THE ANGRY ARAB: Why Ilhan Omar is a Dangerous Woman for the US

Washington doesn’t like its Muslims or Arabs to take pride in their heritage or oppose the Israeli occupation, writes As’ad AbuKhalil.

By As`ad AbuKhalil
Special to Consortium News

Washington was not expecting the arrival of Reps. Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib.  The nation’s capital has seen Arabs and Muslims before but they were not like these two new assertive and defiant members of Congress. 

The White House, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, hosted Iftar dinners for Ramadan and invited a variety of Muslims (including of course the Israeli ambassador because he is wildly popular among the world’s Muslims), but they were of a different brand.  The Bush administration even employed Muslim Arabs or Muslim-born Americans who preached Bush’s doctrine to anyone who would listen in the Middle East. 

But those were different Arabs. They were the “non-threatening” Arabs who made Westerners feel comfortable in their racism and bigotry.  The Arabs who are welcomed in the halls of Congress are usually mimics of the late president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, and the current king of Jordan. They are the type of Arabs who praise Western wars and downplay Arab anger at the long record of Israeli occupation and aggression.

Some of those Arabs in D.C. are employed as correspondents for Gulf-regime media. Some had even received their training at the research arm of the Israeli lobby, while others work for racist Congress people.  They are the kind of Arabs who are paraded before Western audiences to show them that there are Muslim Arabs who are exceptions: the ones who are willing to insult other Arabs and Muslims, and who tell tales about how they were saved from the terrorism of the religion or the culture of the region.

But Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib are different. The Muslims whom Washington has been used to receiving from Lebanon or from Gulf embassies are Muslims who are embarrassed about their religion and about their culture. They are the Muslims who apologize day and night for the terrorism of Muslims, as if all Muslims are responsible for the crimes of the few. (The blaming of all Jews for the crimes of Israel is certainly anti-Semitic—just as the blaming of all Muslims for the crimes of the few Muslims is  Islamophobic.)  

Ilhan Omar, from the second she entered Congress, has made her audience feel uncomfortable, and the press has had a hard time dealing with her.

Acceptable Extremism

Acceptable and subservient Muslims or Arabs are allowed to hold extremist views and to express hatred and hostility to Jewish people as long as they don’t offend Israel or Western governments.  Anwar Sadat’s background as an anti-Semitic Nazi was never an issue for Israel or Western Zionists. In fact, Stuart Eizenstat, Jimmy Carter’s domestic policy advisor, downplays the Nazi sympathy of Sadat and attributes it dismissively to anti-British sentiments, in his recent book, “President Carter.”

And when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of Palestine, agreed after the assassination of Yasser Arafat to serve Israeli occupation interests, his anti-Semitic past (his PhD dissertation in Moscow contained Holocaust denial) was also forgiven. The Saudi regime, the largest—by far—purveyor of anti-Semitic propaganda among Muslims in the last century is also forgiven.

It is not about anti-Semitism, as evidenced by Israeli alliances with evangelical Christians and European far-right groups. Zionists object to anti-Semitism—real or concocted as is the case with Omar—when there is criticism of Israel and calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel, or BDS. 

Ilhan Omar also doesn’t look the part. Westerners prefer whiskey-drinking Muslims who are willing to mock fellow Muslims, and who are willing to denigrate Palestinian political aspirations for the amusement of the Zionist think-tank crowd in D.C.

And what is rarely mentioned about Ilhan Omar is that she wears the veil.  At least in France, where Islamophobia has become the national secular religion of the republic, the hostility to the veil has become unmasked at all points of the political spectrum, left, right and center.

Hostility to the veil has been less vocally expressed in D.C. (veiled Muslim women have numerous stories of harassment and abuse to tell). But Congress had to change its rules to allow Omar to wear the veil under its roof, even though exceptions to the longstanding hat ban had reportedly been made for the wearing of yarmulkes.

It would have been less irksome for Omar’s haters if she did not wear the veil.  Westerners prefer Muslims to be atheists or non-practicing Muslims. (In the second teaching position I held at Tufts University, the most senior member of the department of political science once rushed to my office and asked me hurriedly: “You are not Muslim, are you?” I said: “Well, I am from a Muslim family but I am personally an atheist.” He said: “Oh, that is good,” and left.) 

Unacceptable Candor

And Omar speaks in a refreshingly candid language that does not stick to the rhetorical clichés of D.C. politicians. 

By contrast, New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has learned to censor herself. Ever since she was attacked for previous remarks she had made about Palestinians, Ocasio-Cortez has resorted to speaking in the vague generalities that U.S. diplomats also use to avoid the wrath of Israel and its supporters.  She no longer seems to even utter the word Palestine. She has become too aware of the price to be paid. 

Omar and Rashida Tlaib have also supported BDS, which is the biggest sin, as far as Israel and AIPAC are concerned.  The U.S. has made it very clear that BDS has emerged as the second danger to Israel after the threat of military resistance to Israeli occupation and aggression. 

The endorsement of BDS by two members of Congress bestows official legitimacy on a movement that Israel has been desperately trying to paint as an anti-Semitic reincarnation of Nazism.  But this has been the history of Israeli propaganda: all enemies of Israel, communists, Arab nationalists, Palestinian nationalists, rightists, leftists, have been labeled as anti-Semitic. Even the secular Arab nationalist leader, the late Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, was accused of anti-Semitism by Israel when none of his speeches ever contained an anti-Semitic word.

And now, the U.S. Congress, which sat silent about the wave of Islamophobia unleashed during and after the Trump campaign, suddenly sees the need to issue a proclamation against religious bigotry and racism. 

It is a bitter irony that the U.S. Congress has, for the first time, condemned Islamophobia in a statement widely understood to be an attempt to discipline the first Muslim American female member of Congress.  The resolution had nothing to do with ostensible congressional outrage against Islamophobia. (Since Sept. 11, many members of Congress have become vocal anti-Islam bigots, as is U.S. President Donald Trump, who advocated a ban on all Muslim visitors to the country). The reference to Islamophobia was added to appease those new progressive members of Congress and the African American members who protested against a very selective standard of outrage.

Weeks after Omar’s election to Congress, the Zionist lobby succeeded in turning her into a caricature. They inserted the word “Jewish” every time she spoke against support for Israel (she did not once refer to Jews in her discourse about Israel and its supporters).  

The word “trope” is now a convenient tool to turn someone’s criticisms of Israel into grotesque anti-Semitic hatred.  Even the progressive Michele Goldberg, one of the few refreshingly courageous columnists in The New York Times, insisted that Omar resorted to anti-Semitic “tropes.” 

The Israeli lobby and the government want to send a clear message through the mistreatment and abuse of Ilhan Omar: that progressive members of Congress, especially if they are Muslim Arab women of color, won’t be allowed to express their views on Israel without mobilizing the entire AIPAC machinery in Congress against them.

Ilhan Omar is indeed dangerous. She has broken taboos, along with her colleague Rashida Tlaib.  She is dangerous to the hegemony imposed on the nation’s capital by the supporters of Israel (and evangelical Christian, not Jews, are now the most fanatical Zionists in U.S. politics).  Because Omar is seen as dangerous, the abuse  won’t end. It has just started.

As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the “Historical Dictionary of Lebanon” (1998), “Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), and “The Battle for Saudi Arabia” (2004). He tweets as @asadabukhalil

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The ‘Progressive Except Palestine’ Problem

The Jewish community has a special responsibility to fight Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, says Marjorie Cohn.

By Marjorie Cohn
Truthout

As a progressive Jew, I find that many of my family members and friends are still what we call “PEP,” progressive except Palestine. Amid ever-worsening injustices created by the Israeli system of apartheid and Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, it is past time for this to change.

I am hopeful that the firestorm sparked by Michelle Alexander’s recent New York Times column, “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” will finally generate the heat necessary to force more people and groups on the left to overcome the fundamental hypocrisy of the “progressive except Palestine” approach.

I was deeply inspired by Alexander’s column and her decision to speak so honestly about the difficulty of overcoming the fear of backlash over taking a public stand against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Striking a comparison between the risk taken by prominent critics of Israel and the risk Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took by publicly criticizing the Vietnam War, Alexander observes, “Those who speak publicly in support of the liberation of the Palestinian people still risk condemnation and backlash.”

Invoking Dr. King’s exhortation that “a time comes when silence is betrayal,” Alexander reflects on “the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.”

Alexander’s words resonated with me, a Jew who uncritically supported Israel for many years until I saw the parallels between U.S. policy in Vietnam and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. My activism and critical writings have followed a trajectory from Vietnam to South Africa to Israel to Iraq to Afghanistan and other countries where the United States continues its imperial military actions.

Although many of my articles are controversial as they criticize the actions of the U.S. government — under both Democratic and Republican regimes — I get the most pushback from my writings about Israel-Palestine. When I analyze Israel’s illegal occupation and crimes against the Palestinians, I am often called a “self-hating” Jew.

My Own Path

I was born in 1948, the year Israel was created out of whole Palestinian cloth. When tasked with finding a destination for Jews displaced by the Holocaust, the United Nations chose Palestine. Thus began a brutal and illegal occupation that continues to this day.

In his book, Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five,” Israeli-American Miko Peled describes the 1948 “ethnic cleansing campaign that was sweeping through Palestine like wildfire, destroying everything in its path.” Palestinians call it the “Nakba,” Arabic for “catastrophe.”

My family was not religious but we were proud of our Jewish heritage. My father fought the Nazis in World War II and relatives perished in the Holocaust. My paternal grandmother was an activist against the Tsar during the Russian pogroms. On her way to a Siberian prison, she escaped and, at the age of 18, boarded a ship bound for the United States.

We revered Israel as the homeland of the Jews. At the Passover Seder, we would raise our glasses and intone, “Next year in Jerusalem!” At Sunday School, we gathered coins to plant trees in the Holy Land. It wasn’t until I left home that I learned the truth about Israel and became an outspoken critic of its policies.

In 1967, during my freshman year at Stanford, I came to oppose the war in Vietnam and joined The Resistance, a group of draft resisters and their allies. The following year, I signed up for Students for a Democratic Society, where I learned the war was not an isolated event, but rather part of a long history of U.S. imperialism. But I was still unaware that the war Israel launched in 1967 “completed its occupation of Palestine,” in the words of Peled.

The anti-Vietnam War movement at Stanford challenged my long-held assumptions about U.S. foreign policy. My commitment to ending an unjust war against a people fighting for liberation eventually opened my eyes to the plight of the Palestinian people and Israel’s role in repressing them.

After college, I went to law school and became a peoples’ lawyer. I joined the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive political-legal organization which I later served as president. The NLG’s guiding motto is, “Human rights are more sacred than property interests.” In the NLG, I met many people who criticized Israel’s illegal policies and U.S. complicity in them.

In 1977, the NLG sent a delegation to Israel and Palestine. The report they issued was the first comprehensive analysis of Israel’s practices published by a nongovernmental organization dedicated to the protection of human rights. It documented violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions by Israel as a belligerent occupant of the West Bank and Gaza.

The allegations in the report disturbed me greatly. They described Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, including house demolitions, administrative detention and torture. The report documented beatings, burning with cigarettes, forced standing while naked for long periods exposed to heat or cold, dousing with hot or cold water, cutting the body with razor blades, biting by dogs, sensory deprivation, sodomizing with bottles or sticks, inserting wires into the penis, electric shocks to sensitive parts of the body, and suspension from the floor with hands or feet tied to a pulley device. Reading the case studies made me physically ill.

Apartheid, from South Africa to Palestine

Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration the Age of Colorblindness, wrote that some of Israel’s practices are “reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States.”

After the Palestinians launched the second intifada, or uprising, NLG members went to the region and published a report in 2001. It documented a system of apartheid in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as the United States’ uncritical support of Israel.

That report describes illegal settlements and bypass roads, restricted movement of Palestinians, discriminatory land policies, differential treatment of Jews and Palestinian non-Jews, and Israeli policing of Palestinian political expression. It also analyzed indiscriminate and excessive use of lethal force against Palestinians, indiscriminate and excessive use of force against Palestinian property, delay and prevention of medical treatment, and collective punishment against the Palestinians.

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, pointed to similarities between apartheid in his country and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. “My voice will always be raised in support of Christian-Jewish ties and against the anti-Semitism that all sensible people fear and detest. But this cannot be an excuse for doing nothing and for standing aside as successive Israeli governments colonize the West Bank and advance racist laws,” Tutu wrote in a Tampa Bay Times article. He noted “Israel’s theft of Palestinian land,” and “Jewish-only colonies built on Palestinian land in violation of international law.”

Tutu cited a 2010 Human Rights Watch report that “describes the two-tier system of laws, rules, and services that Israel operates for the two populations in areas in the West Bank under its exclusive control, which provide preferential services, development, and benefits for Jewish settlers while imposing harsh conditions on Palestinians.” Tutu wrote, “This, in my book, is apartheid. It is untenable.”

On July 19, 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that illegally enshrines a system of apartheid. The legislation, which has the force of a constitutional amendment, says, “The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.” It continues, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” There is no guarantee of self-determination for the 1.8 million Arabs who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.

Tutu called on “people and organizations of conscience to divest from . . . Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard,” which profit “from the occupation and subjugation of Palestinians.” He was advocating participation in the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), which Alexander also mentions in her column.

When representatives of Palestinian civil society launched BDS in 2005, they called upon “international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era … [including] embargoes and sanctions against Israel.”

Israel continues to attack Gaza, described as the world’s largest “open air prison” as Israel maintains a tight blockade, restricting all ingress and egress. Headlines in the mainstream media falsely portray an equivalence of firepower between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. But Israel’s use of force greatly exceeds that of the Palestinians, and the asymmetric warfare continues to escalate.

In 2014, Israel mounted an offensive called Operation Protective Edge,” relentlessly bombing Gaza for nearly two months, killing 2,251 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians. The number of Palestinians wounded was 11,231, including 3,540 women and 3,436 children. On the Israeli side, six civilians and 67 soldiers were killed and 1,600 were injured. Tens of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes and the infrastructure was severely damaged. Israel targeted numerous schools, UN-sanctioned places of refuge, hospitals, ambulances and mosques.

As Operation Protective Edge was winding down, the NLG and other legal organizations sent a letter to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, urging her to investigate war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in Gaza committed by Israel and aided and abetted by US leaders. The letter was based on an article I wrote documenting those crimes.

Criticizing Israel is Not Anti-Semitic

I have become sharply critical of Israel. An active member of the NLG’s Palestine Subcommittee, I write frequent articles and do media commentary about Israel’s violations of international law. I am also a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and I work in support of BDS.

Years after I first read the 1977 NLG delegation report, I visited Ellis Island, where my grandparents arrived in the United States. It is now a museum. As I walked the route they traveled, I felt very emotional about what they endured. But my deep feelings about the suffering of my ancestors during the Holocaust are not inconsistent with my criticisms of Israel for subjecting the Palestinians to a different kind of oppression.

As stories continue to emerge about Israel’s killing of unarmed protesters at the Gaza border during the Great March of Return, it is increasingly difficult to ignore the facts. Yet even those who see the truth about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians worry about reprisals for speaking out.

Alexander describes the silence of many civil rights activists and groups, “not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear loss of funding from foundations, and false charges of anti-Semitism.” She mentioned the case of Bahia Amawi, a U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent, who lost her Texas elementary school job last year after refusing to pledge in writing that she would not participate in the BDS movement. On Twitter, journalist Glenn Greenwald pointed out the grave danger anti-BDS laws pose to freedom of speech.

There is a false equivalency between criticizing Israel and being anti-Semitic. Any criticism of Israeli policy is labeled anti-Semitism, even though many Jews—including members of Jewish Voice for Peace, Jewish Center for Nonviolence and IfNotNow—oppose the occupation.

The BDS movement is not anti-Israeli, as it targets the policies, not the people, of Israel. And actions against Israel’s policies, including BDS, do not equate to anti-Semitism. Rafeef Ziadah, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, says, “As a matter of principle, the BDS movement has consistently and categorically opposed all forms of racism, including anti-semitism and Islamophobia.”

Palestinian human rights activist Omar Barghouti wrote in the The New York Times in 2014, “Arguing that boycotting Israel is intrinsically anti-Semitic is not only false, but it also presumes that Israel and ‘the Jews’ are one and the same. This is as absurd and bigoted as claiming that a boycott of a self-defined Islamic state like Saudi Arabia, say, because of its horrific human rights record, would of necessity be Islamophobic.”

Even though many persist in equating condemnation of Israel with anti-Semitism, groups like Jewish Voice for Peace continue to gain traction. Jews are increasingly willing to examine the facts on the ground in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

And although Congress, dominated by the powerful Israel lobby, continues to give more money to Israel than any other country, two new members of Congress — Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) — support BDS.

Alexander is optimistic: “There seems to be increased understanding that criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic.”

We in the Jewish community have a special responsibility to fight against the Israeli system of apartheid and its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. The BDS movement is an effective weapon in this struggle. I urge my fellow Jews to join BDS and oppose Israel’s illegal and inhumane policies in whatever way they can.

Copyright Truthout. Reprinted with permission.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Her most recent book, Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues,” contains a chapter analyzing Israel’s targeted killing case.