By Laila Ujayli
March 6, 2019
Over the past two weeks, Rep. Ilhan Omar
(D-MN) has been the victim of anti-Muslim attacks and death threats. But rather
than stand in solidarity with her in the face of this chilling and dangerous
racism, her colleagues have exploited the opportunity to reignite bad faith
accusations of anti-Semitism against her. They’ve referenced earlier tweets for
which she has already forcefully apologized and grossly twisted her latest
critique of U.S. policies toward Israel. And in response to the “outrage” over
Omar’s comments, House Democratic leaders will bring to the floor a resolution
The smear campaign currently deployed
against Omar is nothing new in the world of advocacy around Palestinian rights.
It is consistent with the systematic silencing of critics of Israel. And like
the attacks on Omar, these tactics do not involve substantive policy debate.
Instead, these tactics involve the gross weaponisation of anti-Semitism to
shield Israel from criticism and rely on ad hominem attacks deeply rooted in
racism and Islamophobia.
Take, for example, last week’s explosive
reporting from Adam Entous at The New Yorker about a private Israeli
intelligence firm, Psy Group, spying on pro-Palestinian advocates in the United
States. As part of a project to silence the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions
(BDS) campaign, Psy Group disseminates negative information about
pro-Palestinian advocates and uses “narrative warfare” to send the “main
message that anti-Israel activity equates with terrorism.” By publicizing
derogatory information about an activist—for instance, if a pious Muslim drinks
alcohol or has an affair—Psy Group works to effectively blackmail individual
activists and deter future ones.
Similarly, the notorious Canary Mission
exists as a McCarthy-esque blacklist of pro-Palestinian rights advocates on
college campuses. Primarily targeting Muslim and Arab student groups, the
Canary Mission “compiles dossiers on Palestinian rights advocates and labels
them racists, anti-Semites, and supporters of terrorism,” posting their names
and photographs online to intimidate young people concerned about their future
Moreover, there is a systematic campaign to
silence pro-Palestinian advocates—particularly BDS activists—at the legislative
level. As its first act in the new Congress, the Senate passed a bill that
allows state and municipal governments to punish companies and individuals that
boycott Israel, protecting the anti-BDS laws currently enacted in 26 states and
facilitating the passage of future anti-BDS legislation. These laws force
employees to sign de-facto “loyalty oaths” affirming that they will not boycott
Israel or support such boycotts; a practice the ACLU firmly maintains violates
Americans’ First Amendment rights. Its laws like these that in effect legally
force Americans to hold “allegiance to a foreign country”—the very claim Omar
made that drew such ire.
Like Omar, Americans across the country who
dare question Israel’s policies risk being smeared as anti-Semites and
terrorist sympathizers. The net result is that the majority of Americans are
not talking about this integral piece of U.S. foreign policy. They’re not
interrogating Washington’s unwavering support of right-wing Israeli policies.
They’re not questioning the role of the powerful Israel lobby and the millions
it spends to advance right-wing pro-Israel legislation in Congress (for
example, the prominent advocacy organization, the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC), spent $3.5 million on lobbying alone last year).
Discussing foreign policy can be hard enough without having to navigate the
systems in place to silence pro-Palestinian advocates.
In the face of little outcry, both the U.S.
and Israeli governments have been emboldened in their discrimination against
the Palestinian people. The Trump administration recently closed the Consulate
General in Jerusalem, which served as the de-facto U.S. embassy to the
Palestinians. Meanwhile, Gaza could be unliveable by next year. The UN recently
found that Israel may be guilty of war crimes for the murder of unarmed
protestors in Gaza, including 35 children. In Israel’s upcoming elections,
embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a deal with the extremist
Jewish Power party, a successor to the racist Kahanist movement that advocates
for total apartheid. And the Palestinians that bear the brunt of these racist
and right-wing policies will not have the right to vote in these elections.
Meanwhile, the new Democratic majority in the House has spent more time
debating semantics with Omar than addressing these dire developments and
condemning the racist policies of the Israeli right wing.
Ilhan Omar could stand to learn more about
anti-Semitic tropes and choose her words more carefully in the future. Yet, her
words can so easily ignite this grossly disproportionate outrage because the
script is already written. Not only are Democrats playing into the hands of the
right by unjustly censuring one of their own, they are entrenching the systems
in place that prevent criticism of Israel and choosing to remain silent in the
face of Israel’s racist occupation. The resolution House Democrats are bringing
to the floor to condemn anti-Semitism is an important one, considering the rise
of anti-Semitic hate crimes. But the resolution should also be accompanied by
one that condemns Islamophobia, anti-blackness, and other forms of insidious,
systemic discrimination—and fortunately, recent reports indicate that the
resolution’s language will be adjusted to condemn anti-Muslim bias. It should
also assert that every piece of U.S foreign policy can be questioned—even the
U.S. relationship with Israel.
Laila Ujayli is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at Win Without War.
She specializes in the human impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.