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Ilhan Omar Has Had a Jewish Spokesman Defending Her for Years. Then the Right Came for Him.

Slate 3/10/2023 Aymann Ismail
Jeremy Slevin. Aymann Ismail © Provided by Slate Jeremy Slevin. Aymann Ismail

Jeremy Slevin was sitting across from me, and he looked a little uncomfortable. He leaned forward with his hands clasped together. “It’s a really strange, out-of-body feeling to be sitting here as a Jew and be constantly fielding questions, attacks, and accusations of antisemitism,” he told me.

Slevin, you see, is a senior adviser to Rep. Ilhan Omar. He oversees her communications. The Minnesota Democrat has faced persistent scrutiny for her comments on Israel, 9/11, and more, which Republicans have sought to keep in the news and used to expel her from the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee last month. But Slevin himself has recently become a target. To some, he’s a “self-hating Jew.” He’s like a Jewish guard at a concentration camp. He’s a Judas. He warned me before we got started that he’s turned down pretty much every request to talk to journalists. But this time, he agreed to meet me.

We sat for lunch in Omar’s Washington office one quiet afternoon while she was home in Minneapolis during a congressional recess. There wasn’t a desk—it felt more like a living room, with couches, coffee tables, and art on the walls. We set our meals on a low table. “Want a photo with me holding the Quran?” he joked.

Slevin has been with Omar since she got to Congress. For a brief moment, as excitement over “the Squad” and new progressive members took hold, things were different. But not for long. “I remember saying, that first week—because we were getting really positive coverage and everyone was friendly—I was like, ‘This is the honeymoon period. It will last about three weeks,’ ” he recalled. “Just knowing all of the identities she carries, Trump being in the White House, the gigantic propaganda machine of the right—it was muted in those first couple weeks, but you knew they were waiting to fire at full blast. And I also know, from my time working with Keith, that it’s too often the mainstream press will take the bait.”

He was referring to the only other major job he’s had in Congress—working for the first Muslim congressman in U.S. history, Keith Ellison. He joined Ellison in 2011 after interning and doing fellowships elsewhere in the Washington orbit. Ellison faced longtime scrutiny over his connections to antisemitic figures, even before he made headlines when Nancy Pelosi swore him in over a Quran. In other words, Slevin had a pretty good idea of what was coming.

But even he has been taken aback at times. A turning point came last month, when Republicans staged the vote to oust Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee. “Individuals who hold such hateful views should rightly be barred from that type of committee,” Republican Rep. Mike Lawler said at the time.

The move incensed Slevin. As it unfolded, he took to Twitter. “No matter how many lies, smears and hate come her way this Jew is proud to be a part of Team Omar today and every day,” he wrote.

He got some support. “Jew here, and I’m with you,” one user wrote. Then came the jeering.

JINO,” a user wrote. “Jewdas.” “At least kapos were forced. You’re doing this voluntarily.” An opinion editor for Newsweek tweeted: “Jeremy would have been a proud foot soldier for the Hellenizers in the civil war agains the Maccabees.”

“It’s certainly not what you sign up for as a staffer,” Slevin said. “Obviously, working for the most vilified politician in America, who’s constantly getting death threats and hate and vilification because of her faith—you see how strong other people can be in the face of much, much worse. So, this is nothing.”

Except, for Slevin, I suspect it all has been not quite nothing. Our lunches sat untouched on the table as he told me about his “typical Jewish upbringing,” going to Jewish preschool and growing up just outside D.C., in Maryland, with Jewish friends and neighbors. “It’s just so weird that, because of my job, that who I am can be denied or negated. It’s like, no, I’m super Jewish,” he said. “There’s all these people just denying that I’m a real Jew or whatever. And it’s like, this was my identity long before I worked for Ilhan Omar and will be long after.”

Working for Ellison, even in a pre-Trump political era, and now Omar, Slevin said he got a stark education. “I think the big learning curves for me—especially coming from a Jewish background—working for Keith Ellison, and now Ilhan Omar, is just seeing how formalized anti-Muslim tropes are in our politics. We are still reeling from two decades of the war on terror and open Islamophobic sentiment in our politics. And it’s rampant,” he said. “Ironically, many of the tropes used against Muslims—that they’re not loyal to this country, et cetera—are tropes that have been used against Jews for centuries.”

Even without the controversies over her comments, as soon as she became a candidate for Congress, Omar was already the “prime target” of a concentrated online smear campaign that sought to “spread political propaganda and hate speech,” according to a detailed study by the Social Science Research Council. The insinuations and conspiracies about her past became even more mainstream in some circles after President Trump beamed them to his massive online following. One of Slevin’s responsibilities has been to help Omar decide whether to acknowledge the campaigns at all. “You try not to lift up or amplify smears, is rule one. If someone is blatantly smearing you and lying about you and creating conspiracy theories about you, why give that a platform?” he said. “Unless it’s being amplified by the president of the United States, or the mainstream news media, and is to the point that you have to call attention to it, and/or the safety situation is so hostile and ridiculous that you have to call it out. So, there are exceptions. Sadly, especially in that first year, there were a lot of exceptions.”

Slevin also manages the office’s social media. It is brutal. “I live in it all day. It’s not even about me personally, and it can be just taxing emotionally,” he said. “It’s designed to pull you away from doing your job as a member of Congress, and putting forth ideas, and representing your constituents. So, you try not to get distracted, but sometimes the distraction works. It’s an unwinnable fight.”

I asked Slevin what the worst day so far has been. He sighed and sat quietly for a few seconds. Eventually, he conceded that the “some people did something” moment was particularly exhausting. (Omar said the line in a speech about Muslim civil liberties after 9/11 in the United States; the full context is here.)

“The New York Post put her face next to a plane going into the Twin Towers,” he said. “Death threats spiked immediately. Trump tweeted it out. And this was weeks and weeks after the speech. It was from some right-winger clipping five seconds. By the way, five sentences later, she calls them terrorists. It was the most ridiculous thing. And it still has traction.”

I asked about Omar’s comments about Israel, which have stuck even more. She was criticized by both Democrats and Republicans when she said Israel “hypnotized the world” and tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” in response to a tweet about Republican support for Israel, which many argued played to antisemitic stereotypes.

On those cases, Slevin was more circumspect. “There is good-faith engagement, and there is the possibility of learning from mistakes,” he said. “Obviously, she has apologized for certain things and wouldn’t do that unless she meant it.” Some reports had suggested that Slevin had intervened in those cases, but he denied that. He said the apology was Omar’s idea. “Anything that we’re putting out, whether it’s her speeches or statements, she is the principal. It’s her voice,” he told me. “The apology was from her, and it was genuine.”

Inside Omar’s office. Aymann Ismail © Aymann Ismail Inside Omar’s office. Aymann Ismail

When we finished talking, Slevin introduced me to some of Omar’s other staffers. They seemed slightly spooked by an unannounced journalist in their midst. (We had originally planned to meet at a café.) I asked them if burnout in the office is common. “Oh, there’s burnout,” Slevin said, laughing. “We’ve had the same core team. It was a really tightknit group from the beginning. And I also think we’ve had to deal with almost any kind of thing you have to deal with in politics. We’ve had to deal with major criticism from all sides.”

Slevin stood with his hands in his pockets as I looked around. I instantly recognized the Quranic verse written in Arabic calligraphy on one of the end tables, behind Omar’s Quran. That verse tells Muslims to stand for justice, even if it means standing against yourself. Omar talked about it in the same video in which she uttered the infamous “some people did something” line. The part didn’t get much coverage.

After we were finished, I wondered if I was just part of the same cycle of “distractions,” as Slevin called them. I asked him if he was annoyed that I was asking him to rehash them. “Obviously, the reason you’re talking to me is because I’m a Jewish staffer working for Congresswoman Omar. That’s not lost on me. I’m not an idiot,” he said. “She is able to get more attention overall than many members of Congress, but it often feels like it’s just as a token. The press is just around for her being attacked for her identity. She always says, ‘I want to be known for my ideas, not my identity.’ And so, when we’re introducing a bill to stop arming human-rights abusers, or working on getting meals for 30 million kids, it can be a much tougher slog.

“It’s almost become, like, a journalistic trope now. It has to be included in every story about her. It will forever be in the lead or in almost every major story written about her. And that wouldn’t be the case if she weren’t a Black Muslim woman,” he said.

Still, he said, what he mostly feels these days is optimism. “As much as I vent my frustrations, every single Democrat backed her in the vote,” he said, referring to the Foreign Affairs Committee ouster. “Barring something unforeseen, when the Democrats take the majority, I fully expect her to chair the African subcommittee on foreign affairs. For her constituents, and for the people who really know her, they know what she stands for. So the office and the work has never been diminished.”

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