Ilhan Omar furor reflects intensifying U.S. debate over Israel
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., sits with fellow Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee during a bill markup, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
David Crary, The Associated Press
Published Saturday, March 9, 2019 8:34AM EST
NEW YORK -- For Congress, the allegations of anti-Semitism directed toward Rep. Ilhan Omar have no precedent. Yet on college campuses, in state legislatures and in many other venues nationwide, the polarized debate about Israel is a familiar conflict and likely to intensify in the months and years ahead.
Fueled by a wave of youthful activists, including many Jews aligning with Muslims, criticism of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians has grown in volume and scope, with persistent calls for boycotts and disinvestment. Pro-Israel organizations and politicians have countered with tough responses, and efforts to reconcile the differences have gained little traction.
Among those fearing escalation is Deborah Lipstadt, a history professor at Emory University and author of a new book, "Antisemitism: Here and Now," about the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe. She calls herself an optimist, but she says it's hard to be hopeful in the current political climate.
"Leaders on the left and the right are using this phenomenon as a way of drumming up support, claiming they're victims," she said. "I fear it will get far worse before it gets better."
Congress has never experienced this kind of furor involving a Muslim member accused of anti-Semitism.
Omar, a freshman congresswoman from Minnesota, sparked turmoil within the Democratic caucus with her criticisms of Israel and suggestions that Israel's supporters wanted lawmakers to pledge "allegiance" to a foreign country. Divided Democrats eventually drafted a resolution that condemned a wide range of bigotry and did not mention Omar by name.
One of the first two Muslim women in Congress, Omar supports a contentious part of the overall dispute -- the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, or BDS, which promotes various forms of boycotts against Israel.
Some celebrities -- including actress Natalie Portman and singer Lana Del Ray -- have withdrawn from appearances in Israel in recent months out of concern over Israeli policies. Several scholarly associations, including the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies, have supported an academic boycott, even as other associations and academic leaders have opposed that campaign.
One of the bitterest cases in academe involved Steven Salaita, whose offer of a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois was revoked in 2014 after he posted a series of tweets harshly critical of Israel. He sued the university and won a financial settlement, but he was unable to find a permanent academic positon elsewhere. He posted a blog piece in February mentioning his current job as a school bus driver near Washington.
In response to the BDS movement, 26 states have passed laws seeking to deter businesses and individuals from participating in it. For example, a Texas law requires contractors who work for or do business with the state to certify that they do not boycott Israel or Israeli-occupied territories.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits challenging the Texas law and similar laws in three other states, saying they violate the right to free speech. A separate lawsuit was filed in Texas by a speech language pathologist, Bahia Amawi, who said she lost her contract with the state because she would not sign the certification.
Among the companies entangled in the conflict is Airbnb, which announced in November that it would stop listing properties in the West Bank. Texas officials say the state will halt business with Airbnb because its move ran afoul the anti-BDS law. Airbnb says it opposes the BDS campaign and was simply implementing a policy to de-list residences in disputed territories around the world.
One of the groups supporting BDS is Jewish Voice for Peace, which was founded in 1996 and endorsed the boycott campaign in 2015. Rabbi Alissa Wise, the group's deputy director, says the boycott campaign has been effective, even in the face of state laws seeking to curtail it.
"These laws are meant to silence and repress," she said. "But they can't change people's hearts and minds."
The Anti-Defamation League, whose mission is to combat anti-Semitism, denounces Jewish Voice for Peace as "a radical anti-Israel activist group" that advocates a total boycott.
The ADL's CEO and national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, says not all people engaged in the BDS campaign are anti-Semitic, but he contends the movement itself "is anti-Semitic in its origins."
"It is not focused on resolving the conflict in the best interest of all parties," Greenblatt said.
For now, supporters of Israeli policy have some key advantages: Republicans in Congress are solidly in their camp, as are many Christian evangelicals, who make up a key part of President Donald Trump's political base. But there are some shifts -- notably a widening split of viewpoints among Democrats.
Peter Beinart, a journalist, TV commentator and university professor, is one of the prominent American Jews who has been outspoken in criticizing Israeli policy. He says his views are shared by an ever-growing portion of younger generations in the U.S., including Jews.
"You see mobilization of young millennial Jews in quite a confrontation with their own communal Jewish establishment, which can include their own parents," he said.
Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, shares Beinart's views about shifting attitudes, but he worries about the response from hardline supporters of Israel.
"For a lot of people who take pro-Palestinian positions, a lot of nasty things are going to happen to them," he said.
Atiya Aftab, who teaches in the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Rutgers University and chairs Rutgers' Center for Islamic Life, has worked for years to promote interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Jews.
She is encouraged by the breadth of support extended to Omar after the congresswoman was criticized, but she worries that bridge-building will become more difficult amid the polarizing ideological conflict.
"It's always lurking in the background," she said. "The political situation we find ourselves in just creeps in, and I don't know the solution."
Both Muslims and Jews have reason to be alarmed by data on hate crimes. The latest FBI report showed a sharp increase in anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2017. FBI data also shows that anti-Muslim attacks have doubled since 2013.
"With anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on the rise, we have a lot of work to do," said Aziza Hasan, executive director of a Los Angeles-based Muslim-Jewish partnership called NewGround. "Our destiny is intertwined and we should act like it."