The targeting of a courageous congresswoman and fighting the false charge of anti-Semitism
By Barrington M. Salmon -Contributing Writer-
WASHINGTON—Since she entered Congress in January, Rep. Ilhan Omar has enjoyed one of the highest profiles in the freshman class of the 116th Congress.
A Somali-American, who happens to be Muslim, she’s attracted attention as much for being one of the first Muslims voted to Congress as for her outspokenness and willingness to shake up the establishment.
Twice in one month, her comments about the power and influence of the American Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and recent tweets and a comment during a town hall meeting created a firestorm and condemnation from congressional politicians on both sides of the aisle.
“I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee,” Omar tweeted. “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.”
She took part in a Feb. 28 town hall at Busboys and Poets in midtown D.C. where her comments, again about Israeli influence on congressional lawmakers, sparked outrage, some real, some feigned from Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Reps. Louis Gohmert and Steve King, who have made anti-Semitic remarks or shared similarly offensive comments and memes on social media.
In answer to a question, Rep. Omar elaborated on her position.
“… But now that you have two Muslims that are saying ‘here is a group of people that we want to make sure that they have the dignity that you want everyone else to have!’ … We get to be called names, we get to be labeled as hateful. No, we know what hate looks like. We experience it every single day. We have to deal with death threats. I have colleagues who talk about death threats ... .”
Political journalists familiar with the workings of AIPAC said the organization dispatched Democratic leaders to fashion a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, bigotry and hate speech. But things didn’t work out as originally planned.
House Democrats led by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, challenged House Speaker Pelosi and other Democratic leaders for seeking to impose sanctions on Rep. Omar for her alleged anti-Semitic remarks yet Democrats have done nothing in response to President Donald Trump’s steady stream of racist, anti-Muslim comments and his embrace of White nationalists.
Furthermore, the CBC and other representatives said, it was hypocritical and disingenuous for the body to be considering a resolution condemning religious hatred without including a condemnation of anti-Islam bias and rhetoric. This schism led to a vote of the resolution being delayed, expanded and then passing the House on March 7 with the language broadened to include these concerns. The ADL, some Republicans and Democrats howled it was not enough, that there should have a been a resolution about anti-Semitism—and it should have specifically named the congresswoman from Minnesota.
“I think there’s a big rise in anti-Semitism and racism, and that’s a bigger conversation we need to be having. But it starts at 1600 Pennsylvania. It doesn’t start with one member out of 435 members of Congress,” Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) reportedly told his colleagues in the closed-door Democratic session.
President Trump has angered Black people since he assumed office with his harsh and demeaning rhetoric towards Blacks. He called Black NFL players sons of bitches for kneeling to protest racism, police brutality, inequality, injustice and the extrajudicial killings of Black men, women and children; he has been explicit in his support of White nationalists, including equivocating after White nationalist protests, the racial attacks and murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville; his disrespect to prominent Black women, such as Reps. Maxine Waters and Frederica Wilson, Jemele Hill, April Ryan and Abby Philip and more.
Rep. Omar has received the backing of Reps. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, Rebecca Tlaib and Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders.
Sen. Sanders’ office released a statement earlier calling the initial bill wrong.
“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,” Sen. Sanders said.
“What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong,” Sen. Sanders added.
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) also issued a statement.
“We all have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all forms of hatred and bigotry, especially as we see a spike in hate crimes in America,” Sen. Harris said as reported by the Huffington Post. “But like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk.”
Rep. Ocasio Cortez said, in several tweets, that the fiery backlash her colleague is facing illustrates the double standard in Congress’ response to different forms of bigotry.
“One of the things that is hurtful about the extent to which reprimand is sought of Ilhan is that no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about Latinx plus other communities (during the shutdown, a GOP member yelled ‘Go back to Puerto Rico!’ on the floor),” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter.
Rep. Ocasio Cortez said lawmakers have been given a pass for racist, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ comments and misogyny so congressional leaders should be clear about what behavior merits formal condemnation.
“...incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’ ” she asked.
The bill passed by a vote of 407-23. Twenty-three Republicans opposed the measure.
Rep. Omar has had the backing of Jewish Voice for Peace and 40 Jewish organizations around the nation. Prominent Jewish Americans like Naomi Klein, The Nation’s Dave Zirin, Israeli historian, author and activist Ilan Pappé also signed an open letter stating that Rep. Omar has been “falsely accused of antisemitism” and that there was nothing anti-Semitic about calling out the “noxious” role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in American politics.
The letter continues, “the pro-Israel lobby has played an outsized role in producing nearly unanimous congressional support for Israel,” and slammed AIPAC and other lobby groups including the National Rifle Association and the fossil fuel lobby for its “ ‘anti-democratic’ legislative influence on US politics … We thank Ilhan Omar for having the bravery to shake up the congressional taboo against criticizing Israel. As Jews with a long tradition of social justice and anti-racism, AIPAC does not represent us,” and called on other Jews to sign the letter.
Rep. Omar is just the latest critic of the Israeli government who has become the lightning rod of a concentrated barrage of criticism and condemnation from supporters of Israeli’s occupation. The Israeli lobby has effectively used claims of anti-Semitism as a consistent and valuable tool to silence dissent. Supporters have been aggressive in trying to blunt the criticisms of those opposed to the Israeli occupation. According to published reports, 26 state legislatures have passed bills criminalizing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS organizers have patterned the movement on the one that toppled South Africa’s White minority government and the odious apartheid system. BDS seeks to end Israel’s open defiance of a 2004 International Court of Justice advisory opinion declaring the wall in the West Bank illegal. The U.S. Senate passed the “Combat BDS Act” earlier this year as a way to isolate boycott supporters, despite widespread concerns about the bill violating the First Amendment.
Lawmakers, AIPAC representatives and others express outrage at the very idea that the Israel lobby holds any influence, but Israel has long been referred to as the 51st state, and in the early 1970s, Sen William Fulbright called Congress “Israeli-Occupied territory.”
Until now, Israel has received almost total immunity from criticism in the U.S., as noted in a 1971 op-ed for The New York Times by former diplomat David G. Nes who said Israel enjoyed economic, military, diplomatic and cultural support from the U.S.
Mehdi Hasan, a journalist and writer for The Intercept, wrote in a Feb. 12 article that there has always been a taboo against criticizing AIPAC and Rep. Omar, he added, just destroyed it.
Mr. Hasan cited several cases of AIPAC officials boasting about the raw power that “America’s bipartisan pro-Israel lobby” exercises in Washington, D.C.
He recounted the story of Steven Rosen, then a senior official with AIPAC, sat down for dinner with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, then of the New Yorker in 2005. “You see this napkin?” Rosen asked Goldberg. “In twenty-four hours, [AIPAC] could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”
“Go back … to 1992, when then-AIPAC President David Steiner was caught on tape bragging that he had ‘cut a deal’ with the George H.W. Bush White House to provide $3 billion in U.S. aid to Israel. Steiner also claimed to be ‘negotiating’ with the incoming Clinton administration over the appointment of pro-Israel cabinet members. AIPAC, he said, has ‘a dozen people in [the Clinton] campaign, in the headquarters … and they’re all going to get big jobs.’ ”
AIPAC’s clout is undeniable. What Mr. Hasan has clarified is that while AIPAC is not a political action committee and does not provide donations directly to candidates, it does act as a “force multiplier,” in the sense that when the organization signals “its rhetorical support for a candidate is a signal to Jewish PACs and individual donors across the country to back his or her campaign.”
Rep. Omar is also widely acknowledged to have forced much-needed dialogue on the influence of money on politics as well as the outsized influence of AIPAC on Congress.
AIPAC spent almost $4 million on lobbying activities in 2018 and enjoys the support of a broad swathe of men and women in Congress. The impact of the Israel Lobby is also considerable.
According to the Guardian newspaper, pro-Israel lobbyists and donors spent more than $22 million on lobbying and campaign contributions during the 2018 election cycle.
“The same or similar Israel-aligned groups and donors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent decades, and that money poured into American politics through a variety of channels,” according to the non-profit, non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. The CRP uses federal election records to track campaign finance spending and makes its data available on the Open Secrets site.
President Donald Trump recently finalized an agreement to provide Israel with $38 billion in military aid over the next 10 years.
In 2004, academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote a detailed article in the London Review of Books, titled, “The Israeli Lobby,” where they showed, “Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. interests and those of the other country—in this case, Israel—are essentially identical.”
“Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state,” the authors said. “It has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance since 1976 and is the largest recipient in total since World War Two, to the tune of well over $140 billion (in 2004 dollars). Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. This largesse is especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to that of South Korea or Spain.
“It is the only recipient that does not have to account for how the aid is spent, which makes it virtually impossible to prevent the money from being used for purposes the U.S. opposes, such as building settlements on the West Bank,” the authors said. “Moreover, the U.S. has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems, and given it access to such top-drawer weaponry as Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the U.S. gives Israel access to intelligence it denies to its NATO allies and has turned a blind eye to Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.”
What is often overlooked is the absolute devastation visited on the Palestinians by the Israeli Defense Force and other instruments of the government.
The Rev. Graylan Hagler visited in 1974, 2004 and 2006 with a delegation of clergy to “investigate what was going on in Israel and the Occupied Territories.” What he and Rev. Patti Fears saw, (she visited in 2017), challenged their accepted Christian narrative.
“What Israel is doing has nothing to do with and is not related to Jews in the Bible,” said Rev. Hagler. “What we saw was a European-American enterprise of colonialism. They have absolute control. We couldn’t get into Gaza, but we were able to get into the West Bank. Gaza is an open-air prison camp.”
“The new constitution renders Palestinians second, third and fourth-class citizens. Settlers can carry automatic weapons; the occupied West Bank is controlled by soldiers and Palestinians aren’t allowed to carry weapons.
“Israel has and continues to steal, appropriate or seize Palestinian land, resettle Israelis on that land and kill, maim or imprison anyone who resists.”
Israeli-American activist and writer Miko Peled said much of the anger towards Rep. Omar stems from fear and race.
“American political institutions are made up of White men who’re not used to Black women,” he told The Final Call during a telephone call from Palestine. “It’s racism. In their mind, she’s supposed to be subservient but she’s calling them out and calling out AIPAC. She has courage and is eloquent and they don’t know what to do with her.”
The Rev. Hagler and the Rev. Fears are among those who are pushing back against the hysteria surrounding Rep. Omar.
“She’s not wrong,” said Rev. Hagler, senior pastor of Plymouth Congressional Church in Northeast D.C. “The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Congress and others have used the power that they have to scare and intimidate people. The Zionist movement has blurred the line between Israel, Judaism and Jews. But the Jewish state is a racist, colonial, apartheid state. If you can’t criticize them, you couldn’t criticize apartheid in South Africa or Jim Crow in the U.S.
“They label any criticism of Israeli government policy as anti-Semitic and people start freaking out and not wanting to deal with it. This is not a special category of racism and their suffering is no greater than anybody else’s suffering. Their suffering is no less than the genocide of Native Americans or the Middle Passage.”
Rev. Fears, pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Northwest D.C. decried the cruelty she saw in Palestine and lamented not having answers.
“People are treated poorly, houses were bulldozed while people walked by laughing and there were guns to protect the Israelis,” she said. “There was just so much inhumane treatment. The moral characteristic we expected is misplaced. This is a land grab. Israel perpetuates violence and is using military force to eliminate people. They’re not relocating people, they’re killing people. Too many people have been hurt. There will be implosion. It really will take the rise of people to chance this. I wish I had the answer that there will be a real two-state system.”