Rep. Omar Backlash: All Too Familiar to Arab Americans
By: Heba Mohammad/Arab America Contributing Writer
This week, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) attempted to break the dam on a discussion that has been held back for too long: the sanctity of Israel in our U.S. Congress, and the role of powerful pro-Israel organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in maintaining a taboo around criticisms of Israel. While the dishonest backlash to Omar’s tweets has largely succeeded in shifting the conversation away from U.S.-Israel policy and into a debate about anti-Semitism, it is critical to take a moment to focus on the actual positions Omar was communicating.
Watching the online debate unfold, the accusations & pressure Omar, an Arab American of Somali & Yemeni descent, faced for speaking truth about pro-Israel lobbying efforts & U.S. support for the Israeli government were recognizable. The backlash Omar was subjected to is the same response, pro-Palestine advocates, especially Arab Americans, face when standing up for Palestinian human rights. While Omar’s delivery of the message was singular, the message itself is not, and many Arab Americans saw their own positions meaningfully represented in Congress because they understood what Omar wanted to articulate. And yet, while the profile of this shared position was being raised, the voices of pro-Palestine Arab Americans, who have been victims of organized smear campaigns and silencing efforts to crush debate about Palestine, were ignored.
Listening and learning, but standing strong 💪🏽 pic.twitter.com/7TSroSf8h1
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
Before going too far, it’s necessary to highlight a couple foundational facts of this discussion: the pro-Israel lobby is not a “Jewish lobby,” it’s a diverse group of individuals and organizations who are united in their shared pursuit of nearly unconditional pro-Israel American policies, frequently at the expense of Palestinian rights. This includes organizations like AIPAC, the Christian evangelical base and some of its organizations (like Christians United for Israel), as well as individuals like Sheldon Adelson.
Secondly, let’s remember that the tweets Omar sent were in response to reports that House Minority Leader McCarthy (R-CA) is considering reprimands for both Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) for their unspecified criticisms of Israel. Omar’s reply rightly questioned McCarthy’s motivations and attributed them to the influence of the Israel lobby, the same lobby that doesn’t bat an eye at settlements built on stolen Palestinian land, at the murder of peaceful protestors and humanitarian workers by an occhttps://twitter.com/IlhanMN/status/1095046561254567937upying army, at the 11+-year-old blockade on Gaza, and further atrocities committed by the government it lobbies in favor of.
These facts have been entirely lost in the debate, especially as it has continued to oscillate between discussions relating to anti-Semitism and the Israel lobby. To be clear: anti-Semitism is real, it is on the rise, it is dangerous, and we all need to stand with the Jewish community to combat this hate. We should be equally clear that criticism of Israeli policies or the Israel lobby is perfectly legitimate, and that those who try to weaponize the accusation of anti-Semitism to stifle criticism of Israeli policies are, in fact, undermining the real fight against anti-Semitism.
Also lost in the discussions are the domestic implications of the lobby and the ongoing conflict that materialize in ways that end up prioritizing protections for Israel over Americans’ civil rights & liberties. Arab Americans have not forgotten these facts, and are on the front lines pushing back against rights infringements in their local communities so they can continue to advocate for an end to Israel’s occupation.
Legislative efforts are underway at every level of government, either to support Israel or curtail criticisms of its actions: locally as universities & colleges attempt to stifle free speech, at the state level through anti-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) bills, and federally through legislation like the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act and Senate Bill 1.
Even as Arab Americans take up these seemingly straightforward battles (the right to boycott has been repeatedly reaffirmed by civil rights groups & the courts alike), it is done with the utmost care because it is learned early that, if you’re going to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you are expected to know, understand, and address every nuance.
The backlash that results from neglecting nuance in any statement offering a critique of Israel mirrors that of the response to Omar: a swift rebuke that, at least temporarily, disqualifies the commenter from further participation in a substantive discussion about anything related to the conflict, no matter how factual or morally righteous their positions. Arab Americans recognize this risk, and also understand an imbalance exists because those who support Israel believe they face no risk if they speak brazenly against Palestinians and their rights.
Focusing on Israel’s wellbeing has led to interesting bedfellows, namely a number of GOP representatives who have engaged in harmful stereotyping of the Jewish community, but continue to enjoy the favor of Israeli officials and their supporters. Case in point, President Donald Trump, who has a documented history of anti-Semitism and supporting white supremacists.
Trump called on Omar to resign on Tuesday, apparently comfortable enough with his positioning in this conversation to do so. This is likely because the conversation has gone on to conflate Israel with the Jewish community, and as this continues Trump is offered cover from reproach due to his pro-Israel positions.
You have trafficked in hate your whole life—against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, immigrants, black people and more. I learned from people impacted by my words. When will you? https://t.co/EqqTyjkiNE
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 13, 2019
The president asking a sitting Congresswoman to resign over her criticism of the pro-Israel lobby doesn’t just set a bad precedent, it also plays into a broader trend. On a micro-level, Palestinian rights advocates are facing anonymous attacks through Canary Mission, a website that denigrates pro-Palestine activists, and these attacks have affected the targeted individuals as they apply for jobs, schools, and attempt to engage in normal life activities. In calling on Omar to step down, Trump is implicitly endorsing the idea that pro-Palestine advocates do not belong in mainstream conversation or institutions, and that gives sites like Canary Mission an implicit endorsement for their reprehensible blacklisting of activists.
The parallels between retaliation directed at Omar and that directed at grassroots advocates are numerous, but there is a vital difference: while advocates often find themselves isolated and abandoned, Omar is receiving significant public support, notwithstanding the ambivalence of some in her party’s leadership. Numerous journalists and Washington insiders have risen to Omar’s defense, and in doing so they are reminding so many advocates who once felt isolated that we are, in fact, not alone.
The struggle for Palestinian rights did not start with Omar, and it won’t end with her either. The path forward will continue, led by Arab Americans and supported by our allies from every corner and movement. We will continue to stand for what is morally right, and the arc of the universe will bend to meet us.
Heba Mohammad is a National Field Coordinator at the Arab American Institute