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By: Bishara A. Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist
Ilhan Omar, the young Muslim, hijab-wearing, and Somali-born refugee who was recently elected to the US Congress has sparked, in a matter of weeks, the beginning of a potential intifada in the United States that could define for years to come not only the US-Israeli relationship but also the influence of pro-Israel groups on the US policymaking process.
The potential long-term implications of what has transpired surrounding Representative Omar’s criticism of Israel and its powerful supporters in the United States could affect the future direction and nature of the Democratic Party; the oversized influence of the American-Jewish establishment; the longstanding taboo of criticizing Israel; the now “acceptable” assault on Muslims and other minorities; the onslaught on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; and, additionally, it could expose the Republicans’ tolerance of anti-Semitism and all kinds of “isms,” or racism.
It all began well before Ilhan Omar was elected to the US Congress:
- In 2012, Omar posted in a tweet asserting that Israel had “hypnotized the world” and accused it of “evil doings.”
- In February of this year, Congresswoman Omar tweeted that support for Israel in the United States was “all about the Benjamins” (referring to Benjamin Franklin, whose image appears on the $100 bills). Omar subsequently specified that she was referring to the impact of funds raised in support of political candidates from the supporters of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States. AIPAC has been for decades dedicated to strengthening US support for Israel by rewarding and quite ruthlessly punishing those who support and oppose Israel’s interests in the United States.
- More recently, speaking at a Washington bookstore, Omar decried “the political influence in this country that says it is ok to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Stated differently, Omar was critical of the American-Jewish establishment’s direct and indirect demands of members of Congress to pledge their support for Israel or otherwise face ominous consequences as did Senator Charles Percy decades ago and even President George W. H. Bush, among others.
The controversy surrounding Representative Omar statements brought to the surface a slew of issues with a potentially adverse long-term impact on the future of US-Israeli ties and the paramount influence of certain American-Jewish groups and individuals on the course of US foreign policy toward Palestine, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Middle East.
The Ilhan Omar Intifada has raised a number of questions and highlighted a number of issues chief among them:
1. Does Criticism of Israel Constitute Anti-Semitism?
Over the years, the charge of anti-Semitism has been a reliable and effective tool to silence criticism of Israel. Thanks to Rep. Omar, this issue was brought to the surface and the debate that ensued put a noticeable dent in that strategy. In the words of prominent Jewish and progressive Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), and recently proclaimed presidential candidate:
Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology, which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world. We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. Rather, we must develop an even-handed Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace. What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way to stifling that debate. That’s wrong.
Another 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), observed that “Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Representative Omar herself acknowledged that anti-Semitism is real and admitted that her word choices had been unfortunate. She unequivocally apologized for the pain that she may have caused. However, she defiantly added, “I have not mischaracterized our relationship with Israel. I have questioned it and that has been clear from my end. I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. 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.”
With support from Democratic presidential candidates and many others, Rep. Omar succeeded in cracking an unwritten taboo that forbade criticism of Israel in the halls of Congress; criticizing the inordinate influence of pro-Israel American groups and individuals (especially large donors to political groups); and the soundness of lobbing accusations of anti-Semitism at anyone that criticizes Israel.
2. Do American Jews Have a Dual Loyalty?
Jonathan Greenblatt of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was furious over Rep. Omar’s comments. He quickly wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding a congressional resolution condemning Omar’s statements. In his letter, Greenblatt pointed out that,” accusing Jews of having allegiance to a foreign government has long been a vile anti-Semitic slur that has been used to harass, marginalize, and persecute the Jewish people for centuries.”
Eleven pro-Israel groups sent a letter to Pelosi (led by the Endowment for Middle East Truth), to “immediately remove” Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Speaker Pelosi dropped all other issues and circulated a draft resolution aimed at condemning anti-Semitism without mentioning Omar by name.
Pelosi’s action immediately backfired. Many viewed the congressional resolution as a way to enforce “dual loyalty” not among Jews, but among all members of Congress, to make sure that criticism of Israel is punished in the most visible way possible. And, the US tweeter-in-chief, President Donald Trump, weighed in and called on Pelosi to remove Rep. Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Mr. Trump later called for Rep. Omar to be expelled from Congress.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) tweeted in January, that legislators who wanted to vote for the pro-Israel anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) bill during the government shutdown “forgot what country they represent.” In fact, 26 state legislators have passed bills criminalizing the BDS movement and the US Senate’s first resolution of its 2019 term was to pass the “Combat BDS Act,” intended to isolate US BDS supporters. Many liberals, human rights organizations, progressives, and even members of Congress have opposed criminalizing BDS as it infringes on their First Amendment Rights of free speech.
The issue of dual loyalty has been exacerbated by Israel itself. Israel grants automatic citizenship to any Jew living anywhere in the world if they make the “Aliyah” or immigration to Israel. Based on solely their religious affiliation, any Jew can become an Israeli citizen.
Exasperating those who deny dual loyalty accusations, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an Instagram posted on March 10, 2019, stated that:
Israel is not a state of all citizens [meaning existing Arab citizens]. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and them alone.
3. Has Accusing Muslims of Being Anti-Semites for Criticizing Israel Backfired?
According to Jewish Insider, Rep. Omar stated, during a panel discussion at a Washington, D.C. bookstore, that because she and fellow first-term Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who was also present, are Muslim, “a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our allies, go to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim.”
J Street weighed in and put out a statement commenting on the congressional resolution to censure Rep. Omar. It noted, “we are concerned that the timing of this resolution will be seen as singling out and focusing special condemnation on a Muslim woman of color.”
At a time of heightened anti-Muslim discrimination and hatred, the Democratic establishment has taken unprecedented steps to single out a Muslim Representative for her criticism of AIPAC and the US’s relationship with Israel. Unfortunately, Democrats have largely kept their eyes closed to Islamophobia and only spoke up when it was advantageous and politically expedient to do so.
However, by framing the criticism of Israel by a Muslim as being automatically anti-Semitic, Rep. Omar managed to potentially insulate herself and Rep. Tlaib from subsequent claims of anti-Semitism.
4. Will this Controversy Change the Dynamics of the Democratic Party?
Ilhan Omar’s statements have rocked the Democratic Party’s establishment. It underscored the differences between the progressives, the centrists and the old guard in the party. It accentuated the gender gap between the wave of newly elected female members of the House and the white male leadership dominating the party.
Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American activist, wrote on Facebook “Nancy is a typical white feminist upholding the patriarchy doing the dirty work of powerful white men.”
Ironically, the Omar controversy highlighted the powerful influence of Jewish members of the House who dominate the chairmanships of the most important committees in Congress.
Following one of Omar’s statements, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, described her statement “a vile anti-Semitic slur” and accused her of questioning “the loyalty of fellow American citizens.”
As though to validate Rep. Omar’s statements about the oversized influence of American Jews over the US political process, and at the behest of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, dutifully announced the introduction of a congressional resolution that would condemn and reject anti-Semitism statements, albeit without mentioning Omar by name.
The rush to heed calls for a congressional resolution to condemn anti-Semitism further exposed the Democrats’ close ties to pro-Israel groups and, more importantly, gave a tacit green light to the racism and Islamophobia that fuels the Trump administration and its supporters.
The US tweeter-in-chief, President Donald Trump, weighed in and called on Pelosi to remove Rep. Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Mr. Trump later called for Rep. Omar to be expelled from Congress.
This course of action immediately backfired.
- Many Jewish groups stood with Omar and defended her. Peter Beinart called the treatment of Omar as a “sick double standard.” IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, organizations representing young progressive Jewish Americans who support ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, came out strongly in support of Omar.
- Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the other newly elected young Democrat who has made daily headlines, noted that “one of the things that are hurtful about the extent to which reprimand is sought of Ilhan is that no one seeks this level of reprimand when members made statements about Latinx, other communities.”
- A concerted campaign of “#IStandWithIlhan” made its rounds on social media.
- Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva wondered out loud as well about the double standard at the level of condemnation that Rep. Omar was subjected to. During House deliberations, he asked his colleagues, “What would be the appropriate level of punishment – a public flogging?”
Centrist and Old Guard Democrats underestimated the groundswell of support for Omar. Rep. Engel softened his condemnation of Omar and subsequently stated that she should not be stripped of her position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; especially, following an effort mostly by Republicans to have the congresswoman removed.
The voting on the congressional resolution was delayed and altered after pushback from members, including the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, demanded that the resolution condemn all forms of bigotry.
Responding to the upheaval and pushbacks within the Democratic ranks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi relented and acquiesced to a resolution that would condemn anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and white supremacy while not naming Omar specifically. The resolution passed with all Democrats voting yes, including Rep. Omar herself, and 23 Republicans voted no over complaints that the bill was too broad.
There is little doubt that this controversy has taken a toll on unity within the Democratic Party at a time when they need unity to confront the Republicans’ agenda and the upcoming presidential and congressional elections in November 2019.
5. What Next?
This article will not do justice to the extent to which Rep. Omar has caused an Intifada, not only in Congress, but also throughout the United States, over issues pertaining to the right to criticize Israel, equating such criticism with anti-Semitism, and exposing the extraordinary influence of American-Jewish groups and individuals over US policy and aid to Israel.
Over the past three decades, support for Israel has become increasingly associated with conservative evangelicals – the new power base of the Republican Party. Netanyahu’s cozying to Trump, despite his support of white supremacists and his tacit support of anti-Semitism has riled American Jews and significantly weakened the ties between American Jews and Netanyahu’s Israel.
There is little doubt that Representatives Omar and Tlaib have chipped away at the wall of solid support that Israel enjoys in Congress. As long as they are members of Congress, and along with their young and progressive allies, they will continue to criticize the US preferential treatment of Israel, which, often comes, at the expense of Palestinian rights. They will continue to point out the overwhelming influence of certain American-Jewish groups over US policy toward Israel, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Middle East. And, they will endure threats against their lives for speaking up. Those ladies, however, represent the best of an American system that allows a Somali refugee and a Palestinian immigrant to become vocal and powerful members of Congress.
The final question, given Rep. Omar’s success in repelling the onslaught against her for daring to speak up, are we at the onset of an American intifada over Israel’s tight grip on the US Congress and this Republican administration?