The Ilhan Omar debate & why it matters

What’s really behind the continuing attacks against Ilhan Omar: Part One

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments, mainly because this is the tool used to shut down debate and silence voices of dissent. Voices like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others who have spoken out against the inhumane treatment of Palestinians suffering Apartheid-like conditions and anti-humanitarian abuses at the hands of Israel’s military, funded in large part by the U.S.

But, I also don’t want to dwell too little on their relevance because they also reveal the very real attack, launched by both parties against Ilhan Omar, and the potential reasons behind it that we shouldn’t ignore.

Given the scale and scope of issues involved, this will be the first of two articles. Part One gives an outline of the now four incidents criticizing Omar for her comments and subsequent attacks on her safety and others by the President, members of congress, and special interest groups. Part Two exposes the possible reasons for these ongoing attacks, and looks further into who’s really driving the anti-Muslim agenda in America, and why Omar has been targeted as such a threat to their interests.

Part One

“It’s all about the Benjamins” baby…and “AIPAC”

The original efforts to smear Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments as “anti-Semitic” were led by the pro-Israel lobby  and advocacy groups like A JC and AIPAC, who successfully lobby congress for billions of dollars in military funding for Israel every year, push anti-BDS legislation at the federal and state level, and work to insure the long-standing policy of unquestioned US support for Israel remains intact.

The influence special interest groups like these can wield over US policy and political support touch at the heart of issues we should be discussing, and why they’ve gone to such lengths to silence any criticism or further debate.

Without the context of her words, however, it is easy to misinterpret what Ilhan Omar meant by her two tweets that led to such a swift and singular attack against her. The tweets were reacting to a tweet Journalist Glenn Greenwald posted:

“GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel.

It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans”.

~Glenn Greenwald

Rep. Ilhan Omar responded by retweeting Greenwald with her own comment, “It’s all about the Benjamin’s.”, referring to what motivated McCarthy’s threats over her criticisms of Israel, and the influence special interest groups use to sway political support and policy decisions in the US. When asked what she meant, specifically, Omar responded simply with “AIPAC,” referring to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby that in 2018 alone was successful in lobbying senate approval for a $38 billion dollar military aid package to Israel.

Within the context of Ilhan Omar’s initial twitter exchange, there was nothing anti-Semitic in what Ilhan Omar said. She was not making a stereotype about Jewish people, but stating a fact- that money in politics has power, and her criticisms of the ‘problematic role of lobbyists in our politics’ have remained consistent, ‘whether it be (about) AIPAC, the NRA or the Fossil Fuel Industry’, as she referenced in her apology for having offended members of the Jewish community. An apology, worth noting, that was rejected by most of her accusers who continue to condemn her comments.

McCarthy’s own earlier statements highlight the hypocrisy of his finger- pointing at Omar, and indicate what may have been the real motivation behind his threats- Omar’s position on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and McCarthy’s longstanding ties and loyalty to AIPAC.

“Why am I expected to have allegiance/pledge loyalty to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee?”
-Ilhan Omar

A question Ilhan Omar posed a few weeks later while speaking at a Town Hall panel sparked even more controversy. Not about the subject matter of her comments, but of one singular question she posed. What followed was a swift condemnation, and further shouts of Antisemitism, spurred in large part by some of the media coverage which seemed to intentionally misconstrue what Ilhan Omar said.

Rather than give a direct quote or a clip of her comments, or even attempt an honest interpretation, her words and their intent were continually either taken out of context, intentionally misquoted, or completely fabricated. And once removed from their context, the question she’d asked was purposefully re-positioned to mean something entirely different.

“Let’s be clear. Omar did accuse Jews of dual loyalty, a common anti-Semitic trope, and also said the Israel lobby was too powerful. As to the second remark, it is not clear who is too powerful in Omar’s eyes. If she thinks the “Israel lobby” constitutes American Jews who act out of loyalty to a foreign country, she is simply doubling down on the anti-Semitism. If, however, she is saying that Israel, not American Jews, is too influential or powerful in American foreign policy, she’s wrong but within the bounds of civil discourse.”

Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

“This dual loyalty charge has led to the mass murder of millions of Jews in history. I’m not sure that everyone understands how grave this issue is.”

Juan Vargas on Delaware Public Media

“Omar, who in January became one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress, said Israel’s supporters push lawmakers to pledge “allegiance to a foreign country”, a remark that was viewed by lawmakers of both parties as playing into the antisemitic trope of “dual loyalty” –a myth that Jewish people are more loyal to Israel than their country of residence.”

Lauren Gambino, The Guardian,

Ilhan Omar’s actual comment did not refer to Jewish people, American Jews, Israel, or dual loyalty by anyone, nor was it her intent to imply an anti-Semitic trope about dual loyalty. Her comments were in response to the pressure placed on her, the expectation that she have loyalty to Israel as a member of the foreign affairs committee and as a sitting member of congress. This expectation was made explicitly clear to her by fellow committee members and other members of congress. This includes McCarthy, whose earlier threats to retaliate against her for criticizing Israel’s actions against Palestinians, led to her AIPAC tweets and the subsequent condemnation y other members of congress and fellow committee members.

The threats of retaliation against Omar for not heeding the warnings over her criticism of the Israeli government are reflected in the statement made by Eliot Engel, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, following her second comment.

“I welcome debate in Congress based on the merits of policy, but it’s unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the U.S.-Israel relationship. We all take the same oath. Worse, Representative Omar’s comments leveled that charge by invoking a vile anti-Semitic slur. This episode is especially disappointing following so closely on another instance of Ms. Omar seeming to invoke an anti-Semitic stereotype. Her comments were outrageous and deeply hurtful, and I ask that she retract them, apologize, and commit to making her case on policy issues without resorting to attacks that have no place in the Foreign Affairs Committee or the House of Representatives.”

Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

It’s hard to appreciate how idiotic and untrue the characterizations of Omar and her statements are without first understanding the full context of what Ilhan Omar said. Here’s a quote of her actual words while discussing the influence of money in politics and silencing debate by a foreign government over their humanitarian abuses, funded by the US.

“ It is almost as if every single time we (Ilhan Omar & Rashida Tlaib) say something, regardless of what it is we say, that is supposed to be about foreign policy or engagement, or advocacy,...about ending oppression, or the freeing of every human life and wanting dignity...we get to be labeled as something that ends the discussion because we end up defending that...and nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine. " (...Cheers & Applause)

"I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. "

I want to ask why it is OK for me to talk about the influence of NAFTA or Fossil Fuel Industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policy?”
-Ilhan Omar
The allegiance she is referring to is her own, as she made clear in a later tweet, clarifying her words and their meaning.
“Why am I expected to have allegiance/pledge loyalty to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee?”
-Ilhan Omar

Instead of a legitimate debate about an important issue, Omar faced swift condemnation. A continuing escalation of anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks were hurled at her, insisting that what was said was yet another example of her anti-Semitic hatred. This led to an attempt at censure and reprimand in front of congress, and potential removal from the Foreign Affairs Committee, led by leaders of her own party. 

The swift call to judgement by Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in Congress who pushed for an immediate Resolution to reprimand Ilhan Omar over her remarks, also put a spotlight on Omar that has threatened her safety.

As reports of a hit-list and assassination threats grew, so did the glaring double-standard in the way we respond to an unintentional misstep by a Muslim woman of color versus the repeated anti-Semitic and bigoted remarks made by other white, mostly republican males in congress that have, for the most part , gone completed ignored. It also ignores the undertones, and at times very blatant anti-Muslim sentiment aimed at Omar over her comments.

The awful irony of the anti-Muslim poster surfacing, first displayed at a Republican booth in the lobby of the West Virginia State House on GOP Day, and later circulating across the internet, for example. The poster depicted Ilhan Omar in front of the Twin Towers engulfed in flames with a caption that read: “Never forget’-you said” and another below next to Omar, “I am the proof- you have forgotten”.

The silence, or lackluster responses from Nancy Pelosi and other democratic leadership is all the more baffling and horrific in light of their recent assault against Omar for far less egregious offenses.

But more troubling is what happened as a result. The Islamophobic mania stroked by repeated references to Omar and 9/11 terrorists by Trump and others that went without comment, for the most part, culminated amidst the newest attack against her for yet another comment taken out of context. This time, for allegedly dismissing the seriousness of the 9/11 terrorist attack.

“Here’s the truth. For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange and that I am trying to make myself look pleasant. You have to say that this person is looking at me strange, I am not comfortable with it, and I am going to talk to them and ask them why. Because that is the right you have.”
-Ilhan Omar, speaking at a CAIR event in March, 2019

Her comment was made during an event for CAIR, the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations. She was referencing why CAIR had been established and the high price that actions by a few radical extremists can have in fomenting hate and intolerance. An intolerance that Muslims in America are acutely aware of and that infringes on their rights as American citizens.

This one comment, again taken out of context, and the reaction to it clearly reflects the exact anti-Muslim sentiment Omar was pointing out. But, it wasn’t until after the NY Post front page story using the same image of the twin towers engulfed in flames that was used in the anti-Muslim poster of Omar and 9/11, that there was even a modicum of recrimination, the only ‘action’ taken by democratic leaders at the time.

However, their comments didn’t come to the defense of Omar, or mention the ongoing assault against Omar by the president and others that has continued to escalate since democrats first jumped on the bandwagon to accuse and reprimand Omar for perceived anti-Semitic tropes. Instead, Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders waited until enough negative attention forced a response, largely due to the the quick and unequivocal defense of Omar by other progressive democrats and presidential candidates following Trump’s targeting of Omar

In his twitter post equating Omar with 9/11 terrorists, Trump also made reference to the anti-Muslim poster of the twin towers and Omar. His comments and the video montage of Omar’s ‘some people did something’ comment juxtaposed to the horrific events of 9/11 have further jeopardized her safety. An increased level of threats have been aimed at her and other Muslims as a result, including Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib.

In Nancy Pelosi’s initial comment, however, she chose only to criticize Trump, not for his ongoing anti-Muslim remarks aimed at Omar, but for using images of 9/11 for a “political attack”, while also validating the accusations against Omar in response to her comment.

The threats against Omar’s life and other congress members have continued to escalate. Recent violent death threats aimed at Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the other ‘first’ Muslim woman in congress, have since caused Pelosi to up the security level for Omar. However, this has only further escalated the president’s attacks against her.

So, why the leap to judgement and strict condemnation of Ilhan Omar, but such a reluctant response to the anti-Muslim bigotry by the President of the United States and other republicans, some of which at least borders on incitement of racially and religiously motivated hatred and violence?

Much of this can be traced back to that initial attack, led by the pro-Israel lobby, on behest of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, and the anti-Muslim and anti-BDS political operatives acting on their behalf.

For a deeper look into these influencers and why they may be targeting Omar, please stay tuned for Part Two of, “The Ilhan Omar Debate & Why it Matters: What’s Really Behind the Continuing Attacks Against Ilhan Omar?”

Tishacp.

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