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Ilhan Omar is helping turn the tables in Congress and the US establishment is freaking out

It is about time for a new narrative that looks at the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism as itself a manifestation of racism
Representative for Minnesota Ilhan Omar is seen in the audience ahead of US President Donald Trump's State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on 5 February, 2019 (AFP)

Just about anyone with a political opinion in the US agrees on one truth: there is too much financial interference in American politics.

This is noted in the regular demand, expressed more fervently with every election cycle, to "take money out of politics", and the sobering comment, when election results are announced, that we have "the best Congress money can buy".

The cost of American election campaigns is indeed mind-boggling. The 2016 presidential and congressional elections cost a total of $6.5bn, according to political watch group OpenSecrets. 

No need for apology

In this context, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar's tweet, that "Benjamins" ($100 bills) are behind politicians’ prioritising of Israeli interests over American ones should have not created any ripples.  

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She did not say anything a multitude of others had not said before. Indeed, many on social media were quick to point out that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had already observed, in 2011, that the standing ovation Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received in Congress had nothing to do with his politics, but rather was "paid for by the Israel lobby".  

Friedman’s career was never impacted by the comment, nor is he being criticized for it now that it is circulating again, while the campaign to smear Omar - with calls for her to resign - is raging.

I don't believe Ilhan Omar should have had to apologize for her tweet

The fact that Omar was immediately and ferociously attacked and smeared for her tweet, then, is indicative of something else.

I don’t believe she should have had to apologise for her tweet, and I remain grateful to her for insisting, in that same apology, that one needs to speak out against the influence of powerful lobbies.

I am even more grateful to her for having so unhinged the status quo that she is causing a much needed, way overdue discussion of the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.  

But the fact remains that she did not get away with an observation many have made before. This is because no one could credibly accuse Friedman of anti-Semitism, precisely because he is an unabashed supporter of Israel.

Shifting the narrative

Omar, however, personifies the racist stereotype in the American mainstream that equates Brown and Muslim with anti-Semitism, as if that particular bias is a multi-generational genetic disease that courses through the blood of darker-skinned people.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks via a video link to AIPAC policy conference in Washington, 27 March  (Reuters)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks via a video link to AIPAC policy conference in Washington, 27 March 2017 (Reuters)

This of course flies in the face of the historical record of pogroms and disenfranchisement, culminating in the Holocaust, that were all undertaken against Jews by white Europeans. And it is inconsistent with the fact that Islam recognises Judaism as a germane religion, which praises the same God, and views Jews, like it does Christians, as "people of the Book".

Indeed, European Jews fleeing persecution in Europe had historically found refuge in Muslim countries throughout North Africa, the Arab world, and the Ottoman Empire.

It is time we focused on anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism

It is time, then, to shift from the decades-old narrative which accuses anyone critical of Israel and the Israel lobby of anti-Semitism, to a new conversation.

The new conversation needs to examine the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism as itself a manifestation of racism, because this latter conflation is only lobbed at darker-skinned people: African American civil rights icon and activist Angela Davis, African American public intellectual Marc Lamont-Hill, Somali-American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, as well as - of course - all Arabs. 

More space for Palestinians

In addition to denouncing AIPAC, Omar, just like Davis and Lamont-Hill, is creating more space for a discussion of the cause of Palestinian suffering. This is what the likes of Friedman and alt-right white supremacist leader Richard Spencer don’t engage in.

When Spencer speaks admiringly of Israel’s aspiration to become a homogeneous, "mono-culture", he is focusing on those who benefit from it, with zero mention of the dispossessed and besieged Palestinians.  

When Friedman states that Congresss gave Netanyahu standing ovations because they were paid to do so, rather than for his policies, he does not discuss the impact of those policies - a system of state-sanctioned apartheid recently enshrined in the nation’s basic laws - on the Palestinians.

“Anti-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism.” Here’s why conflating the two could be problematic
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 Angela Davis, however, was initially stripped of a civil rights award for "not denouncing violence", even though, of course, she does, but the violence she denounces is that perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians.  

And Omar was urged to "acknowledge pain", which of course she does, but the pain she is seeking to alleviate is that of the Palestinian people.   

Omar, like so many pro-justice advocates, wants to highlight Palestinian suffering, and work towards ending it. That requires holding Israel accountable for its crimes.
The debate resulting from her political commitment joins a very similar one that has been going on for years, namely about whether the boycott and sanctions movement is anti-Semitic or not.  

That debate, like the one about the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, should also never have happened, but has proven to be necessary because of the same powerful lobby.

It is indeed a known truth that AIPAC is behind S.1, also known as anti-BDS bill, this year’s first senate bill, which seeks to criminalise BDS.

AIPAC was behind earlier bills, so far all defeated at the deferral level, that would have penalised Americans for boycotting Israeli products - an absurdity when spelled out like that, as Americans certainly are free to boycott all other products available to them, with no hint of a possible repercussion.

A just cause

With BDS, the focus of the national conversation has shifted from the actual political context that gave rise to the call for global solidarity, to zoom in instead on whether it is legal to criminalise it. This despite the fact that the legal system has declared multiple times that boycotts are a form of freedom of speech, and therefore protected by the first amendment.

This is not an academic, theoretical matter. As we debate these issues, Israel is dispossessing more Palestinian families, demolishing more Palestinian homes

With the controversy over whether criticising AIPAC is anti-Semitic or not, the debate has shifted from why the US is siding with the oppressor, to one about the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

All aspects of these vibrant national discussions are welcome. They are necessary. But let us keep in mind at all times that this is not an academic, theoretical matter. As we debate these issues, Israel is dispossessing more Palestinian families, demolishing more Palestinian homes. 

It is incumbent on us, as we engage in these debates, to explain that our opposition to Zionism is an opposition to a colonial ideology that has relentlessly sought to dispossess the Palestinian people, displacing them, appropriating their possessions, denying them justice and the right to return.  

Equal rights for all

There are multiple good reasons why a person of integrity would be anti-Zionist: the successful erasure of Israeli crimes and violations of international law, and the denial of the human rights of the Palestinian people, makes it necessary to name these.

Ilhan Omar's 'Benjamins' tweet storm: 'Criticising AIPAC is not anti-Semitic'
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It is time we focused on anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism.

Just as many will state "I realise that anti-Semitism is on the rise, but my criticism of Israel is based in my political opposition to that country’s policies", we should now demand that those accusing us of anti-Semitism also qualify their statements with "while it is true that anti-Arab, Islamophobic racism is rampant, and on the rise, my criticism of such or such a person is grounded in my opposition to their politics.”

And then, maybe, they would be asked to name the politics: Are they opposed to the demand for justice? Opposed to the implementation of international law? Opposed to equal rights for all?  

Then let them try to explain how their opposition to the end of the state-sanctioned privileging of one race or perceived ethnicity over another is not racist. 

We’ve been on the defensive too long, for no good reason. Ilhan Omar is helping turn the tables in Congress, and the American political establishment is freaking out.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Nada Elia teaches in the American Cultural Studies Programme at Western Washington University, and is currently completing a book on Palestinian diaspora activism.
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