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Jewish and Muslim activists express support for Ilhan Omar

Omar's criticism of AIPAC and Israel is not anti-Semitic, activists say
Rabbi Alissa Wise says she was 'confused' by accusations against Omar (MEE/Ali Harb)
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Washington

Jewish- and Muslim-American activists gathered across from the US Capitol building on Wednesday to show solidarity with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose recent criticism of Israel and US foreign policy has sparked heated debate in Washington.

Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group critical of Israel's human rights abuses against Palestinians, said Omar was "exactly right" about the pro-Israel lobby's "outsized influence in Washington".

At the news conference on Wednesday morning, Wise said the leadership of the Democratic Party, of which Omar is an elected member, should be standing behind the Minnesota congresswoman.

"In a time of rampant Islamophobia and anti-black racism coming from the halls of power, [the] Democratic leadership needs to be decrying xenophobia, needs to be standing with black Americans and not scapegoating them, as they are doing with Representative Omar," Wise said.

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While defending herself from previous accusations of anti-Semitism, Omar was at the centre of a new wave of outrage this week in relation to a recent speech she delivered at an event in Washington.

"I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country," Omar said at a town hall at Busboys and Poets Cafe last Thursday.

"I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the [gun lobby] NRA, of fossil-fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby that is influencing policy?"

Omar's use of the phrase "allegiance to a foreign country" led to criticism that she was accusing Jewish-Americans of dual loyalty.

Wise told Middle East Eye that she was "confused" by the anger that ensued over the weekend.

"I read her words - what she said at the Busboys and Poets Cafe - and there's nothing in there about dual loyalty," Wise said. "It was a willful reading in order to turn and distort her words."

Rebuked by party leaders

The criticism over her latest comments came after Omar was rebuked by her own Democratic Party's leadership for suggesting last month that support for Israel is driven by the financial and political power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby group.

At that time, critics accused Omar of using an anti-Semitic trope that could have been seen as Jews using money to control society. She later apologised for her remarks.

Omar also has repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.

'Representative Omar's words were not anti-Semitic. They reflected a valid critique of the occupation and AIPAC, which thousands of young Jews, including me, share'

-Natalie Bamdad, IfNotNow

Despite this, top Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, prepared a resolution condemning anti-Semitism to indirectly reprimand Omar this week.

The measure was due for a vote on Wednesday, but it was postponed after objections from African-American and progressive lawmakers.

Natalie Bamdad, an activist with IfNotNow, an organisation of young Jewish-Americans who oppose Israeli policies, called on Democratic leaders to combat real anti-Semitism instead of silencing criticism of Israel.

"To those in power denouncing Representative Omar, calling her a terrorist, threatening her, defaming her - you do not have vision for a safe Jewish future," Bamdad said at the news conference on Wednesday.

She said that the proposed resolution against Omar reveals a "clear moral hypocrisy" in Congress around anti-Semitism.

"Representative Omar's words were not anti-Semitic," Bamdad said. "They reflected a valid critique of the occupation and AIPAC, which thousands of young Jews, including me, share."

She added that the push against Omar aims to intimidate Israel's opponents, especially people of colour.

Call to condemn all bigotry

Bamdad and other speakers also pointed to clear examples of anti-Semitism that received less scrutiny than Omar's comments on Israel.

That includes a recent tweet by Republican Congressman Jim Jordan in which he used a dollar sign to spell out the last name of a major Jewish-American donor to the Democratic Party, billionaire Tom Steyer.

'The anxiety here that's being raised is not about the concern for Jewish lives; it is about the concern for Israel's viability as an apartheid state'

- Noura Erakat, Palestinian-American activist and scholar

Palestinian-American activist and legal scholar Noura Erakat said attacks against Omar show how "vulnerable" US lawmakers who defend Israel are becoming, as more people adopt the Palestinian cause as a human rights issue.

"It you can't stop this movement from the bottom-up, you're going to clamp it from the top down," Erakat said.

"The anxiety here that's being raised is not about the concern for Jewish lives; it is about the concern for Israel's viability as an apartheid state, continuing and entrenching its settler-colonial encroachment," she continued.

"And the United States has been the leader of that effort."

After the news conference, the activists marched to Pelosi's office to deliver a letter calling for her to condemn all forms of bigotry, including Islamophobia.

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Last week, Republican Party members in West Virginia displayed a poster in the state capitol building likening Omar to the 9/11 attackers, a show of Islamophobia that Muslim activists said amounted to a threat against the congresswoman's safety.

"A congressional resolution cannot afford to glance over the alarming spike of actual anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and religious bigotry in the US today, particularly from the far-right that is by far the greatest purveyor of hate crimes, as statistics show," the letter read.

"To single out Congresswoman Omar with unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism in itself perpetuates an Islamophobic stereotype that Muslims are inherently anti-Semitic.

"Americans, including Muslims, can and should be able to criticise Israeli policies or American policies toward Israel without being falsely accused of anti-Semitism," it said.