Ilhan Omar, AIPAC, Congress, and the Future of American Democracy
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 18 Mar 2019
The Ilhan Omar Incident: A Zionist Witch Hunt?
This is a somewhat modified text of my responses to a series of questions posed by Daniel Falcone with whom I have done several prior online interviews. This interview was published under a different title by CounterPunch on March 14, 2019. It addresses the attack upon the Somali born Ilhan Omar, elected from the 5th Congressional District to the U.S. House of Representative in the November 2018 midterm elections. Omar was sharply attacked, defamed, and threatened for making comments about Israeli influence on American lawmaking that were alleged to be anti-Semitic, or more precisely, ‘anti-Semitic tropes.’ The issues raised are important both to suggest continuing reliance by pro-Israeli militants on these kinds of tactics, and for the fact that there was an encouraging willingness of some mainstream refusal to acquiesce. The attack on Omar has been so far blunted in Congress, but the real test will come in 2020 when Omar runs for reelection. Falcone’s questions raise issues about the nature of anti-Semitism, the relevance of Islamophobia to this incident, and the complex and confusing relationship between anti-Semitism and Zionism.
1) Daniel Falcone: Going back to when this all started about a month ago, can you briefly remind readers of what your initial reactions were to Ilhan Omar’s tweets and to the course of events that quickly followed soon after? Did she misspeak? Isn’t the Lobby small potatoes compared to official US policy in the first place?
Richard Falk: When I first heard these comments by Ilhan Omar I was glad that there was a new voice in Congress that would speak up on behalf of the Palestinian people so long subjected to a daily ordeal whether they are living under occupation, as a discriminated minority in Israel, or in refugee camps in occupied Palestine and neighboring countries, or existing in involuntary exile. My core reaction was to welcome such an expression of solidarity from a member of Congress that the Palestinian people need and deserve.
Although I agreed with her critical remarks on AIPAC, and later on the dual loyalty of some Americans when it comes to Israel, they struck me as familiar and so accurately descriptive as to have become almost innocuous truisms. How wrong I was! On further consideration, it became clear to me that her remarks (of course, exaggerated in their intended meaning by being torn from the wider context of her full statements and then twisted to give the anti-Semitic spin plausibility) were treated as inflammatory not so much because of their content, but because of their source, a black-Muslim-American woman, and her status as a newly elected member of Congress. The essence of what she had to say was unremarkable, hardly the stuff of fiery radicalism. Omar tried herself to quiet things down, quickly apologizing for what she was made to feel might have unintentionally been hurtful to Jews. Such a move convincingly distanced her from the charge of real anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews). Her offending message was true yet obvious, attaining importance only because she was a newly elected congressperson willing to so declare her concerns about the way Washington works in high visibility settings: “I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.” And “I want to talk about political influence in this country that says it is O.K. to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
The overblown response to these Omar tweets and public comments had the effect of mobilizing the liberal and Christian Zionist establishments in and out of Congress. These groups pressed Democrats in Congress to give concreteness to their allegations of anti-Semitism by their angry calls for apologies, retractions, and censure. Those outraged insisted that the home truths Rep. Ilhan Omar dared speak were nothing less than ‘familiar anti-Semitic tropes.’ This expansion of anti-Semitism from its base meaning, the hatred of Jews, is a tactic being used to spread the net of anti-Semitism much wider. This referral to ‘tropes’ is an insidious way of substituting ‘political correctness’ for the transparencies of truthfulness. Once this enlarged anti-Semitic card is on the table, the accuracy or inaccuracy of Omar’s statements becomes irrelevant, and any attempt by the person so accused to justify their assertions by pointing to the facts only aggravates the sin, and reinforces the allegation. In effect, freedom of expression takes a back seat when an irresponsible so-called ‘anti-Semitic trope’ is invoked by defaming critics.
There is a historical basis for this extension of Jew hatred to various allegations about Jewish power or conspiracies of which ‘Holocaust denial’ and ‘a Jewish conspiracy to run the world’ are prominent. Such allegations are usually made in bad faith with intention to frighten and anger the non-Jewish world, and are not supported by respectable evidence. The Holocaust did take place, although the exact number of Jews and others who lost their lives remains in some doubt, and could be responsibly discussed. Such allegations are different than suggesting issues of lobbying influence and dual loyalty where the evidence overwhelmingly supports the contention, and is fair comment in a democratic society that honors freedom of expression.
Discrediting a person by invoking the abstraction of anti-Semitic tropes is even more problematic when the speaker has a status that bestows prestige and is capable of wielding influence. It has been extremely helpful to Israel over the decades to have virtual unanimity in the U.S. Congress on any agenda item that touches its interests or assesses its behavior. It puts critics of Israel in the larger society on the defensive, and makes support for Israel seemed so entrenched and bipartisan as to become virtually untouchable. This makes opposition to any important pro-Israel initiative, for instance annual appropriations for military assistance, politically untenable, although there are many reasons to question such a commitment given Israel’s behavior and capabilities. This condition of unanimity in Congress has been highly effective in the past in suppressing doubts and criticisms. It has made anyone politically foolish enough to defy this disciplinary consensus exceedingly vulnerable to defeat in the next scheduled election. Such persons have been effectively targeted in the past, and yes, by AIPAC, rich Zionist donors, and pro-Israeli Christian lobbies. As well, the likely lucky opponent of such a candidate has trouble spending all the money pouring into his or her campaign coffers.
This pattern of ‘enforcing’ unanimity can be traced back at least as far as the experience of Paul Findley, a courageous, moderate, and humanly decent Congressman from Illinois, who was blacklisted and politically defeated after serving ten terms in the House of Representatives. He was targeted after raising his voice to decry the unbalanced approach relied on by the U.S. Government to manage the Israel/Palestine relationship. Ever since he lost his House seat in 1982 Findley has devoted himself to exposing and criticizing the role that AIPAC plays in national political life. His conclusions are similar to those reached by Omar. For Findley’s account of this pattern see his important book They Dare Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby (1985, 2003).
It is not only Findley that has been targeted over the years, but several others who fall afoul of AIPAC’s disciplinary code, including such distinguished figures as Charles Percy, Adlai Stevenson III, Pete McCloskey, and above all, Cynthia McKinney, the only woman and African American on this honor roll. To deny or obscure such a cause and effect relationship is tantamount to swallowing the Kool Aid of Zionist thought control. I can only wonder whether Congresswoman Omar was aware of this background when she decided to speak out forcefully, and if she did, it reinforces the impression that she is a fearless warrior for social and political justice.
Status matters in these campaigns to defame critics of Israel. When someone as globally prominent as Richard Goldstone associated his name with a UN fact-finding inquiry into Israeli wrongdoing arising from its 2008-09 attack on Gaza he suffered mightily from the backlash. The Report reached conclusions critical of Israel that were fact-based, yet rather restrained given the incriminating evidence, and carefully documented. Impressions of fairness were further strengthened by coupling the accusations against Israel with harsh denunciations of Hamas’ unlawful acts of retaliation. Such characteristics of the Report did nothing to tone down the fury of Israeli reactions, which singled out Goldstone with vituperative rage. Although Goldstone was at the time a widely admired international figure who had won international acclaim for his anti-apartheid role in South Africa, neither his eminence nor his legal professionalism protected him from the slash-and-burn tactics of his detractors. Quite the contrary.
The heaviest available defamatory artillery was deployed by Israel’s top leaders to mount an intense attack on his person and reputation. Despite his lifelong Zionist connections, Goldstone was denounced, censured at the highest levels of government in Israel with the negative chorus joined by several leading political figures in the U.S. He was even accused of authoring ‘a blood libel’ against the Jewish people. It turned out that Goldstone couldn’t withstand these pressures and backed down in humiliating fashion without the support of any of the three other distinguished members of the UN commission team. With this retraction, Goldstone totally lost the respect of the human rights community without regaining respectability among Zionists. Goldstone’s turnaround demonstrates how effective these Israeli tactics can be in silencing much more vulnerable critics than Goldstone, evading truth, and shifting the policy conversation from the message (in his instance, the Report) to the messenger.
My own analogous experience at a much lower level of international visibility was rather similar. As long as I was a dissenting professor on Israel/Palestine, I was more or less ignored, but when I was appointed as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine all hell broke loose. I received death threats and hate mail calling me many names, but concentrating on depicting me as ‘a notorious anti-Semite’ and ‘a self-hating Jew.’ This campaign of defamation continued unabated during my six years holding this UN position, yet immediately after my term ended in 2014 the attacks subsided, although they were revived in 2017 when a UN report that I jointly authored was released. The report contained a carefully constructed argument that available evidence established that Israel was an apartheid state according to the criteria of international criminal law. Unlike Goldstone, I refused to back down or shut up, and for this stubbornness I paid a different kind of price.
The experience of Ilhan Omar is, of course, more extreme and revealing than mine. It is a grim reminder that whenever African Americans are allowed on the plantation, they are slapped down harshly if they become ‘uppity.’ Although born and raised in Somalia, Omar was nevertheless perceived as uppity in this homegrown American sense. There is a Jim Crow element present that has been extended, especially since 9/11, to Muslims as well as to African Americans. A large part of what is operating here is to portray Ilhan Omer as an anti-Semite because it is not politically correct to be overtly Islamophobic, but it is quite all right to be indirectly so beneath the banner of solidarity with Israel.
In effect, it is bad enough if Muslims are seen, and worse, if they are heard, and still worse if they somehow obtain an official platform from which to speak, and worst of all, if they use this platform to speak out in ways that expose truths long swept under the rug. To some degree the racist mentality directed previously at African Americans has shifted its center of gravity to Muslims, and reaches fever levels, when the perceived offender is not only Muslim but also African American, and not only a political dissenter, but a female critic of Israel.
Recent events confirm that the orchestrated backlash becomes more vicious if the criticism of Israel issues forth from the mouth of a person of color who enjoys a high intellectual or cultural status. The Temple professor, Marc Lamont Hill, was almost instantly dismissed from his role as a commentator and consultant to CNN merely because he used the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ to describe Palestinian rights in the course of a judicious and humane speech on the conditions of a true peace between Israel and Palestine delivered at the UN a few months ago. Like Omar, Hill responded to the upsurge of hostile pressures by offering an explanatory apology for any misunderstanding he might have unintentionally caused. He eventually managed to survive demands that he be dismissed from his tenured professorship at Temple. Even so, the public pounding Hill endured surely sent a chilling message to others throughout the country who might be tempted to speak out on behalf of Palestinian rights. One suspects that even though his name has been formally cleared, Hill is likely to experience a sharp decline in the number of invitations he receives to speak at academic conferences at least for five years or so.
In other words, whether knowingly or not, Ilhan Omar poked her head into this lion’s den, and it has had consequences that are probably beyond her imagining at the time she spoke out. Omar definitely touched a raw nerve by so defiantly challenging this bipartisan consensus and the Congressional ethos to refrain from public criticisms of Israel and its support system. Particularly when her comments seemed to be saying that it is impossible to reconcile such displays of loyalty to a foreign country with the obligations of an elected American official to give priority to national interests.
2) Daniel Falcone: On December 13, 2011 Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote in reference to Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to US Congress that the “ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel Lobby.” He received some criticism for it, but no liberal called it an “anti-Semitic trope” either literally or in proportion to the reaction of Omar’s word choice. Can you unpack the difference between Friedman saying this and Omar, for I noticed a real difference in the reactions as did others.
Richard Falk: My prior remarks sets the stage for my response to this question. Friedman’s stature and generally supportive role for Israeli policies, although acutely critical of Netanyahu, led even most militant supporters of Israel to construe his comments as narrowly confined to the controversy surrounding the international agreement reached during the Obama presidency to regulate Iran’s nuclear program. The strong Israeli objections to the nuclear deal so scrupulously negotiated with Iran bothered many Jews, even including many Zionists. As suggested, Friedman although prominent and influential, did not have an official position in government or an international institution, and the defiant Netanyahu speech in the U.S. Congress on a question not primarily directly related to Israel was widely perceived as offensive, and viewed as a test of the outer limits of bipartisanship with respect to Israel. The whole episode seemed primarily intended by Netanyahu’s Republican hosts as a slap at the Obama presidency, and his nuclear diplomacy.
On the occasion of the Ilhan Omar controversy, Friedman was characteristically careful to couple his criticisms of the Israeli approach to security issues under Netanyahu with affirmations of a continuing belief in the sanctity of the Jewish state and an avowal of a two-state solution as still the only solution that could be feasible and might at some point be negotiable. [See his “Ilhan Omar, AIPAC, and me,” with the super-revealing and self-serving sub-head, “The congresswoman and I have a lot in common — but not her stance on Israel,” NY Times, March 6, 2019,] This continues to be the liberal Zionist line, but it is rather self-contradictory. Any close observer should realize that the broad spectrum of Israeli public opinion now is definitely opposed to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state under any conditions. The Likud has by way of legitimating and accelerating the settlement movement has acted to foreclose a two-state solution as a feasible political option. Friedman is neither a fool nor uninformed. He too must be aware of this. It prompts raising a question parallel to that suggested by the title of a Murakami work of fiction, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. My question: What is Friedman really talking about when he talks about the two-state solution?
Friedman’s earlier remarks were framed around the particular event of Netanyahu’s speech, and were not formulated to be heard as a general indictment of AIPAC or to call attention of his readers to the disproportionate influence exerted by pro-Israeli viewpoints on foreign policy. Some years ago when John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt published The Israel Lobby their book was sharply attacked as anti-Semitic because it mounted a general argument about the distortion of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The central contention of the book was that American foreign policy quite often was bent to accommodate Israel’s national interests at the expense of American regional interests in the Middle East. The authors were, of course, not members of Congress and the anti-Semitic slur of their accusers never became a matter of public debate. Mearsheimer and Walt possessed impeccable academic credentials backed up by senior appointments at leading universities. In their case, the Zionist pushback was not very severe or sustained, although it was serious enough to tarnish their mainstream media acceptability to some extent. Objectively, it was absurd to attack these academic experts, both known to me personally, who are above all prominent in the field of international relations as ‘political realists.’ As such, it should be evident that they were not motivated by any particular empathy for the Palestinians or hostility to Jews, but were acting on their consistently expressed belief that a rational foreign policy must be based on interests of the nation and not be shaped by pressures mounted by special interests of an ethnic minority, private sector actors, or a foreign government.
What is paramount to observe when comparing Friedman to Omar is the reality of double standards. Ilhan Omar became especially vulnerable because she is Muslim, African, and an immigrant, as well as being a newly elected member of Congress. If as a private citizen she had made these comments back in Minnesota with tweets or at a community meeting in her neighborhood, it might have produced some angry reactions from local Zionist activists, but no wider ripples. If she held a still higher public office in Washington than at present the attack on her would likely have been even more intense, as Jimmy Carter discovered when he titled his unwaveringly moderate book on Israel/Palestine ‘Peace or Apartheid’ The book was essentially a plea for peace and a prudent warning about the consequences of kicking the can further and further down the road.
3) Daniel Falcone: In this entire conversation, not many people are mentioning how anti-Semitic Zionism is, and it’s something sadly under discussed in educated US opinion. Can you unpack this for me?
Richard Falk: This is an entirely appropriate question that goes to the heart of what might be described as ‘the use and misuse of anti-Semitism’ in political discourse. The issues raised are complicated because there are variations based on place, time, and historical circumstances.
Of course, the shocking suggestion that Zionism can be responsibly accused of anti-Semitism is treated as an affront by almost every Zionists and most Jews. Jews have been brainwashed to an extent that they believe strongly that Zionism is unconditionally dedicated to providing sanctuary for Jews in a Jewish sovereign state, and to the practical necessity of achieving this goal combined with its biblical justifications and its anticipated success in restoring Jewish self-esteem individually and collectively. Yet there were some anti-Semitic sentiments (tropes if non-Zionists had so declared) in the writings of Herzl and Weizmann, the intellectual fathers of the Zionist movement, decrying the image and behavior of Jews in the diaspora, almost vindicating their non-acceptance by the hegemonic political cultures and social structures of Europe.
It is also true that Zionism has from its origins has been understandably preoccupied with the establishment and security of a Jewish state, and since 1948 fiercely defensive of Israel. Yet Zionism has always exhibited a pragmatic and opportunistic side that made it at all stages seem beneficial for the Zionist movement to work jointly, even collaboratively, with the most extreme anti-Semitic forces unleashed in Europe after World War I or in the regional neighborhood and global setting that Israel inhabits.
In this regard, the Zionist vision of a Jewish state in ‘the promised land’ of Palestine should be appreciated as an extreme utopian conception at its outset. We should remember that at the time the Zionist movement was formally launched in 1897 the Jewish population of Palestine was 8%, and when the Balfour Declaration pledging support for a Jewish homeland was issued in 1917, the Jewish population had only risen to 8.1%. How in the world could Zionists in an era of rising nationalism around the world hope to establish a Jewish state in what was clearly a non-Jewish society? This was the animating puzzle that has haunted the Zionism in the course of becoming a political project rather than a utopian fantasy. One might contend that Israel would never have come into existence without this streak of Zionist opportunism, putting the need to increase the Jewish population of Palestine above all other considerations.
Without entering into the details of a complicated history, the grounds on which a kind of Zionist anti-Semitism was erected, involved persuading, and in some instances coercing Jews to emigrate to Palestine. In other words, only by making life in the diaspora unbearable for Jews could the Zionist project advance towards its goals in Palestine. In this sense, the rise of hatred of Jews throughout Europe, and especially Germany, in the period after World War I was a crucial contribution to making the Palestine option realistic. Beyond this, the anti-Semitic leadership in Poland, Hungary, Rumania, as well as Nazi Germany, had a common interest with Zionism in inducing Jewish emigration as they had a demographic motivation complementary to that of the Zionists, namely, reducing the number of Jews in their country to as low level as possible. This led the Polish Government to help train elite Zionist militias and supply weapons so that the Zionist penetration of Palestine would not meet with failure when it encountered Arab resistance. In other words, diaspora Jews were being manipulated, including after World War II, to choose Palestine rather than other destinations. Even those Jews who managed to survive the death camps of the Holocaust were manipulated after World War II to choose Palestine rather than other non-European destinations.
Since Israel was established it has struggled to gain acceptance as a legitimate state. It did gain entry into the UN, but it was subject to aggressive hostility from its Arab neighbors and from widespread pro-Palestinian sentiments in the global South. Faced with such threats Israel embarked upon an opportunistic foreign policy inconsistent with its professed values. It made whatever foreign friends it could even bonding to the extent possible with anti-Semitic governments and civil society movements. Netanyahu has developed cordial relations with the unabashedly anti-Semitic leader, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and Israel supplies weapons and police training to many extreme rightist governments. Israel also courted the support of Christian Zionism, which while fanatically pro-Israeli is anti-Semitic in the prime sense of wanting Jews to leave America and elsewhere. Only when all Jews return to Israel will their evangelical reading of the Book of Revelations be vindicated because only then would the Second Coming of Jesus occur. Jews would then be given a rather humiliating choice of converting to Christianity or face damnation.
4) Daniel Falcone: Noam Chomsky mentioned this past summer how Israel was losing its support as the “darling of liberal America” as it moved more and more to support right-wing regimes in the era of Trump. At the time, it made much sense but this seems to be incredibly short lived. Does his type of observation reflect the purpose of the recent backlash?
Richard Falk: I believe these two divergent developments are occurring simultaneously and are connected with one another. There are many confirmations of weakening public support for Israel due to many factors, and it would seem that the citizenry in America has been ready in recent years to accept as positive initiative presidential moves toward a more balanced approach. Such an approach to be credible would have to confront several difficult issues. The U.S. would have to react against flagrant violations of international humanitarian law arising from Israeli reliance on excessive force in responding to the Palestinian demonstrations at the Gaza fence that have occurred every Friday throughout the entire year. Beyond this, a balanced approach would have to voice support for the Palestinian right of self-determination based on the equality of the two peoples. Even more ambitiously, if the objective of American diplomacy was to promote a sustainable peace rather than a ceasefire, Israel would have to be pressed to dismantle the apartheid structures it has relied upon to subjugate the Palestinian people and crush resistance over decades to the imposition of a Jewish state on an essentially non-Jewish society. If these steps were to be taken the foundation for an authentic peace process would finally have been laid. On such firm ground a political compromise is imaginable relying on mechanisms for peaceful coexistence, human rights, and mutual respect. If this were to happen it could finally shape a benevolent future for both peoples.
Because Israe is losing this base of unconditional support in the liberal sectors of American society, the pushback by pro-Israeli militants has grown uglier, and more severe, verging on the desperate, mainly relying on defamation while foregoing appeals to reason, ethics, and law. From this perspective, to keep Congress on board with respect to Israel has become more important than ever as a means to insulate policymaking from a potentially threatening democratic turn that is more critical of Israel and its policies. As with gun control, taxation, and the legalization of marijuana, the preferences of the citizenry can be indefinitely blocked by money and lobbying. The Palestinian cause has been heretofore at a particular disadvantage in Congress due to its inability to mobilize countervailing forces to challenge and fracture the pro-Israel consensus. This has created a mindlessly one-sided phenomenon, defying evidence and law that can only be understood as ‘the deformation of democracy.’ For a person in Congress to express their true beliefs or to honor their conscience by opposing Israel has in the past amounted to political suicide, while covering up Israeli wrongdoing has no down side whatsoever for elected officials. This has never been healthy.
The most intriguing question posed by the Ilhan Omar incident is whether the pro-Israeli tide is finally turning in Washington. On the one side, are the vigorous AIPAC style enforcers punishing any member of Congress that seems to be challenging the bipartisan consensus. On the other side, is a recognition that there is growing sympathy for the Palestinian people, and that it is time to reset American policy on Israel/Palestine, and indeed toward the whole of the Middle East. In retrospect, it seems that pro-Israeli neocons helped push the United States to launch the disastrous Iraq War in 2003, and is now, with the full backing of the Trump White House edging toward an even more disastrous war initiated against Iran.
The reformulation of a House resolution intended to condemn as anti-Semitism the sort of allegations of collective Jewish influence has been called ‘a political earthquake’ because it disclosed previously non-existent tensions within the ranks of the Democratic Party on how to respond to Omar’s controversial statements, which signals a definite weakening of the earlier consensus. As with the Angela Davis turnaround in Birmingham, there may now be expanded space and protection for criticism of Israel and less fear of the Zionist enforcers. Significantly, also, several Democratic presidential aspirants, including Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris have spoken in defense of Ilhan Omar. The dust has yet to settle altogether, but even this degree of ferment may portend better times ahead.
5) Daniel Falcone: Lawrence Davidson recently pointed out how pro-Palestinian politicians will have to carefully craft their language to prevent the intentional distortion of their words. Since he wrote this however, it seems that no matter how careful their words are, Omar’s or others, rebukes will be commonplace as a result of political differences. It’s not really what she said, it’s the implications of how it can be utilized in redirecting American foreign policy beyond Netanyahu to extend to bipartisan policies overall. I’m reminded of Davidson’s additional takes on J-Street as contributing to ideological gatekeeping. What are your thoughts?
Richard Falk: I almost always find Lawrence Davidson’s commentaries on important public issues to be incisive, developing morally coherent and politically progressive interpretations of complex and often controversial issues. Here, I feel that Davidson’s formulation is misleading. Those in the Zionist camp that seek to discredit a message critical of Israel are rather indifferent to whether the formulations are carefully crafted or not. Their primary objective is to discredit the messenger, which has the added benefit of shifting the conversation away from what was said to who said it. This shifting of the conversation is as important as the defamatory undertaking, and thus even if the person escapes with their reputation more or less undamaged, the discussion will be about whether the allegations were well founded or not, and the substantive concerns that prompted the statements being are buried beneath the irresolvable to and fro of ad hominem polemics. Such has been the choreography of the Omar experience.
Of course, if there are phrases that can be lifted from the offending statement or document that makes the work of defamation and distraction easier to accomplish, so much the better. But even if the message, tweet, or document was the work of heavenly scribes it would not deter defamation if the criticism of Israel has potential political traction. As before, the case of Goldstone and my own experience at the UN is instructive. The report of the Goldstone Commission was never subjected to substantive criticism by those who mounted their scathing attacks on Goldstone’s character. In my case, my twelve reports as Special Rapporteur received almost no substantive criticism from Israel or its puppet NGO, UN Watch, which trained all of its guns on my supposedly anti-Semitic character, or on my supposedly nutty views on issues not really relevant to Israel/Palestine such as the Iranian Revolution or my rather banal comments on the Boston Marathon massacre.
The crucial point here is what I have previously argued. These defenders of Israel are not trying to win an argument about disputed facts and rival interpretations of law. They are trying to make the author of what is objectionable to the Zionist outlook so disreputable that whether the analyses are true or false becomes irrelevant. I used to tell the official delegates at the UN in Geneva and New York that a person only had to be 10% objective to reach the same factual and legal conclusions that were set forth in my reports. In other words, if this is more or less correct about Israeli encroachments on human rights in the course of maintaining control of Occupied Palestine, then it would be a fool’s errand for diehard Israel defenders to engage in substantive debate.
The situation in Congress is quite special because unanimity on Israeli support has heretofore prevailed, and is itself seen as valuable for Israel, making any significant departure a risky course for a politician to take as the record of past encounters shows. The attack on Ilhan Omar may have gone too far, given who she is and what she actually said. Just as her status and identity make her especially vulnerable, it also makes those who support a pluralist, democratic country adopt her cause and fight back on her behalf. I am reminded of the Birmingham NGO that rescinded the human rights award to Angela Davis a few months ago because of her pro-Palestinian activism causing such a strong pushback on her behalf that Institute for Civil Rights in Birmingham had to reverse itself, and restore the award and speaking invitation. We have not yet reached the outcome of the Omar firestorm but it could be that the attackers will back off, especially given the dark clouds forming over Israel in the shape of Netanyahu’s embrace of electoral support from the most extreme right and the rather weak presidential and congressional responses to White Supremacist language from within the ranks or from the White House.
6) Daniel Falcone: Jeremy Corbyn is another decent person that faced heavy criticism and allegations for his word choices regarding the Holy State. It’s been pointed out by some progressives that the more progressive left tolerates or openly supports Corbyn and Omar’s “anti-Semitism” only because they want to emphasize their opposition to the illegal settlement expansion and to fend off the hard right. They argue, that’s no excuse to let the “trope” making off the hook. Meanwhile, since this sentiment has been expressed, the same people have not condemned the racist and demeaning Islamophobic depiction of Omar by the West Virginia GOP. Largely because, and cynically so, it was suspected that her own identity insulated her from her initial comments in the first place. My conclusion here is that calling out Omar initially was a form of doublespeak. Could you comment?
Richard Falk: The guns of liberal Zionism are booming. Bret Stephens, proud of his call for the resignation of Netanyahu due to corruption charges, was expressing his satisfaction that American Zionists no longer can be said to walk in lockstep submission to Israel and its strong prime minister. This seemed to be a kind of hunting license making it fair game to condemn Omar for what he calls ‘Corbynism.’ [Bret Stephens, “Ilhan Omar Knows Exactly What She Is Doing,” NY Times, March 7, 2019] What this slur intends to convey is that a person can be personally free of anti-Semitic hatred of Jews, and yet because of their distaste for Zionism or Israel, still qualify as ‘anti-Semites’ because they invoke those nasty ‘tropes’ used to mobilize hatred of Jews through the ages. Her tweets about dual allegiance and Jewish money used to silence critics of Israel are regarded as sufficient evidence.
I do consider this kind of demeaning attack on Jeremy Corban and Ilhan Omar to be irresponsible to the point of generating the very feelings it purports to be condemning. For such morally sensitive and political progressive personalities to be so smeared because they point to features of reality associated with this unprecedented ‘special relationship’ or their willingness to befriend those that make such criticisms of the use of Jewish power to hide Israeli injustice. Such lines of attack are not only intended to narrow freedom of expression when it comes to Israel but also to rely on a dragnet sort of argument that rests on guilt by association. Once more I can illustrate the point from my own experience. A leading English tabloid carrying on their vendetta against Corbyn published a picture of Corbyn and myself at an event in London where we discussed the Palestinian ordeal, contending that Corbyn by appearing with an anti-Semite like myself was linking arms with anti-Semitism.
7) Daniel Falcone: There are journalists and liberal critics of Omar’s “tropes” that state that opposition to US/Israel policy on the one hand is fine, but reinforcing conspiracy theories are not. This is entirely understandable yet I don’t see J-Street type rhetoric translating into meaningful shifts in policy construction. Could you comment on the limitations of partisan criticism of Israel when it seems it should be bipartisan?
Richard Falk: I think that identifying and criticizing collective efforts to control debate on Israel/Palestine or to intimidate defections from bipartisan unity in the Congress and elsewhere that call attention to the biasing of legislative scrutiny and procedures, is inherently regressive. By characterizing the defection as an anti-Semitic trope, which is supposed to establish taboos that if violated, generate a justifiable contention of anti-Semitism, is resorting to a blunt manipulative device. The plausibility of this use of ‘tropes’ is the purported link to the historical experience of conspiracy theories used by right wing movements to mobilize fear and hatred of Jews, fabricating Jewish plots to use Jewish money to penetrate and dominate the centers of power, and even to take over control of the whole world (for example, the notorious Protocols of Zion).
It is viciously false reasoning to merge criticisms of actual collective action that is fact-based with fabricated conspiracies designed to generate fear and hatred, and give rise to persecution or worse.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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