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Debate over Ilhan Omar Highlights New Willingness in U.S. to Question Power of Pro-Israeli Lobby

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Following a week of debate surrounding Democratic Congressmember Ilhan Omar’s comments about U.S. foreign policy in Israel, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution Thursday condemning anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination, white supremacy and other forms of hate. We host a discussion with Gideon Levy, Haaretz columnist and member of the newspaper’s editorial board; Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies who serves on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace; and Remi Kanazi, a Palestinian-American poet, writer and organizer based in New York City.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Remi Kanazi, you’ve been tweeting nonstop about this debate unfolding on the floor of the House, a debate amongst Democrats, the more progressive, younger Democrats taking on the leadership of the Democratic Party and the House of Representatives and clearly having a major effect. What was most significant to you about this week?

REMI KANAZI: Sure. I think that the—the response to the smearing of Ilhan Omar, right? I mean, what were they seeking to do? They were seeking to smear, to intimidate and to silence. And they thought that after this week was over, that she and others would never speak up again. I think that there was an amazing amount of backlash against what—if you look at the crux of her argument, she talked about Palestinian freedom, justice and equality. She talked about dignity for all people. So, when, I think, you look at the larger situation—the attacks on Ilhan Omar and Marc Lamont Hill and Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander—communities and people are saying, “Enough is enough. We want to have open and honest discourse on this issue. We want to be able to talk about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.” And so, I think that it’s not just that she’s speaking about Palestinian dignity; she’s putting action to it and saying, “We not only need to talk about the suffering, the siege, the blockade and military occupation. We have to cut our direct lines of complicity with occupation and apartheid.”

AMY GOODMAN: And, Phyllis Bennis, in Washington, D.C., the whole issue, what you think was talked about and what wasn’t?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, Amy, I’m very glad that at the beginning of the show you played Congresswoman Omar’s actual words. So many of the articles, so much of the discourse in recent days, has not been based at all on what she actually said. It’s been based on what we think she meant, what it must have been really meaning, whether it was a dog whistle—not on what she said. So, in fact, the congresswoman is being attacked for anti-Semitic statements she never made, for anti-Jewish prejudices that she doesn’t hold, and for a kind of hatred of Jews that she has never expressed. She was being accused of something she never talked about. She never talked about Jews having allegiance to Israel. She talked about the issue of allegiance to Israel by a lobby, which of course includes not only AIPAC, which is one of the most powerful parts of it, but an organization like CUFI, Christians United for Israel, also an incredibly influential component of the pro-Israel lobby. This is not a Jewish lobby; it is a pro-Israel lobby. And it is increasingly Republican. It is very right-wing. And its aim is, as both of my colleagues have said, to shut down the debate, to dim the light, as Congresswoman Omar so poetically put it.

But their lights are not going dim. Their lights are brighter than ever. And the extraordinary thing, as both of my predecessors have mentioned, this was a moment when we actually saw the impact in the immediate context of not only outside protest—there were massive demonstrations, there were articles being written. The small piece that I did in The Nation, that included mainly the words of Congresswoman Omar, was going viral faster than anything, I think, I’ve ever written, because people were eager for this. But even within the Congress, what we saw is that the Black Caucus, the Progressive Caucus—not just sort of the young people. This was partly generational, for sure, but it was also political. The divide in the Democratic Party over this, between the right and the left on questions of U.S. foreign policy, were out there to be seen.

And the progressives won. This was an amazing thing, where we had an entirely different resolution. There’s no doubt that this resolution, like the earlier one, was in response to Democratic leadership fears that there was going to be too much debate about this, and it was going to detract from the Democratic agenda, the democracy issues that they want to put on the table. But what we saw was that they actually were forced to listen to other components of the Democratic Party and craft an entirely different resolution, that not only didn’t name Congresswoman Omar—which the first one didn’t, either—but it was not aimed solely at the question of anti-Semitism. It was aimed at all the issues of racial and ethnic prejudice that are systemic in this country.

It doesn’t change the reality. It doesn’t stop black people from being shot by police in the streets. It doesn’t change the reality of Islamophobia that people have to deal with and live with every day. It doesn’t prevent the kind of violence we saw against Jews in Pittsburgh or in Charlottesville. But what it does do is say that this is a new era, that there is a new discourse underway, and that it’s no longer going to be possible for the leadership of the Democratic Party or the leadership of Congress or anyone else to assume that they can slap somebody on the wrist for something that they didn’t say, but that they thought might be interpreted in the wrong way, and then go on as if nothing had happened. Too many people are watching.

And as Gideon said, this is a moment when the question of the influence of AIPAC and the influence of CUFI and the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, in general, is being questioned by a whole set of new actors. When The New York Times has a headline that says “Does this show that the influence of—that the power,” they said, “that the power of AIPAC is too big?” and proceeded to write an article that essentially said, “Yeah, it’s too big,” that’s huge.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have The Wall Street Journal tweeting just a week or two ago, “Aipac, the pro-Israel lobby, raises more than $100 million a year, which it spends on lobbying politicians for U.S. aid and sending members of Congress to Israel.” This isn’t Ilhan Omar tweeting this. This is The Wall Street Journal.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Right. We also should note that there have been—someone on Twitter, very conveniently, put together a list of all the times that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post have used this term of influence of Israel, of pro-Israel sentiments, attributed to Congress, attributed to the White House. And this notion that somehow only an anti-Semite would use this language, it turns out, just isn’t true, that “allegiance” is a word that all these newspapers routinely use.

So it goes directly to this point that Ilhan Omar was being targeted not so much for what she said, but for who she was while saying it, that she is a black African immigrant, that she is a Somali refugee, that she is a proud Muslim woman who wears her hijab in the halls of Congress, when she said these things. That’s what was seen as unacceptable, because that can be said by Jewish critics, Christian critics, but if a Muslim critic says it, it’s taken as a whole different kind of response.

And I think that that’s what we have to be very conscious of right now, when we have this new, extraordinarily broad and diverse crew of progressives in Congress. This isn’t only about identity. It’s not just because somebody happens to be a Muslim or happens to be Jewish or happens to be young or happens to be black. It’s because we have a bunch of progressives, who are young and Jewish and Muslim and black and Latina and whatever, that is changing not just the demographics, but the politics of how this Congress is operating. And that’s a huge shift.

AMY GOODMAN: The Congressional Black Caucus also came out in support of Ilhan Omar. I want to ask about this generational shift, Remi, and also the progressive Jewish-Palestinian alliance in this country, not to mention leading African-American intellectuals and activists, like Marc Lamont Hill, Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, coming out in support of Palestinian rights extremely strongly and then being targeted by the very groups that are very active right now.

REMI KANAZI: Yeah, I mean, you’re seeing an incredible sea change, if you look at black-Palestinian solidarity, Native-Palestinian solidarity. A youth delegation just went over to Palestine, the Dream Defenders delegations. Marc Lamont Hill was on one of them. You look at the Movement for Black Lives endorsing divestment as a way to cut complicity from Israeli occupation and apartheid. So, I think that it’s happening in the halls of Congress slowly but surely, but it’s happening on the ground. You have more than 200 Students for Justice in Palestine chapters in the U.S. and Canada. You have dozens of Jewish Voice for Peace chapters and thousands of members across the country. When you look at a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, you have black folks, Latinx folks, queer folks, Jewish folks, Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, antiwar socialists, all across the spectrum.

So I think that you’re looking at Palestine moving into a space where it’s becoming a progressive issue, you know, not in the same way as maybe Medicare for all or Fight for 15, but the way that people are talking about Yemen, the way that people are talking about the U.S.-Mexico border and anti-black racism and the prison-industrial complex. People are saying, “Are you on the side of freedom, or are you on the side of apartheid? Are you for liberty for all, or are you looking to marginalize people even further?” So I think that that’s the question that’s really coming up.

And that’s what’s scaring not just bipartisan, establishment Democrats and Republicans in Congress, but the AIPACs and StandWithUs and ADL and other groups, that are saying, “Look, black and brown communities, leftist communities are coming together to say enough is enough; Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions; talking about the right of return for Palestinian refugees, ending the siege on Gaza, after 200 people were executed on Friday protests over an 11-month period, or looking at the fact that Israel controls the air, the border, the sea, the imports, the taxes, the tariffs, the population registry and every facet of life.” So, even as we talked about Ilhan Omar this week, there was a 15-year-old Palestinian boy that was executed in Gaza. There was a Palestinian village inside of the state of Israel that was demolished for the 141st time. There was home demolitions in the West Bank. So, it’s about what’s being done to the Palestinian people, what side are you standing on, and how can communities come together to battle all forms of injustice.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, it also comes out at the time the U.N. Human Rights Council report on what’s happening in Gaza and alleging possible war crimes. And, Gideon Levy, I was wondering if you can talk about the response to this report in Israel?

GIDEON LEVY: The worst thing is that there was no response, because it was almost not on the table. I mean, Israel had created itself a shield in which any criticism is immediately delegitimized and immediately ignored and immediately labeled as anti-Semitic, because also this committee is anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli, and nobody would even listen to them. So this committee was another example of how Israel lives in this denial, which, by the way, the collaboration of Israeli media hardly had reported about it. I mean, there were some small stories, but nobody really took it too seriously, while we know that for the last months over 200 people, almost all of them unarmed, were killed in vain, were killed for nothing.

And nothing can touch anymore the Israel society, because it is so brainwashed by now, and it has become so apathetic and so indifferent to the life of Palestinians. Really, I think there is nothing cheaper in Israel than Palestinian lives. You see, day after day, nobody cares. I just wrote, one week ago, a horrible story about soldiers beating up a blind man in his bed. I was sure that at least this—I mean, here, you cannot claim anything. He’s blind. He’s very ill. He lies in the bed. It’s 4:00 at night, in the morning. They come into his house by force and start to beat him in his bed. Do you think that anybody reacted to it? Do you think that anybody cared about it? No. Israel closed all the curtains. And we are living in our bubble, so sure that we are always right and the whole world is always wrong, that anybody who dares to say anything about Israel is an anti-Semite.

And I must tell you, until now, it was quite efficient, because the fact is that there is still great fear, both in your country and even in Europe, to criticize Israel. There is still great fear to ask major questions, like: Until when will this occupation continue? Until Israel will decide to put an end to it, and the world will stand and look at it in indifference and do nothing? Is the world ready for another apartheid state in 2019? So, all of those questions are hardly discussed here in Israel. We leave the questions of: Did Netanyahu get free meals, or didn’t he get free meals? That’s more or less the only question which is raised here.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip of Sara Hossain, a member of the U.N. commission that wrote the U.N. report, describing how Israeli forces targeted civilians and journalists in Gaza.

SARA HOSSAIN: We are saying that they have intentionally shot children, they have intentionally shot people with disabilities, they have intentionally shot journalists, knowing them to be children, people with disabilities and journalists. And some of the children—not all of the children are visibly children perhaps, but many of them are.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Sara Hossain. This hardly got any attention, not only in Israel proper, Phyllis Bennis, but, of course, here in the United States amidst this whole discussion about hate.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, this is one of the key points that we have to carry so much further. This was an opening. What happened this week was an opening. It was opening a curtain that has blocked any discussion of this issue. But getting into this issue is now crucial, the question of how the United States has consistently protected Israel in the United Nations, so that not Israel as a government and no Israeli official, political or military, can ever be held accountable in the International Court of Justice—sorry, in the International Criminal Court, for potential war crimes. We don’t hear the questions about U.S. complicity.

I ran some numbers last night. The U.S. is still sending $3.8 billion every year to the Israeli military, unquestioned about what they do with it. That money, if it was kept at home—I mean, we say $3.8 billion. Nobody knows what that means. We could say a gazillion, and it would mean the same thing. But that’s real money in the real world. And that same amount of money for one year could pay instead for 68,400 new infrastructure jobs, good union jobs to rebuild this country. It could pay for 367,800 veterans getting healthcare. Or it could pay for 426,455 kids to get into Head Start and get a real education, starting at a young age. What’s going to make us safer in this country?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with—

PHYLLIS BENNIS: For those who care only about this country, look at those numbers.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with Remi Kanazi. I have seen almost no Palestinian or Muslim comment in the mainstream media, on television, around this debate. Does the result of this whole furor this week and the final resolution give you hope?

REMI KANAZI: It does, because I do think that the Palestinian question is being pushed back to the forefront. There are an incredible amount of Palestinian voices, many of whom who have been on Democracy Now! I think that if you look at Congress, what actually created that was the grassroots organizing, was the political action on the ground, was the campus organizing, was the response to the repression that has come from years before. So I think, going forward, you’re witnessing a sea change. You’re seeing people come together in a way that they haven’t before. And if you look at Ilhan Omar’s comments, she’s speaking very frankly and unapologetically. I mean, she was back on Twitter last night with some amazing tweets and, you know, calling out John McCain. So, I think that we’re going to move forward. I think that the—

AMY GOODMAN: His daughter.

REMI KANAZI: His daughter, as well, yeah. I think that the Palestinian voice is getting stronger within the United States. It’s being seen more within that kind of progressive realm. And I actually think that the Palestinian rights and issues are coming back to the forefront—the right of return for Palestinian refugees, ending the siege on Gaza—building with other communities in different ways, on campuses, in local communities, and now in the halls of Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Remi Kanazi, also Gideon Levy, a Haaretz columnist in Tel Aviv, and Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, serves on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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