What is happening to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar should be of concern to all Americans. Because she has dared to challenge the way supporters of Israel have worked to silence debate on U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she has become a victim of incitement and hate crimes, and the target of legislation meant to shame her.
The weapon of choice in this campaign has been to demonize her as an antisemite. Her “sin”, it appears, is her continued umbrage over the double-standard that exists in American policy toward Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.
During Israel’s assault on Gaza, for example, she criticized the failure of the U.S. to pierce through Israeli propaganda and see what was actually happening to Palestinians in that impoverished strip of land. Then after facing down attacks by her new congressional colleagues, she “sinned” once again when she challenged the power of AIPAC to intimidate politicians and silence debate on Israel/Palestine.
Even with the apology, the die had been cast—she remained a target.
Because she was a hijab-wearing Muslim, who was critical of Israel, the GOP sought to exploit her in their continuing effort to drive a wedge between the Jewish community and Democrats. For their part, some Democrats reacted with hyperventilated outrage. Extreme language was used to denounce Omar. Her words were described as “bigoted”, “vile”, and, of course, “antisemitic slurs.”
What was especially disturbing was that because she was called “antisemitic” so frequently the term stuck. Never, in all this time, was there a critical examination of what she actually said. Never did she accuse the Jewish community of controlling the media (unless one assumes that Israel’s ability to dominate media coverage of events occurring in the occupation can be attributed to the Jewish community). Nor did she ever accuse the Jewish community of using money to buy influence in Washington (unless one suggests that AIPAC speaks for and acts on behalf of the entire Jewish community).
The entire affair came to a head when, at a Town Hall last week, Omar explained herself. Asked to address the controversy that had erupted over her advocacy of Palestinian rights, Omar’s colleague, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, spoke first noting that to her the question of Palestine is personal–it is her grandmother still living in the West Bank and her desire that she receive equal justice and recognition of her rights to live in dignity.
Reacting to what she had just heard, Omar said that she couldn’t accept those who fight for human rights and dignity for others and yet exclude Palestinian rights and dignity. For her part, she said, the focus would be universal–leaving no one out. She then chided those in congress who have pressed her to reject her commitment to call out Israeli abuses and ignore Palestinians rights. Because she is a Muslim, she said, her criticism of Israel has been automatically seen as antisemitic in order to silence her. Even more troubling to her was that, as a result of the manufactured controversy over her words, the discussion has become whether or not she’s an antisemite, while ignoring “the broader debate about what is happening in Palestine.”
At that point, Omar said that she resented those who are pushing her to demonstrate allegiance to Israel. She concluded that she wanted to have this conversation about “the political influence in this country that says its okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
The reaction to this newest “sin” was near hysteria. There were demands to censure Omar and to remove her from her committee posts. And this week Congress will debate a resolution denouncing antisemitism–which was initially directed at the congresswoman.
What she did do was challenge official American, and in particular, congressional silence on the suffering of the Palestinians, the efforts by pro-Israel groups to silence debate on this issue, and the virtual identity that pro-Israel groups have established between being pro-Israel with American interests.
Some members of congress in their efforts to upbraid Omar, unwittingly made her point. One congressman said “Questioning support for the US-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” Another said “there are many reasons to support Israel, but there is no reason to oppose Israel.” While still another said that Democrats and Republicans, alike, are committed to insuring that the “United States and Israel stand as one.”
It is exactly this attitude to which Omar objected when she wrote, “I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel…I know what it means to be an American and no one will ever tell me otherwise…I have not said anything about the loyalty of others, but spoke about the loyalty expected of me.”
Because Omar has touched what some have come to say is “the third rail of American politics” she is being exploited by Republicans and is being hung out to dry by Democrats. They have put a target on her back. And haters have been quick to respond with frightening death threats and shameful bigoted assaults on her as a Muslim woman. There is no question that these threats against Omar are the byproduct of the sustained campaign of incitement.
It’s important to note, however, that outside of the halls of Congress a different reality is unfolding. The attacks on Congresswoman Omar are being rejected by many Democrats, including progressive Jewish groups, and a debate has been sparked by the issues she has raised and the over-reaction to them by congress.
James Zogby is the author of Arab Voices and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.–based organization which serves as a political and policy research arm of the Arab-American community.