Random Jewish American seeks Pen Pal: An open letter to Rep. Ilhan Omar

Dear Rep. Omar:

I’ve been writing you a letter in my head since the second round of “She’s a raging anti-Semite!” hysteria, but this is the first moment I’ve had time to actually begin setting anything down on virtual paper. 

Apologies in advance for the interruptions – our 11 am tickets to “Disney on Ice” today turn out to be for the 7 pm performance – which was a surprise to my daughter and daughter-in-law. They’d bought them and we found out when the five of us (the aforementioned trio plus my other daughter and my three-year-old grandson, the real reason for the excursion) had braved the parking line, the elevator crowded with moms and tiny people dressed as princesses, and the line to get into the venue. My grandson handled the abrupt change of plans with considerably more grace than some of the adults who have responded to your Twitter posts.  

The grand-urchin watching skaters recreate “Toy Story.”

Now, picking this up 24 hours later at a close friend’s house, I’m between the giant jigsaw puzzle of Times Square and tomorrow’s workday, which is going to be capped by a Michael Twitty cooking presentation.

The puzzle. It’s 2,000 pieces!



After that, we’re off to dinner at Damascus Gate, a new Middle Eastern restaurant. I stopped there last week to make arrangements for them to provide food for the upcoming showing of “The Judge” at the library branch where I’ve been doing some programming. My Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter is springing for refreshments – hummus and babaganouge for 50. (If you’re in the neighborhood, we’d love to have you.)

Anyway, a few words about what’s been going on, from where I sit as a born-and-raised Jewish-American who has spent time in Israel and thinks the Palestinians have gotten a rotten deal.

Which is a very different thing than saying Israel shouldn’t exist. As defined by its founders, I am a Zionist. That definition: “The right of the Jewish people to self-determination in a Jewish state.” 

By that standard, I’m a Palestinian Zionist, too, because I think the Palestinian people should be able to have self-determination in a Palestinian state. 

Where things start getting hairy, of course, is geography. And history. My dream (which no one cares about because I am just an ordinary human) is that there is a contiguous Jewish state next to a contiguous Palestinian state and that Jerusalem is a shared capitol. I have no illusions about being alive to see something like that happen, but an old hag can dream, right? 

Anyway, putting all that aside, let’s talk Jews for a minute. You lived in Somalia until third grade, then spent time in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to the US where you likely lived in close community with other Somalian-Americans. So you know how tribes are. And you know how marginalization goes. 

This year, I am working to disaggregate white privilege and Jewish identity. As a white woman, I walk through the world with a benefits package that results from nothing more than an accident of birth – I was born in this country approximately 185 years after a crew of white rebels created their version of a more perfect union. Their version didn’t extend to non-white people. (Note: Some people think this is great. I think it’s a problem.)

As a Jewish woman, I carry a level of constant low-level anxiety. It’s only because my grandparents came here from Eastern Europe that my parents survived the Shoah. Family members I never had a chance to meet were marched from Olkeniki, their village in Lithuania, to Eisheshok, where the Nazis shot them en masse and buried them in pits they were forced to dig beforehand.

My great-grandparents were displaced from their home after a pogrom and emigrated to the US with false papers in 1921. Jewish history is littered with expulsions from country after country, massacres, laws designed to marginalize and separate us. 

We weren’t allowed to own land, to own weapons, to live in certain places. (In this country, the man who owned the farm my grandfather wanted to buy refused to sell it to him because he was a Jew.) Limitations on the professions we were allowed to enter is a large part of the reason moneylending came to be associated with Jews. 

Most of us have no illusions. These things could happen again. As a child, I thought about where to hide and what I’d take into hiding. I planned for how to pretend to be Christian convincingly enough to survive until it was safe to be openly Jewish again. My sister, a year younger than I am, was doing the same, something we found out about each other as adults.

I’ve never lived in a world in which there wasn’t a Jewish state. I want to see Israel thrive. Like you, I can see lots of things to criticize about it. Unlike you, possibly, I also see much I love. 

The things I know about Somalia are that there are a lot of wars, warlords, and pirates there and that it’s where Maryam Mursal is from. I haven’t spent a ton of time with anyone from Somalia. There’s a lot I don’t know. 

It’s clear from your Twitter posts that there is a lot you don’t know about Jews and Jewish culture. It’s equally clear that you want to know more, in order to unpack your criticism of Israel and its policies from criticism of Jews and Jewry at large. I want you to know that I appreciate your courage to speak your mind, and to learn. 

It’s what I’m trying to do every day as a white person raised and socialized in a society that’s inherently racist. I see myself as a #racistincrecovery (thanks to Sandy Broadus for coining the term). I see you as a person who is working to do right by her constiuents and her country.

If you ever have the time or inclination, I’d encourage you to join the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. In our groups, Jewish and Muslim women are transforming the narratives about who we are to each other. One-by-one, we’re paving the way toward a world that rejects hatred and mistrust borne of ignorance, a world in which your remarks and subsequent apologies/explanations are received in the spirit in which they are offered.

Respectfully:

Amy Waldman, Human Woman

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