The Fight Over Ilhan Omar Is About Something Much Bigger


USCPR Executive Director Yousef Munayyer writes in Buzzfeed News about the manufactured controversy around Rep. Ilhan Omar’s criticism of Israel and how it signifies a larger shift in discourse around Palestinian rights:

Last week began with yet another round of attacks and smears against Rep. Ilhan Omar and ended with a congressional resolution that condemned anti-Muslim discrimination for the first time. The resolution also included condemnations of many other forms of racism and bigotry, including anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, xenophobia, and anti-LGBT bigotry.

How did this happen? A diverse set of progressive actors came together and demanded that we must not exceptionalize any form of racism, but instead take exception to all of them. This intersectional approach appeared to win over key figures in both the Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, which seemed to make the difference in significantly shifting the language of the resolution from its initial version, promoted by the Anti-Defamation League, that focused exclusively on anti-Semitism as an indirect rebuke to Rep. Omar.

Intersectionality poses a problem for many fighting against Palestinian rights activism. That was one of the key takeaways in a report coauthored by ADL and the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank.

This study aimed to inform what it called the “pro-Israel network” on how it can refine its strategy. It listed intersectionality as an emerging challenge that could have a “significant potential impact on Israel’s legitimacy,” giving oppressed groups “an important shared language with which to fight for greater recognition and inclusion.”

We’re seeing this play out in today’s progressive politics. I’ve been fighting for Palestinian rights for my whole career, and while having Jewish American allies is nothing new, today I see far greater support from a new generation of American Jews, who view the conflict through a new lens: equality.

What this really reflects is a clash between two fundamentally different views of the world. The Jewish communities in the United States and Israel have roughly equal-sized populations, and in many ways embody two different responses to the very real and lengthy history of anti-Semitism and persecution: Zionism vs. equality.

Zionism’s answer is that the only way to ensure the security of the Jewish people is through a Jewish state — a largely homogenous ethnoreligious nationalism where Jews dominate a nation, its laws, and its security apparatus. This answer comes at the expense of Palestinians, for whom Zionism meant the destruction of their society and their continued subjugation.

Equality provides a different answer. It sees the security of Jews as wound up in the security of other minority groups, and responds by trying to build an inclusive society where people can safely be who they are. The answer is civil rights, not majoritarian nationalism — and this means the civil rights of all. This is one reason why the Jewish community in the US has historically been at the forefront of the fight for civil rights and against racism and exclusion.

Broadly speaking, equal rights is seen as a path to security for American Jews, who are one of many minorities. In the Israeli context, where majoritarianism is politically empowering, equal rights can be viewed as a path to insecurity. These different predicaments, and the effort to achieve safety in each, come with a very different set of values.

This values divide was reflected in a Pew poll on Israeli and American Jews, published in the first month of the Trump administration. When asked what is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish, one of the largest gaps between Israeli and American Jewish respondents was to the idea of “working for justice and equality.” American Jews were significantly more likely to identify this as central to their Jewish identity. Interestingly, “living in/caring about Israel” is where there was similar overlap between the groups of respondents, but in neither group was there majority support for this answer.

This tension has always existed, but over time it has been elevated or diminished. Today it is very much elevated, with factors in the US and in Israel/Palestine widening the gap.

Increasingly, American Jews view what Israel is doing to Palestinians as fundamentally contrary to Jewish values. At the same time, the Israeli government has doubled down on its entrenchment of occupation and apartheid, and its open alliance with authoritarians and enthonationalists around the world. Just this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminded us that not only do millions of Palestinians living under military occupation have no right to vote, but even those who are Israeli citizens are not equal to Jews.

There’s also the partisan polarization of the US–Israel relationship, driven by Netanyahu and Israel through an alliance with the Evangelical Christians that undergird the GOP. Most American Jews vote Democrat and voted for Obama, twice. They remain broadly supportive of Israel, but they don’t support all Israeli policies, and Israel is not among their top voting issues. Rather, like most Americans, they prioritize issues like the economy, health care, national security, and the environment.

This broke into the open with Netanyahu’s blatant political attacks on Barack Obama, the first black president, who himself embodied what a multicultural America could lead to. Many of the attacks on President Obama’s Iran diplomacy came with racially coded and sometimes overt suggestions that Obama was betraying America and Israel.

This was a slightly more sophisticated form of birtherism, a higher pitched dog whistle. That might be why members of the Congressional Black Caucus skipped Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in 2015, and why they spoke up behind the scenes to change language that was previously seen as clearly targeting their colleague Rep. Omar.

The partisan divide was exacerbated with the arrival of Trump, who secured the White House while displaying almost every form of bigotry and prejudice you could imagine. His words and actions emboldened white nationalists and brought a rise in hate crimes. The prime minister of Israel responded by saying there “was no greater supporter of the Jewish people” than the white supremacist in chief.

Then came Charlottesville, and then the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, where a murderous anti-Semite massacred Jews because he believed they were helping flood America with foreigners. His hatred of immigrants and Muslims reinforced his anti-Semitism and vice versa. This should remind us that these evils can not be fought in isolation, as Zionism would suggest, but rather must be opposed together as an intersectional approach would demand.

As if to demonstrate this very point, Jeanine Pirro, a talk show host on the preeminent media platform of the right, Fox News, offered a hate-filled 10-minute diatribe against Rep. Omar this weekend that was entirely built around actual dual loyalty smears. She made clear she believes Omar, a hijab-wearing African refugee, was a subversive threat to America. Her words were ugly enough that even Fox News condemned them.

The belief that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as famously introduced by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is why minorities should band together and defend one another. And a commitment to justice must also mean opposing Israel’s horrific treatment of Palestinians. It all adds up to a perfect storm of growing Jewish American alienation from Israel, and increasing criticism of Zionism as a whole.

So how can you blunt that alienation, and limit the rise of Palestinian rights in mainstream politics? One way is to send a message to American Jews that even if they’re appalled by the right, the left is no better. This is done by elevating a false equivalence between anti-Semitism on the left and the right.

It is a classic Zionist response to American Jews: You are not safe in a society premised on equal rights, because you are Jews, a minority with a history of persecution, and the only answer is Zionism. The right and the left have failed you and will keep failing you equally.

I doubt this will be particularly persuasive, in the short or long term. The ethnic nationalism of the right will always elevate one community at the expense of others, just as Zionism has done to Palestinians. We must work toward a vision of the world that rejects seeing the humanity and equality of people as zero sum, but rather sees them as inherently interconnected.