general, especially college campuses, have been an Islamist stronghold for generations in Muslim-majority countries. That matters because graduates go on to leadership positions in the professions, media, government, and other institutions.

But, Hirsi Ali notes, she has long since ceased hating Jews. So there’s hope for Omar as well.

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