Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Progressive Perspectives on the Ilhan Omar “Controversy”

On Wednesday . . . the House Democratic leadership will try and formally censure Rep. Ilhan Omar – a black Somali-American Muslim woman who came to the United States as a refugee, and who, in recent days, has been compared to the 9/11 terrorists by Republicans in West Virginia and described as “filth” by an adviser to the president – for saying that 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.” Her fellow congressional Democrats have said little or nothing about the aforementioned and shameful Republican record of anti-Semitism, but many have joined the pile-on against Omar. One of them – Rep. Juan Vargas – went out of his way to insist, rather revealingly, that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.”

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar isn’t backing down as she deals with attacks from both Republicans and members of her own party.

On Sunday, the freshman Congresswoman rejected resurgent accusations of anti-Semitism against her as nothing more than attacks manufactured to silence her criticism of Israel’s right-wing government and occupation of Palestinian territories – as she also grappled with assassination threats and Islamophobic attacks against her character.

In a series of tweets, 37-year-old Omar responded to outrage from her critics over comments she made at an event last week about groups that “push allegiance to a foreign country,” which the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee characterized as a “vile anti-Semitic slur.”

“I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel,” she tweeted. “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.”

– Rex Santus
Excerpted from “Here’s What You Need to Know
About the Attacks Against Ilhan Omar

March 4, 2019

We need to be clear: It is not anti-Semitic to support Palestinian rights, demand a change in U.S. policy towards Israel, expose the kind of pressure that the pro-Israel lobby brings to bear on elected officials, or call out Israel's violations of human rights and international law.­­ False accusations of anti-Semitism are used to undermine Palestinian rights, violate the First Amendment and demonize social movements. They also serve as a powerful diversion from the urgent task of combating the real thing.

False accusations aren't made equally against all critics of Israel and supporters of Palestinian rights. They are far more likely to be deployed against people of color, especially Black and Arab intellectuals, as we've recently seen with Marc Lamont Hill, who was fired by CNN following complaints about his Palestinian rights speech at the United Nations. Angela Davis was awarded the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute's prestigious Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award in her hometown, only to have the award revoked because of her support for Palestinian rights (In response to massive public pressure, the Institute offered to renew the offer, but Davis instead chose to participate in a public event that included solidarity with Palestine). Michelle Alexander, whose extraordinary New York Times column rooted support for Palestinian rights squarely in the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., faced charges of “sneaky anti-Semitism.”

Most of all, at this moment, we see the targeting of some of the new cohort of amazing brave young women of color now in Congress for the first time. When Rep. Ilhan Omar (D.-Minn.) called out AIPAC and the Israel lobby earlier this month for using money to win support in Congress—as every lobby worth its donors does—she was not condemned and threatened just because of what she said, but because of who she is when she said it. She is a Somali-born former refugee, a Black Muslim woman who wears her hijab in the halls of Congress. And for some in Congress, in the White House and in the media and in too much of the country, such a person does not belong in Congress.

If Omar had written a formal statement instead of a tweet, if she had issued a serious analysis of how every lobby, including the pro-Israel lobby led by AIPAC, directs funds to ensure support from members of congress, rather than casually quoting the Puff Daddy line that it's “all about the benjamins, baby,” the response would have been the same. Because it's far more about who she is than what she said.

– Phyllis Bennis
Excerpted from “Why False Accusations of Anti-Semitism
Against Ilhan Omar Are So Harmful

In These Times
March 4, 2019

The most important point regarding the House Democrats’ resolution to “rebuke” Omar is this: the resolution includes a long list of comments which it denounces as anti-Semitic – many, if not most, of which are indeed anti-Semitic – which Ilhan Omar never said or even implied. That’s the fraud at the heart of what Democrats are doing: they’re purporting to denounce Omar by enacting a resolution that condemns a series of comments about Jews that she never uttered.

Unlike Haim Saban, Tom Friedman, and various AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] lobbyists, she never accused Jews of having allegiance to Israel. She never remotely insinuated that Jews are not or cannot be patriotic Americans. She never blamed Jews for anything, let alone “justif[ied] the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology.”

Indeed, it’s grotesque to associate Omar with comments of this sort. In fact, the irony here is glaring: what is actually bigoted, the real bigots, are those who are exploiting Omar’s status as a black Muslim and Somali immigrant to link her to a series of anti-Semitic sentiments that she has never expressed, and that have nothing whatsoever to do with the critiques she’s voiced about US/Israel policy since entering Congress.

All of this is being accomplished by a deceitful sleight of hand that conflates The Israeli Government and its American supporters (the group that Omar has actually criticized) with Jews (a group that Omar has never criticized). Again, the irony here is glaring: what’s actually anti-Semitic is to conflate the Israel Government and those who support it with Jews: that’s something being done by Democratic House leaders, not by Congresswoman Omar.

“Supporters of Israel” is not synonymous with “Jews.” It’s actually offensive to suggest that’s the case, but that’s the premise of the Democrats’ House resolution, those denouncing Congresswoman Omar and those distorting her comments.

. . . That AIPAC – along with the NRA, Wall Street and Silicon Valley – is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, and works to ensure that members of Congress act favorably toward Israel, is so obviously true that no person in good faith could dispute it. A film about the Israel lobby produced by Al Jazeera but subsequently self-censored was leaked to Electronic Intifada and it contains multiple scenes of AIPAC and other pro-Israel activists boasting of how they use money and lobbying power to force Congress to serve Israeli interests.

None of this is remotely controversial to anyone who knows how Washington works – which includes, first and foremost, all the cowards in the House about to formally denounce Omar, yet again, for the crime of telling this truth.

Indeed, countless prominent Jewish writers, including supporters of Israel, have long said exactly what Omar is accused of having said: that the key goal of the Israel Lobby is to indue, cajole and force U.S. politicians to maintain loyalty to this foreign country. Long-time Israel supporter and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote in 2011 something far more extreme than anything Congresswoman Omar has ever said: a standing ovation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the U.S. Congress, Friedman wrote, was “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Friedman mocked Mitt Romney’s views on Israel by writing: “America’s role is to just applaud whatever Israel does, serve as its A.T.M. and shut up. We have no interests of our own.”

Allegations of conspiratorial internationalism and transnational loyalties have followed Jews since the earliest period of the Jewish diaspora. But in a strange twist, allegiance to Israel by contemporary American Jews, often euphemized with phrases like “unwavering support,” is deemed good. To be accused of such loyalty is to suffer a rhetorical anti-Semitic attack, while to personally exhibit it is commendable.

Omar did not actually accuse any Jewish person of dual loyalty. She asked why she herself, as an American legislator, should be unable to criticize the violent and discriminatory policies of the Israeli state. She did this without the careful distancing that so many Americans—especially within the liberal Jewish milieu—engage in any time Israel does something particularly egregious, which is lay it at the feet of the notoriously corrupt and politically right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu, as though he represents some kind of radical break from the country’s policies of the past 60 years.

. . . [A]s the repeated failures of a negotiated settlement have revealed what we were taught to think of as an abstract tragedy to be a deliberate policy of oppression, younger generations—and younger generations of Jews in particular—have grown increasingly disillusioned with Israeli politics and culture, as well as the policing of any discourse that draws attention to the country’s dependence on American military and financial support.

Because Israel’s staunchest political allies in America are not even American Jews, but rather right-wing Evangelical Christians who view the Jewish State through the prism of religious prophecy, the egregious and now deadly growth of a genuinely terrifying anti-Semitism on the political right has been soft-pedaled, while hysterical over-reactions to leftist criticisms of Israel become weeks-long national scandals requiring Congressional action.

– Jacob Bacharach
Excerpted from “Ilhan Omar’s Critics Are Not Your Friends
March 5, 2019

I find Omar’s rhetoric tone-deaf, but haven’t seen compelling evidence that she has any real animus toward Jews. The more likely explanation for these statements is that she’s an inexperienced politician who arrived at the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia at age 12 and probably came of age in left-wing circles where vocal opposition to Israel was the norm, and there wasn’t a lot of thought given to words that Jews consider anti-Semitic dog whistles. Once the outrage crested last week, she could have shown a little sensitivity to people’s concerns and backed down. But I have trouble blaming her for not doing so.

First, this week arguably demonstrated her broader point. She gave a talk about how accusations of anti-Semitism tend to silence critics of Israel. In response, she was swiftly called a “Jew hater.”

Second, there’s the sheer hypocrisy factor. Many of the Republicans attacking Omar now have shown little if any concern about their own party’s use of anti-Semitic tropes. And as Omar points out, they also haven’t shown much concern about the Islamophobic attacks or death threats that have come her way.

Then there’s the substance of the matter. In recent years, Israel’s most conservative backers (the vast majority of whom are not Jewish) have taken steps that unfortunately blur the distinction between supporting a country and showing loyalty to it. Welcoming Netanyahu to Washington in 2015 was one example. Boehner made the unprecedented decision to invite the Israeli prime minister without first informing the White House, to ensure that “there was no interference” from the administration. Some suggested the move may have been unconstitutional.

. . . The raging fight over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — or BDS — is a more recent and clear-cut example where Israel’s backers have placed its interests above those of their countrymen. Supporters of BDS — including Omar and her colleague Rep. Rashida Tlaib —are trying to borrow a page from the anti-apartheid playbook by economically isolating Israel so it will be forced to make a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel’s backers see BDS as inherently anti-Semitic, in part because they believe it is an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state’s existence and because other countries aren’t facing boycotts for their human rights abuses. (There aren’t a lot of campus activists protesting China’s decision to throw the Uighurs in re-education camps, for instance.) It’s a complicated issue, but pushed by pro-Israel activists, at least 25 states have come down hard on it by passing laws aimed at barring businesses and individuals from government contract work if they take part in BDS. A speech pathologist is currently suing the state of Texas because she allegedly lost her job after refusing to sign a contract promising not to support a boycott of Israel.

What do you call a law that prioritizes the economic well-being of Israel over the free speech rights of individual Americans? Is it a “loyalty oath,” as Glenn Greenwald referred to it? Is it a pledge of allegiance? You can debate whether those phrases are appropriate. But to many observers, it clearly comes close enough.

– Jordan Weissmann
Excerpted from “Ilhan Omar Has a Point
March 5, 2019

It should be “okay” for Americans who want their country to have a close alliance with a foreign power to form political organizations that advance their views. The problem with AIPAC is not that it pushes American lawmakers to show deference to the interests of another country. The problem is that it pushes them to show deference to a country that practices de facto apartheid rule in much of the territory it controls. If there were a lobby pushing Congress to put the humanitarian needs of Bangladesh over the immediate economic interests of Americans – by imposing a steep carbon tax and drastically increasing foreign aid to that low-lying nation – would the left decry the idea that such lobbying was “okay?” Of course not. Because progressives aren’t hypernationalists. And I don’t think Omar is either. So she shouldn’t frame her opposition to the Israel lobby in nationalist terms. The problem isn’t Congress’s “allegiance to a foreign country,” but its complicity in Jewish supremacy in the West Bank, an inhuman blockade in Gaza, and discrimination against Arab-Israelis in Israel proper.

With that stipulated, let’s put this gaffe in its proper context. Speaking extemporaneously – in her second language — Omar (by all appearances, unintentionally) said some words that could be interpreted in an anti-Semitic fashion. Meanwhile, virtually all of her colleagues routinely say — in prepared remarks, as a matter of principle – that America should continue to abet the race-based oppression of Palestinians in Israel.

For over half a century now, Palestinians in the West Bank have been living under an illegal military occupation — one that provides their Jewish neighbors with the franchise and basic civil rights, while providing them with neither. In recent years, this de facto apartheid rule has been shading into the de jure variety. In 2017, the Israeli Knesset (i.e., parliament) enacted a law that instructs its army to confiscate privately owned Palestinian land, and transfer it to Israeli settlers. As Michael Sfard observed in the New York Review of Books, “This law is not only a naked sanction of land theft; it is also an unprecedented imposition of Knesset legislation on Palestinians who have no parliamentary representation.”

For over a decade, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been living under an Israeli blockade that restricts their access to basic goods, their ability to fish for sardines (their fishing industry’s “most important catch”), and their capacity to export agricultural products. Israel justifies this blockade in the name of security, as Gaza is currently ruled by the terrorist group Hamas. In reality, many of the blockade’s most damaging provisions merely serve Israel’s parochial economic interests.

. . . Omar’s true offense – in the eyes of her party – was not evincing a bigoted attitude toward a vulnerable minority group. The Democratic leadership clearly has no problem with such bigotry, so long as it is directed at a minority like the Palestinians (i.e., one that lacks political power in the U.S.). As stated above, Omar remarks were, in my view, insensitive. But in the Washington Establishment’s view, her true sin is that her views on the Israel-Palestine conflict are not bigoted enough. Unlike the vast majority of her colleagues, Omar has the temerity to insist that Palestinians are full-fledged human beings, entitled to political freedom and equality before the law. This makes many Democratic donors (and voters) uncomfortable. And so, when she says something that could be plausibly interpreted in an anti-Semitic light, the Democratic leadership treats her momentary insensitivity as a terrible scandal.

. . . Omar’s remarks about Zionists were insensitive and counterproductive. But her colleagues’ enthusiastic support for the subjugation of Palestinians is something much worse. And when we criticize the former – without acknowledging the latter – we do precisely what Omar feared; we suppress “the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine.”

– Eric Levitz
Excerpted from “Ilhan Omar Has a Less Bigoted Position
on Israel Than Almost All of Her Colleagues

New York Magazine
March 5, 2019

House Dems Postpone Vote
Rebuking Omar Amid Pressure From Left

March 5, 2019

The Left’s Uprising Against Democrats’ Plan
to Punish Rep. Ilhan Omar Appears to Be Working

March 6, 2019

Omar's Israel Remarks
Expose Democrats' Simmering Divisions

MPR News
March 6, 2019

Rep. Jayapal: We Must Protect Rep. Ilhan Omar’s
Right to Critique U.S. Foreign Policy on Israel

Democracy Now!
March 6, 2019

Bernie Sanders Defends Ilhan Omar:
Can't Equate Anti-Semitism With
“Legitimate Criticism” of Israel

The Hill
March 6, 2019

Above: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) waves to supporters at an election night party on November 6, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Above: Ilhan Omar with her spouse Ahmed Hirsi and their three children in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Image: Photographer unknown)

Related Off-site Links:
We Stand with Ilhan – Naomi Klein, Ilan Pappé, Ronnie Kasrils, Sarah Jaffe, Rebecca Vilkomerson, et al (JewsWithIlhan.org/, March 2019.
Ilhan Omar Says Her Refusal to “Pledge Allegiance” to Israel Does Not Make Her Anti-semitic – Zamira Rahim (The Independent, March 4, 2019).
The Democratic Party's Attacks on Ilham Omar Are a Travesty – Phyllis Bennis (The Nation, March 5, 2019).
Democratic Resolution Condemning Omar Sparks Defence for Embattled CongresswomanMiddle East Eye (March 5, 2019).
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Laid Into Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Leadership After They Condemned Ilhan Omar's Israel Comments – Eliza Relman (Business Insider, March 5, 2019).
Ilhan Omar’s Denunciation of Israel Lobby is Not Anti-Semitism – Phyllis Bennis (The Real News Network, March 5, 2019).
The Slandering of Ilhan Omar – Naomi LaChance (Common Dreams, March 6, 2019).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Quote of the Day – February 11, 2019
Ilhan Omar on The Daily Show
Israeli Policy, Not Anti-Semitism, at the Root of Disruption at Creating Change 2016 Conference
For Some Jews, Israel's Treatment of Palestinians is Yet Another Jewish Tragedy
Quote of the Day – August 12, 2014
Thoughts on Prayer in a "Summer of Strife"
"We Will Come Together in Our Pain"
In Search of a "Global Ethic"

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