On Feb. 10, Ilhan Omar, a Democratic freshman representative from Minnesota and notably the first Somali-American in Congress, responded to a tweet asking her who she thought was paying American politicians to be pro-Israel. Her response was “AIPAC,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
This one tweet led to an uproar of responses from citizens, reporters and other Congress members across the political spectrum about Israeli-American relations, principally the role Israel plays in our nation’s politics. Omar was called out for being anti-Semitic by many of her Republican and Democratic colleagues, including Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (NY).
Since the beginning of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel has tried to paint support for the Palestinian people as an act of anti-Semitism. In fact, support for the Palestinian people should be associated with standing up for justice and equity in our world.
When Israel was first established as a state in 1948, then-President Harry Truman made the United States the first country to recognize the nation. Since then, Israeli-American relations have been up and down. But recently, it seems there is only unconditional support and blind trust for the country and its leaders. A look at the history of the Israeli state, however, reveals why this unconditional support is impermissible.
The state of Israel was created under the fictitious slogan of “a land without people for a people without land” and fueled the Zionist movement. During the first half of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of European Jews emigrated to then-British-controlled Palestine. Naturally, the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had inhabited the land were angered. The Balfour Declaration—a British mandate—of 1917 presented the Palestinian land as a gift to the Jewish people. In 1947, the United Nations (U.N.) gave more strength to the mandate by declaring the land belonged to both states. Israel officially received 55 percent of the land as a result, despite the Palestinian population being twice that of the Jewish community.
Frustrated by what they saw and experienced as British colonialism, the Palestinians coalesced with the surrounding Arab states and fought against the redistribution of their land. This 1948 war ended with Israel taking 78 percent of the land and is commonly referred to by Palestinians as Al-Nakba or “the catastrophe.” Over 700,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes, and today, seven million Palestinian refugees trace their roots to this exodus. A few years later in 1967, Israel began their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, demolishing homes, evicting Palestinian families and arresting and detaining them without a fair trial.
This occupation is still ever-present today. Since the start of Al-Nakba, Palestinians have been tortured, detained, arrested, beaten and killed by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) daily. Over a thousand complaints of torture have been filed by Palestinians while in Israeli prisons since 2000, with only one ever leading to an investigation.
Young adults like Ahed Tamimi celebrate their 17th birthdays from within Israeli prisons, after being arrested for standing up for their family. Tamimi was imprisoned hours after an Israeli soldier shot her unarmed 15-year-old cousin in the face with a rubber bullet.
Yet, there are apparently no consequences for the actions of the IDF or Israeli government. They continue to restrict movement of people and goods, expropriate Palestinian land to build Israeli settlements, drop bombs on schools and hospitals, and arrest, tear gas and kill Palestinians of all ages. As long as there are no ramifications for illegal and cruel Israeli activity, there will be no justice.
Hopefully, Omar and Rashida Tlaib—a freshman Democratic representative from Michigan and the first Palestinian-American Congresswoman—can show Democrats (and all Congress members) the error in their ways. Both appear to be the first two Congress members to proudly and rightfully stand up for the Palestinians, also supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which pressures Israel to comply with international law. The majority of other Democrats in Congress are “PEP” or “Progressive Except Palestine.”
Sen. Cory Booker, a Democratic New Jersey senator, strongly opposes the BDS movement and in November of last year, reported that he would support a bill to prevent U.S. businesses from participating in the BDS movement. Yet, following Booker’s official announcement to run for president in the 2020 election, he seems to have changed his mind. Booker voted against a policy bill at the beginning of February which included a measure to allow the government to punish companies that subscribe to the BDS standards. If he fears that voting for such a policy will hurt his election probabilities, then perhaps he should take a closer look to what is happening in the region and decide which side of history he wants to be on.
However, this skepticism surrounding the denouncement of Israel most likely comes from fear of doing so. Politicians from both sides of the aisle continuously accuse other politicians and figureheads of being anti-Semitic when they speak out against the abuses perpetrated by Israel on the Palestinians.
Some lose their jobs, as was the case with Marc Lamont Hill, a political contributor for CNN. After supporting the BDS movement while addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a speech at the U.N., he was lambasted for anti-Jewish sentiments and promptly fired. What CNN and critics failed to hear was Hill’s call and desire for justice—in his exact words as written on Twitter—for “EVERYONE.”
A demand of justice for all is not anti-Semitic. There is most certainly a need to address anti-Semitic attitudes and actions throughout the U.S. and the world, as a recent FBI report noted an increase in such hate crimes, but criticism of human rights abuses and racist actions by the Israel government is in no way one of these sentiments. Being critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians is not a critique of the Jewish faith and culture.
This brings us back to Omar and her bold statement—one that branded her so strongly as anti-Semitic that she issued an apology—insinuating a connection between Israeli money and American political power. Palestinian support has become incredibly controversial and partisan. Perhaps the reason for such low Palestinian sympathy in Congress is this political and financial influence of Israel and, just as Omar suggested, AIPAC. The committee itself boasts on its website that the “United States Congress has provided Israel with the strongest support of any institution in the world.” They influence American politics through campaign contributions, lobbying and the infamous all-expense paid trip to Israel for Congress members. In the world of foreign policy, AIPAC is at the top of the list for money spent lobbying, having spent $3.5 million. The all-expense paid trip, known for its luxurious accommodations, costs AIPAC $10,000 per person. That is a kind of a trip that Congress members remember when they are back in Washington D.C. voting on bills that could affect Israel.
Whatever the primary reason for the U.S. being so friendly with Israel, which has as a result been termed the “Middle East’s most stable democracy,” Congress is undeniably in the pockets of AIPAC, and in turn, Israel. Seventy percent of the U.S. Senate is influenced by AIPAC, with some Congress members receiving upward of $200,000 from pro-Israel lobbyists. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of Ohio’s two senators, is among those Congress members.
It is time we start listening to the cries of the Palestinian people and stop spending our time criticizing Congress members who are attempting to undermine injustice. Most importantly, we must remember that injustice for one is injustice for all and that Palestine is not excluded from this rule.