Whether or not you are a fan of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a recent episode of the long-running crime procedural “Law & Order: SVU” may owe the Minnesota Democrat a writer’s credit. Called “Assumptions,” the episode is not so subtly based on highly debated tweets and catchphrases used by Omar in talking about Jews, AIPAC and the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
If you missed it: A Muslim woman is raped and assaulted in a synagogue, her hijab torn from her head. Seen fleeing the synagogue are two teens; a witness reports that they were wearing MAGA hats and that one of them yelled “kike!” at her as they ran. But the teens, it is revealed, were not anti-Semites but rather Jewish kids who were at the synagogue for Birthright trip planning. And the victim? A Muslim city councilwoman known for her strident positions about the Palestinian conflict as well as for her strict religious observance. Why was she in a synagogue? “I was lured there,” she says, “by a man pretending to want peace. I was lied to, by a Zionist.”
As Sgt. Fin Tutuola (played by Ice-T) says, the unfolding action reveals “racism all around.”
(Spoilers ahead.) The witness had mistaken other red hats for MAGA hats, and the teen had probably yelled “Mike,” not “kike.” The kids said they hadn’t committed the crime, only seen it and run away. Their parents feed the fire with comments like, “She wears a headscarf, so this means she supports Shariah law.” Also, the teens had participated in a rally against the councilwoman’s views on Israel and got involved in a heated confrontation with her that had been filmed by a news website.
“Why are you harassing me?” she shouts at the teens.
“Why do you say hateful things about the Jews?” the teens shout back.
“Why do you sanction genocide against the Palestinians?” she replies, saying that “Zionists from AIPAC” had paid them to come harass her. She then says they’re not real Americans and that it was “all about the Benjamins.” If all of that sounds familiar, it’s because the lines are lifted from Ilhan Omar’s past tweets, which launched a debate on what is considered anti-Semitic speech (#SVUroyaltiesforOmar).
Fans called out every aspect of hatred in the episode except anti-Semitism.
When the full footage of the confrontation is released, it becomes clear that the incident was orchestrated to help paint the councilwoman as someone who is victimized for her beliefs. When the police confront her, the councilwoman says, “Everybody’s so worried about the Jews.” Responding to the implication that her assault was a hoax, she says, “This is an outrageous accusation. I’m wondering if my headscarf has something to do with it.”
Swiveling yet again, it is revealed that the councilwoman is a closeted lesbian. And it wasn’t Jew-on-Muslim violence, it was homophobic violence: The councilwoman’s ex-husband, who has been stalking her, confesses to the assault.
To recap, we’ve covered Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, assault, domestic violence, homophobia, religious extremism, racism in general, stalking, the role of the press in fanning flames to create spectacle, restrictiveness of traditional religion, and making assumptions based on small pieces of information, clothing and preexisting biases. And yes, there is also talk of the Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and using social media to spread hatred.
But on Twitter, SVU fans called the episode racist, homophobic and Islamophobic, all issues that I had believed SVU was trying to create awareness of — and to condemn.
In accusations that the fictional councilwoman’s assault was a hoax, the fans saw echoes of actor Jussie Smollett being accused of staging a hate crime against himself. And in using out-of-context video clips as a subplot, viewers saw Nick Sandmann, the teen in a MAGA hat whose interaction with a Native American activist in Washington, D.C., went viral.
I had made my own assumption: that the script was inspired solely by Omar’s tweets. Because I’m immersed in Jewish community conversations, the other two incidents didn’t even register as influences. But people with perspectives different than mine called out every aspect of hatred portrayed in the episode except anti-Semitism.
We’re in a moment where accusations of anti-Semitism are a daily occurrence, and often they are justified. This episode was a reminder that while my perspective is particular to my work commenting on Jewish cultural issues, others have a different frame of reference. Perhaps the greatest value of this episode is the feeling of discomfort it causes and the questions it raises. What are my assumptions, and how do they connect to law, order and truth?