Somali-American Ilhan Omar is a member of the US House of Representatives from Minnesota’s 5th district. Elected to the United States Congress in November 2018, Omar is a critical and strong voice that advocates for progressive policies and lawmaking in regards to housing, a living wage, student debt forgiveness, and the protection of immigrants.
Since February 2019 Omar has come under attack for tweeting, retweeting, deleting, stating and restating, a number of positions, including of course that financial resources generated by pro-Israel lobbying groups served as motivation for American political support of Israel. Omar is currently facing another onslaught by high powered Democrats for subsequent comments she made regarding Israel. This after a recent racist depiction of Omar by the West Virginia GOP in a poster linking her to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Since these more recent developments, House Resolution 183, in historic fashion, issued the word “Islamophobia,” (deeper in the text) and was to many, a sign of progress in marking the first time there has been a formal condemnation of this term. Furthermore, the three leading Democratic nominees for 2020 all issued defenses of Omar, showing that the bottom up defenses of Omar has reached the mainstream and political center.
Can it really be believed that Omar is a bigot that demonstrates a bias? Likely no, but in some ways imagined antisemitism is no match for real Islamophopia within the Democratic Party.
In this interview, I spoke to Richard Falk about the history of Zionism, Islamophobia and the pressure and vulnerability pundits, authors, academics (including himself) and elected officials like Congresswoman Omar face when they take on machine politicians and the established order especially in the American foreign policy arena.
Daniel Falcone: Going back to when this all started about a month ago, can you briefly remind readers of what your initial reactions were to Ilhan Omar’s tweets and to the course of events that quickly followed soon after? Did she misspeak? Isn’t the Lobby (or AIPAC) “small potatoes” compared to other groups or official US policy in the first place?
Richard Falk: When I first heard these comments by Ilhan Omar I was glad that there was a new voice in Congress that would speak up on behalf of the Palestinian people so long subjected to a daily ordeal whether they are living under occupation, as a discriminated minority in Israel, or in refugee camps in occupied Palestine and neighboring countries, or existing in involuntary exile.
Although I welcomed her critical remarks on AIPAC, and later on the dual loyalty of some Americans when it comes to Israel, they struck me as familiar and reflective of reality as to have become almost innocuous truisms. How wrong I was! On further consideration, it became clear to me that her remarks (of course, exaggerated in their intended meaning by being torn from the wider context of the full statements) were treated as so inflammatory not so much because of their content, but because of their source, a black-Muslim-American woman, and her status as a newly elected member of Congress.
The essence of what she had to say was hardly the stuff of fiery radicalism. After apologizing for what might have unintentionally been hurtful to Jews, convincingly distancing herself from real anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews) her message was true but important only because she as a newly elected congressperson was willing to declare her concerns in high visibility settings:
“I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry…It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.” And “I want to talk about political influence in this country that says it is O.K. to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
The overblown response to these Omar tweets had the effect of mobilizing the liberal and Christian Zionist establishments in and out of Congress. These groups pressed Democrats in Congress to give concreteness to their allegations by their angry calls for apologies, retractions, and censure. Those outraged insisted that the truths Rep. Ilhan Omar dared speak were nothing less than ‘familiar anti-Semitic tropes.’ This expansion of anti-Semitism from its base meaning, the hatred of Jews, is a tactic used to spread the net of anti-Semitism much wider. This referral to ‘tropes’ is an insidious way of substituting ‘political correctness’ for the transparencies of truthfulness.
Once this enlarged anti-Semitic card is on the table, the accuracy or inaccuracy of Omar’s statements becomes irrelevant, and any attempt by the person so accused to justify their assertions by pointing to the facts only aggravates the sin, and reinforces the allegation. In effect, freedom of expression takes a back seat when an anti-Semitic trope is invoked by defaming critics.
This dynamic is even more problematic when the speaker has a status that bestows prestige and is capable of wielding influence. It has been extremely helpful to Israel over the decades to have virtual unanimity in the U.S. Congress on any agenda item that touches its interests or assesses its behavior. It puts critics of Israel in the larger society on the defensive, and makes support for Israel so bipartisan as to become virtually absolute – and making opposition to any important pro-Israel initiative, for instance annual military appropriations, becomes politically untenable.
Such a tactic has been highly effective in the past. It has made anyone politically foolish enough to defy this overarching consensus exceedingly vulnerable to political defeat in the next scheduled election. Such a person is clearly targeted, and yes, by AIPAC, rich Zionist donors, and pro-Israeli Christian lobbies and likely the lucky opponent will have trouble spending all the money pouring into his or her campaign coffers.
This pattern of ‘enforcing’ unanimity can be traced back at least as far as the experience of Paul Findley, a courageous, moderate, and humanly decent Congressman from Illinois, who was blacklisted and politically defeated after serving ten term after he raised his voice to decry the unbalanced approach relied on by the U.S. Government to manage the Israel/Palestine relationship.
Ever since he lost his House seat in 1982 Findley has devoted himself to exposing and criticizing the role that AIPAC plays using language not dissimilar to that employed by Omar. See his important book They Dare Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby (1985, 2003).
It is not only Findley that has been targeted over the years, but several others who fall afoul of AIPAC’s disciplinary code, including such distinguished figures as Charles Percy, Adlai Stevenson III, Pete McCloskey, and above all, Cynthia McKinney, the only woman and African American on this honor roll. To deny or obscure such a cause and effect relationship is tantamount to swallowing the Kool Aid of Zionist thought control. I can only wonder whether Congresswoman Omar was aware of this background when she decided to speak out forcefully, yet in a moderate tone delivering a message that cannot be factually refuted hence the messenger becomes the target.
Status matters in these campaigns to defame critics of Israel. When someone as prominent as Richard Goldstone associated his name with a UN fact-finding inquiry into Israeli wrongdoing arising from the 2008-09 attack on Gaza he suffered mightily from the backlash. The Report reached conclusions critical of Israel that were fact-based, rather restrained given the evidence, and fully documented. Impressions of fairness were further strengthened by coupling the accusations against Israel with harsh denunciations of Hamas’ unlawful acts of retaliation. Such characteristics of the Report did nothing to tone down the fury of Israeli reactions, which singled out Goldstone with vituperative rage. Although Goldstone was at the time a widely admired international figure who had won international recognition for his anti-apartheid role in South Africa, neither his eminence nor his legal professionalism protected him from the slash-and-burn tactics of his detractors – quite the contrary.
The heaviest defamatory artillery was deployed to mount an intense attack on his person and reputation. Despite his lifelong Zionist connections, Goldstone was denounced, censured at the highest levels of government in Israel with the negative chorus joined by several leading political figures in the U.S. He was even accused of authoring ‘a blood libel’ against the Jewish people. It turned out that Goldstone couldn’t withstand these pressures and backed down in humiliating fashion without the support of any of the three other distinguished members of the UN commission team.
With this retraction totally lost the respect of the human rights community without regaining respectability among Zionists. Goldstone’s turnaround demonstrates how effective these Israeli tactics can be in silencing its critics, evading truth, and shifting the policy conversation from the message (in this instance, the Report) to the messenger.
My own analogous experience at a much lower level of international visibility was rather similar. As long as I was a dissenting professor on Israel/Palestine, I was more or less ignored, but when I was appointed as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine all hell broke loose. I received death threats and hate mail calling me many names, but concentrating on depicting me as ‘a notorious anti-Semite’ and ‘a self-hating Jew.’ This campaign of defamation continued unabated during my six years holding this UN position, yet immediately after my term ended in 2014 the attacks subsided, although they were revived in 2017 when a UN report that I jointly authored was released. Its carefully constructed arguments showed that Israel was an apartheid state according to the criteria established by international criminal law. Unlike Goldstone, I refused to back down or shut up, and for this stubbornness I paid a different kind of price.
The experience of Ilhan Omar is, of course, more extreme and revealing than mine. It is a grim reminder that whenever African Americans are allowed on the plantation, they are slapped down harshly if they become ‘uppity.’ Although born and raised in Somalia, Omar was nevertheless perceived as uppity. There is a Jim Crow element present here that is being applied especially since 9/11 to Muslims. A large part of what is operating here is to paint Ilhan Omer as an anti-Semite because it is not politically correct to be explicitly Islamophobic, but it is quite all right to be indirectly so beneath the banner of solidarity with Israel.
In effect, it is bad enough if Muslims are seen, and worse, if they are heard and still worse if they somehow obtain an official platform from which to speak, and worst of all, if they use this platform to speak out in ways that expose truths long swept under the rug. To some degree the racist mentality directed previously at African Americans has shifted its center of gravity to Muslims, and reaches fever levels, when the perceived offender is not only Muslim but also African American.
Recent events confirm that the orchestrated backlash becomes more vicious if the criticism of Israel issues forth from the mouth of a person of color who enjoys a high intellectual or cultural status. The Temple professor, Marc Lamont Hill, was almost instantly dismissed from his role as a commentator and consultant to CNN merely because he used the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ to describe Palestinian rights in the course of a judicious and humane speech on the conditions of a true peace between Israel and Palestine delivered at the UN a few months ago. Hill responded to the pressure by offering an explanatory apology for any misunderstanding he might have unintentionally caused. He eventually managed to survive demands that he be dismissed from his tenured professorship. Even so, the public pounding Hill endured surely sent a chilling message to others throughout the country who might be tempted to speak out, and is likely to result in a sharp decline in the number of invitations he receives to speak at academic conferences at least for five years or so.
In other words, whether knowingly or not Illhan Omar poked her head into this lion’s den, and it has had consequences that are likely beyond her imagining at the time she spoke out. Omar definitely touched a raw nerve by so defiantly challenging this bipartisan consensus to refrain from criticisms of Israel and its support system — particularly, when her comments seemed to be saying that it is impossible to reconcile such loyalty to a foreign country with the obligations of an elected American official to give priority to national interests.
Daniel Falcone: On December 13, 2011 Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote in reference to Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to US Congress that the “ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel Lobby.” He received some criticism for it, but no liberal called it an “anti-Semitic trope” either literally or in proportion to the reaction of Omar’s word choice. Can you unpack the difference between Friedman saying this and Omar? I think Omar was really speaking to US hegemony and this all indirectly makes the point that in the US, it’s okay to use “tropes” as long as you hate Muslims more.
Richard Falk: My prior response sets the stage for my response to this question. Friedman’s stature and generally supportive role for Israeli policies, although acutely critical of Netanyahu, led even most militant supporters of Israel to construe his comments as narrowly confined to Iran’s nuclear program. The strong Israeli objections to the nuclear deal so scrupulously negotiated with Russia bothered many Jews, even including many Zionists. As suggested, Friedman although prominent and influential, did not have an official position in government or an international institution, and the defiant Netanyahu speech on a question not primarily directly related to Israel was then testing the outer limits of bipartisanship with respect to Israel. The whole episode seemed primarily intended by his Republican hosts as a slap at the Obama presidency, and his nuclear diplomacy.
Even on this occasion, Friedman was characteristically careful to couple his criticisms of the Israeli approach to security issues under Netanyahu with affirmations of a continuing belief in the sanctity of the Jewish state and an avowal of a two-state solution as still the only solution that could be feasible and might be negotiable. [See his “Ilhan Omar, AIPAC, and me,” with the super-revealing and self-serving sub-head, “The congresswoman and I have a lot in common — but not her stance on Israel,” NY Times, March 6, 2019,] This continues to be the liberal Zionist line, but it is rather self-contradictory.
Any close observer should realize that the broad spectrum of Israeli public opinion now is definitely opposed to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state under any conditions. The Likud has by way of the settlement movement to foreclose a two-state solution as a feasible political option. Friedman is no fool. He too must be aware of this. It prompts raising a question parallel to that suggested by the title of a Murakami work of fiction, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. My question: What is Friedman really talking about when he talks about the two-state solution?
Friedman’s remarks were framed around the particular event of Netanyahu’s speech, and were not formulated to be heard as a general indictment of AIPAC or to call attention of his readers to the disproportionate influence exerted by pro-Israeli viewpoints on foreign policy. Some years ago when John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt published The Israel Lobby their book was sharply attacked as anti-Semitic because it mounted a general argument about the distortion of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The central contention of the book was that American foreign policy quite often was bent to accommodate Israel’s national interests at the expense of American regional interests in the Middle East.
The authors were, of course, not members of Congress and the anti-Semitic slur of their accusers never became a matter of public debate. Mearsheimer and Walt possessed impeccable academic credentials backed up by senior appointments at leading universities. This Zionist pushback was not very severe or sustained, although it was serious enough to tarnish their mainstream media acceptability to some extent. Objectively, it was absurd to attack such academic experts, both known to me personally, who are above all prominent in the field of international relations as ‘political realists.’ It seems evident that they were not motivated by any particular empathy for the Palestinians or hostility to Jews, but were acting on their consistently expressed belief that a rational foreign policy must be based on interests of the nation and not be shaped by pressures mounted by special interests of an ethnic minority, private sector actors, or on behalf of the paid lobbyists of a foreign government.
What is paramount to observe when comparing Friedman to Omar is the reality of a double-standard. Ilhan Omar became especially vulnerable because she is Muslim, African, and an immigrant, as well as being a newly elected member of Congress. If she had made these comments back in Minnesota with tweets or at a community meeting in her neighborhood, it might have produced some angry reactions from local Zionist activists, but no likely wider ripples. If she held a still higher public office in Washington than at present the attack on her would likely have been even more intense, as Jimmy Carter discovered when he titled his unwaveringly moderate book on Israel/Palestine ‘Peace or Apartheid’ The book was essentially a plea for peace and a warning about the consequences of kicking the can further and further down the road.
There is also the question about whether American foreign policy is shaped by the Israeli lobby or that Israel and the United States share common policies toward the region. If the latter is the case then it is a matter of convergence, not Zionist influence that explains the course of American policy. Both views can be supported, especially if it is accepted that Zionist and AIPAC influence may be greater at some times than at others. For instance, it would seem that the two countries are quite closely aligned on counterterrorism policy in the post-9/11 context.
Yet when it came to the 5 + 1 2015 Nuclear Agreement with Iran, it was evident that the White House was pursuing a line of policy at variance with the priorities of Israel’s approach toward Iran. In this regard, when major geopolitical interests are at stake, and an American president is sensitive to their significance, variance with Israeli preferences will be acted upon, despite domestic friction generated by AIPAC and other lobbying groups. Under the Trump presidency, the approach to Iran converges to a far greater degree than with Obama, which seems both to reflect greater responsiveness to Netanyahu’s influence but also appears consistent with Trump’s view of Iran as a threat to regional order in the Middle East that is most consistent with American security.
Daniel Falcone: In this entire conversation, not many people are mentioning how anti-Semitic Zionism is, and it’s something sadly under-discussed in educated US opinion. Can you unpack this for me?
Richard Falk: This is an entirely appropriate question that goes to the heart of what might be described as ‘the use and misuse of anti-Semitism’ in political discourse. The issues raised are complicated because there are variations based on place and historical circumstances.
Of course, the shocking suggestion that Zionism can be responsibly accused of anti-Semitism is treated as an affront by almost every Zionists and most Jews. Some Jews have been brainwashed to an extent that they believe strongly that Zionism is unconditionally dedicated to providing sanctuary for Jews in a Jewish sovereign state, and to the practical necessity of achieving this goal combined with its biblical justifications and its anticipated success in restoring Jewish self-esteem individually and collectively.
Yet there were anti-Semitic sentiments even in the writings of Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, the intellectual fathers of the Zionist movement, decrying the image and behavior of Jews in the diaspora, almost vindicating their non-acceptance by the hegemonic political cultures and social structures of Europe. Zionist thought sought to free Jews from persecution, but also to have a state of their own worthy of gentile respect.
It is also true that Zionism has from its origins has been preoccupied with the establishment and security of a Jewish state, and since 1948 fiercely defensive of Israel. Yet Zionism has always exhibited a pragmatic and opportunistic side that made it at all stages seem beneficial for the Zionist movement to work jointly, even collaboratively, with the most extreme anti-Semitic forces unleashed in Europe after World War I or in the regional neighborhood and global setting that Israel inhabits.
In this regard, the Zionist vision of a Jewish state in ‘the promised land’ seemed like an extreme utopian conception at its outset. We should remember that at the time when the Zionist movement was formally launched in 1897 the Jewish population of Palestine was 8%, and when the Balfour Declaration pledging support for a Jewish homeland was issued in 1917, the Jewish population had only risen to 8.1%, and even after the forced displacement during the period of Nazi ascendancy, Jews were only 30% of Palestine in 1947 when the partition plan was endorsed by the UN General Assembly.
How in the world could Zionists hope in an era of rising nationalism around the world hope to establish a Jewish state in what had so clearly become a non-Jewish society? This was the animating puzzle that has haunted Zionism in the course of becoming a political project rather than a utopian phantasy. And it continues Israel by making governance and security depend on apartheid structures that make the continuing claim of being “the only democracy in the Middle East” a mockery (when the circumstances of the Palestinian people as a whole is taken into account.)
Without entering into the details of a complicated history, the grounds on which a kind of Zionist anti-Semitism was erected, involved persuading, and in some instances coercing Jews to emigrate to Palestine. In other words, only by making life in the diaspora unbearable for Jews could the Zionist project advance towards its goals in Palestine. In this sense, the rise of hatred of Jews throughout Europe, and especially Germany, in the period after World War I did encourage the Jewish option. Beyond this, the anti-Semitic leadership in Poland, Hungary, Rumania, as well as Nazi Germany, had a common interest with Zionism in inducing Jewish emigration.
This led the Polish Government to help train elite Zionist militias and supply weapons so that the Zionist penetration of Palestine would not meet with failure when it encountered resistance. In other words, diaspora Jews were being manipulated, including after World War II, to choose Palestine rather than other destinations, including those who had survived the death camps of the Holocaust.
Since Israel was established it has struggled to gain acceptance as a legitimate state. It did gain entry into the UN, but it was subject to aggressive hostility from its Arab neighbors and from Pro-Palestinians sentiments in the global South. Again it reacted by bonding to the extent possible with anti-Semitic governments and civil society movements. Netanyahu has developed cordial relations with the anti-Semitic leader, Viktor Orban, of Hungary and Israel has been supplying weapons and helping train policy and paramilitary training to many extreme rightest governments over the years.
It also courted the support of Christian Zionism, which while fanatically pro-Israeli is also anti-Semitic in the prime sense of wanting Jews to leave America and elsewhere, retuning to Israel. Their rationale is religious, based on their interpretation of the Book of Revelations, (specifically in prophesy) that the Second Coming of Jesus will only occur when all Jews return to Israel. It is also anti-Semitic in its vision that after the return of Jesus, Jews will be given an opportunity to convert to Christianity, which if refused, will lead those Jews that refuse to damnation.
Daniel Falcone: Noam Chomskymentioned this past summer how Israel was losing its support as the “darling of liberal America” as it moved more and more to support right-wing regimes in the era of Trump. At the time, it made much sense but this seems to be incredibly short lived. Does his type of observation reflect the purpose of the recent backlash?
Richard Falk:I believe both developments are occurring, and are connected. There are many confirmations of weakening public support for Israel due to many factors, and it would seem that the citizenry in America would accept as a positive initiative, presidential moves toward a more balanced approach. Such an approach to be credible would have to confront some difficult issues. The U.S. would have to react against Israeli flagrant violations of international humanitarian law with respect to Israeli reliance on excessive force in responding to the Palestinian demonstrations at the Gaza fence that have occurred every Friday throughout the entire year.
Beyond this, a balanced approach would have to voice support for the Palestinian right of self-determination based on the equality of the two peoples. Even more ambitiously, if the objective of American diplomacy was to become a sustainable peace rather than a ceasefire, Israel would have to be pressed to dismantle the apartheid structures it has relied upon to subjugate the Palestinian people and crush resistance to the imposition of a Jewish state on an essentially non-Jewish society. If these steps were to be taken the foundation for a peace process would finally have been laid. On such firm ground a political compromise begins to be imaginable that mechanisms for peaceful coexistence and mutual respect could finally shape the future for both peoples.
Since Israel is losing this base of strong support in the liberal sectors of American society, the pushback by pro-Israeli militants has grown uglier, and more severe, verging on the desperate, mainly relying on defamation while foregoing appeals to ethics and law. From this perspective, a strong control over Congress has become more important than ever for Israel as a means to insulate policymaking from a potentially threatening democratic sentiment critical of Israel and its policies. As with gun control, taxation, and the legalization of marijuana, the preferences of the citizenry are blocked by money and lobbying.
The Palestinian cause has been at a particular disadvantage in Congress due to its inability to mobilize countervailing force to challenge and fracture the pro-Israel consensus. This has created this mindlessly one-sided phenomenon, defying evidence and law that can only be understood as ‘the deformation of democracy.’ For a person in Congress to express their true beliefs or to honor their conscience by opposing Israel has in the past amounted to political suicide, while covering up Israeli wrongdoing has no down side whatsoever for elected officials. This is not healthy.
The most intriguing question posed by the Ilhan Omar incident is whether the tide is turning. On the one side, are the AIPAC style enforcers punishing any member of Congress that seems to be challenging the bipartisan consensus. On the other side, is a recognition that there is growing sympathy for the Palestinian people, and that is time to reset American policy on Israel/Palestine, and indeed toward the whole of the Middle East. In retrospect, it seems that pro-Israeli neocons helped push the United States to launch the disastrous Iraq War in 2003, and is now, with the full backing of the Trump White House edging toward an even more disastrous war initiated against Iran.
The deferral of the vote on a bill framed to condemn as anti-Semitism the sort of allegations of collective Jewish influence has been called ‘a political earthquake’ because it discloses tensions within the ranks of the Democratic Party on how to respond to Omar’s controversial tweets, and this a definite weakening of the earlier consensus. As with the dramatic Angela Davis turnaround in Birmingham, there may now be expanded space and protection for criticism of Israel and the tactics of Zionist enforcers.
Significantly, also, several Democratic presidential aspirants, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris have spoken in defense of Ilhan Omar. The dust has yet to settle, but even this degree of ferment may be a healthy sign of better times ahead.
Daniel Falcone: Lawrence Davidson recently pointed out how pro-Palestinian politicians might have to carefully craft their language to prevent the intentional distortion of their words. Since he wrote this however, and added a superb update and follow up, it seems that no matter how careful their words are, Omar’s or others, rebukes will be commonplace as a result of political differences. It’s not really what she said, it’s the implications of how it can be utilized in redirecting American foreign policy beyond Netanyahu to extend to bipartisan policies overall. I’m reminded of Davidson’s additional takes on J-Streetas contributing to ideological gatekeeping. What are your thoughts?
Richard Falk: I find Lawrence Davidson’s commentaries on important public issues to be incisive, developing morally coherent and politically progressive interpretations of complex and often controversial issues. Here, I feel however, that Davidson could consider those in the Zionist camp that seek to discredit a message critical of Israel — as rather indifferent to whether the formulations are carefully crafted or not. Their sole objective is to discredit the messenger, which has the added benefit of shifting the conversation away from what was said to who said it. This shifting of the conversation is as important as the defamatory undertaking, and thus even if the person escapes with their reputation more or less undamaged, the discussion will be about whether the allegations were well founded or not. We see that with the Omar experience.
Of course, if there are phrases that can be lifted from the offending statement or document that makes the work of defamation and distraction easier to accomplish, so much the better. But even if the message, tweet, or document was the work of heavenly scribes it would not deter defamation if the criticism has political traction.
Again the case of Goldstone and my own experience at the UN is instructive. The report of the Goldstone Commission was never subjected to substantive criticism by those who mounted their scathing attacks on Goldstone’s character. In my case, my twelve reports as Special Rapporteur received almost no substantive criticism from Israel or its puppet NGO, UN Watch, which trained all of its guns on my supposedly anti-Semitic character, or on my supposedly incendiary views on such irrelevant issues as the Iranian Revolution or comments on the Boston Marathon massacre.
The crucial point here is what I have previously argued. These defenders of Israel are not trying to win an argument about disputed facts and rival interpretations of law. They are trying to make the author of what is objectionable to the Zionist outlook so disreputable that whether the analyses are true or false becomes irrelevant. I used to tell the official delegates at the UN in Geneva and New York that you only had to be 10% objective to reach the same factual and legal conclusions that were set forth in my reports. In other words, if this is more or less correct about Israeli encroachments on human rights in the course of maintaining control of Occupied Palestine, then it would be a fool’s errand to try to engage on substance.
The situation in Congress is quite special because unanimity on Israeli support has prevailed, and is itself seen as being so valuable for Israel, making any significant departure a risky course for a politician to take as the record shows. The attack on Ilhan Omar may have gone too far, given who she is, what she actually said, and the more progressive trends evident in the American voting public. Just as her status and identity make her especially vulnerable it also makes those who support a pluralist, democratic country fight back on her behalf.
The experience of the human rights award given last October by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) can be seen as a precursor of the Omar experience, especially the backlash against the backlash. At first, caving to pressures attributed to the Jewish community in Birmingham BCRI rescinded the award. What followed was unprecedented—surging protests against this action, and a reversal by BCRI with an announcement that the award had been restored. At this point it is not known whether Angela Davis will go along with the original invitation to speak at an awards event. What makes this incident relevant is that it shows that even when a black woman activist is targeted in this punitive manner, countervailing forces are now fighting back. Ilhan Omar’s experience reinforces this new encouraging reality, which will undoubtedly ebb and flow as these forces battle it out for ascendancy.
We have not yet reached the outcome of the Omar firestorm but it could be that the attackers will back off, especially given the dark clouds forming over Israel in the shape of Netanyahu’s embrace of electoral support from the overt extreme right and the rather weak presidential and congressional responses to White Supremacist language from within their ranks or at the notorious Charlottesville demonstrations.
The House Resolution passed by a vote of 407-23 is a barometer of shifts in tone and substance even in the Congress. After an acrimonious week of debate about a resolution that was a thinly veiled attack on Omar for her supposed anti-Semitism, the text of the resolution passed on March 7th was broadened to become a condemnation of all form of intolerance, specifically mentioning “African Americans, Native Americans, and other persons of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, immigrants and others” so victimized.
It pleased many that Islamophobia was finally formally condemned, and in this context elevated to a rank of equivalence with anti-Semitism.
As expected, such encouraging moral correctives angered pro-Israeli militants who called the revised resolution ‘spineless’ and even ‘disgusting,’ They were upset that the resolution withdrew the privileged status of the Holocaust in the annals of intolerance, and denied Jews and anti-Semitism exclusivity when it comes to victimization. It is precisely this feature that I find encouraging, making it a form of poetic justice that Ilhan Omar could end up voting in favor of a resolution originally brought forward with the intent of branding her as guilty of anti-Semitism.
Daniel Falcone: Jeremy Corbyn is another decent person that faced heavy criticism and allegations for his word choices regarding the Holy State. It’s been pointed out by some progressives that the more progressive left tolerates or openly supports Corbyn and Omar’s “anti-Semitism” only because they want to emphasize their opposition to the illegal settlement expansion and to fend off the hard right. They argue, that’s no excuse to let the “trope” making off the hook. Meanwhile, since this sentiment has been expressed, the same people have not condemned the racist and demeaning Islamophobic depiction of Omar by the West Virginia GOP. Largely because, and cynically so, it was suspected that her own identity insulated her from her initial comments in the first place. Carlos A. Rivera-Jones remarked that, “As long as you hate Muslims (and people identified as Muslims, like Palestinians) more than Jews, you are not anti-Semitic and this is the hegemonic position [in the US].” Could you comment?
Richard Falk: The guns of liberal Zionism are booming. Bret Stephens, proud of his call for the resignation of Netanyahu demonstrating to his satisfaction that American Zionist do not walk in lockstep submission to Israel and its strong prime minister, feels free to condemn Omar for what he calls ‘Corbynism.’ [Bret Stephens, “Ilhan Omar Knows Exactly What She Is Doing,” NY Times, March 7, 2019] What this slur intends to convey is that the person can be personally free of anti-Semitic hatred of Jews, and yet because of their distaste for Zionism or Israel, still qualify as ‘anti-Semites’ because they invoke ‘the tropes’ used to mobilize hatred of Jews through the ages. Her tweets about dual allegiance and Jewish money used to silence critics of Israel serve as evidence.
I consider this kind of demeaning attack on Jeremy Corban and Ilhan Omar to be irresponsible to the point of generating the very feelings it purports to be condemning. For such morally sensitive and political progressive personalities to be so smeared because they point to features of reality associated with this unprecedented ‘special relationship’ or their willingness to befriend those that make such criticisms of the use of Jewish power to hide Israeli injustice. Such lines of attack are not only intended to narrow freedom of expression when it comes to Israel but also to rely on a dragnet sort of argument that rests on guilt by association.
Again to illustrate from my own experience a major English newspaper carrying on their vendetta against Corbyn published a picture of him and me at an event in London where we discussed the Palestinian ordeal, contending that by appearing with an anti-Semite like myself Corbyn was linking arms with anti-Semitism.
Daniel Falcone: There are journalists and liberal critics of Omar’s “tropes” that state that opposition to US/Israel policy on the one hand is fine, but reinforcing conspiracy theories are not. This is entirely understandable yet I don’t see J-Street type rhetoric translating into meaningful shifts in policy construction. Could you comment on the limitations of partisan criticism of Israel when it seems it should be bipartisan?
Richard Falk: I think that identifying and criticizing collective efforts to control debate on Israel/Palestine or to intimidate defections from bipartisan unity in the Congress and elsewhere that call attention to the biasing of legislative scrutiny and procedures, it is characterized as an anti-Semitic trope, which is supposed to establish taboos that if violated, generate a justifiable contention of anti-Semitism. The plausibility of this use of ‘tropes’ is the purported link to the historical experience of conspiracy theories used by right wing movements to mobilize fear and hatred of Jews, fabricating Jewish plots to use Jewish money to penetrate and dominate the centers of power, and even to take over control of the whole world (for example, the Elders of Zion).
It is false reasoning to merge criticisms of actual collective action that is fact-based with fabricated conspiracies designed to generate fear and hatred, and give rise to persecution or worse.
Richard Falk is a world famous international law scholar and activist.