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      The Ilhan Omar controversy shows how little we care about Palestinian lives

      The conversation must center on the plight of the Palestinians.

      A controversy is brewing in Washington, DC, over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments about the influence of Israel lobby groups and the uncritical support that many members of Congress give Israel’s increasingly hardline, right-wing government. Backlash against Omar’s remarks even prompted House Democrats to make plans to introduce and vote on a resolution this week that would conflate statements like her with anti-Semitism. However, pressure from the Congressional Black and Progressive caucuses forced them to “put off” the issue.

      But amid the frenzy, there’s been a glaring lack of context surrounding Omar’s beliefs. Perhaps most of all, there has been total disregard for the plight of the Palestinian people.

      One might be inclined to ask, “Why is Rep. Omar steadfast in her criticism of Israeli policies and groups like AIPAC, knowing it will spark attacks, smears, and mischaracterizations?” One of the core issues of the Palestinian human rights struggle is that Palestinians have faced 70 years of refugeehood. Omar, who is a refugee herself and continues to identify as such, chooses to uplift the voices and affirm the struggle of refugees worldwide — including Palestinians. As a researcher of the Palestinian diaspora, and as a descendant of a Palestinian family that was ethnically cleansed from their land in 1967, it is a relief to me to finally hear voices in Washington speaking out for Palestinian rights like that of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Reps. Betty McCollum, Rashida Tlaib, and Omar.

      Omar has experienced firsthand how innocent humans pay the price for militarism, warfare, and systemic injustice, and is using her platform to protect the most vulnerable. She challenges the Democratic Party to adopt a more progressive and humane foreign policy, one that will not inflict upon others the type of suffering she has faced. Instead of dismissing her, or questioning her role on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, we should defer to her expertise as a survivor of war and refugeehood.

      Omar has shared her own story of fleeing civil war in her homeland of Somalia, living in a refugee camp, being unable to dream of a better future in those harsh conditions, and how her passion for public service was born while serving as her late grandfather’s interpreter in the US as a teen. She knows intimately how innocent civilians are forced to endure injustice from governments and other powerful actors, and is attempting to use her voice as a member of Congress to protect the most vulnerable.

      For her, this means speaking up for victims of the Saudi war on Yemen and citizens living under the brutal Saudi regime. It also means speaking up for the Palestinians. Just as it is becoming clearer to many Americans that a progressive agenda in the United States includes solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom and equality, Omar’s support for Palestinians is part of her core belief system. As such, she and other new members of Congress are creating the space for others to speak up on this issue without fear.

      Omar was elected in 2018, a remarkably deadly year for Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli military. According to a United Nations Human Rights Council Report, the Israeli military killed 138 protesters and injured more than 9,000 others between March and December of that year. They protested to demand an end to 70 years of refugeehood, while also demanding an end to Israel’s cruel and illegal siege of Gaza during weekly protests known as the Great March of Return.

      At the same time, the Trump administration cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is an essential source of humanitarian aid, such as social services, health care, and education, to Palestinian refugees. Surviving on international aid and living in dire conditions in impoverished camps, Omar experienced as a young girl what many Palestinian refugees go through today.

      Approximately 70 percent of the 2 million Palestinians in the tiny, besieged Gaza Strip are refugees, survivors or descendants of those who were expelled from their homes during Israel’s establishment in 1948, known as the Nakba (“catastrophe”) to Palestinians. On top of the harsh conditions for 70 years and counting, all of Gaza’s residents also live under Israeli blockade and siege, ongoing since 2007. Regarded as a measure of collective punishment, the Palestinians of Gaza are cut off from other Palestinians and the world.

      Travel restrictions make it difficult for residents to move freely. Residents have less than four hours of electricity a day, with rising suicide, poverty, and unemployment rates. The US government, which provides billions of dollars in military funding to Israel every year, is bolstering these violent actions.

      Omar has prompted what for some is an uncomfortable debate. She has exposed the double standards and hypocrisy of many old-guard Democratic Party leaders who speak out against racism and injustice in the United States but overlook the racism and injustice that Israel imposes upon the Palestinians. It signals how far out of touch they are with Democratic voters and Americans in general, particularly progressives, young people, and people of color, who are increasingly critical of Israel and supportive of Palestinians struggling for their freedom.

      In her recent statements that have drawn accusations of anti-Semitism, Omar was clear that her critique was focused on a lobbyist group, the actions of the Israeli military, and the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. States, militaries, and lobby groups are not and should not be beyond critique — Omar showed that by recently criticizing the role of Saudi financial influence in Washington.

      We should consider why it is so much easier for some to believe that a young black refugee Muslim woman who wears hijab is motivated by anti-Semitism in her criticism of a lobbyist group, rather than by a desire to end warfare and the pain of refugeehood?

      Omar understands the plight of refugees, who live in uncertainty and sometimes cannot even dream of a better life. This is why she speaks out so boldly against groups like AIPAC, who lobby for pro-Israel policies as the nation continues to act with impunity, causing more Palestinian suffering and stifling the hope and dream that the Palestinians will one day be able to live in freedom and dignity in their own land.

      If Democratic shifts and recent outcry in US public opinion on Netanyahu’s policies and Israeli military actions are any indicator, more like-minded progressives will join the ranks of Rep. Omar in the future. Democratic Party leaders would be wise to pay attention and stand on the right side of history by following their lead.

      Hanna Alshaikh is Palestinian-American researcher of the activist and intellectual histories of the Palestinian diaspora, with a particular focus on Palestinians in the United States. Find her on Twitter @yalawiya.

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          DougSabbag
          2 months ago

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          We, the U.S. of A. are no longer that good guy on the world stage who used it's might to fight injustice. We now seem to support exactly that which we have fought against in the past. Even some of those within the Democratic Party wanted to throw Rep. Omar under the bus in support of a regime with a horrible record of dealing with the Palestinians. When the so-called leader of our Nation sends a punk slum landlord with a shady past to act as a peace negotiator between Israel and Palestine you just know there is no intention of bringing any peace talks to a beneficial conclusion. It's all a ruse and Rep. Omar is one of the very few who is willing to bring this out in the open and get a discussion going on something so important that has been neglected for so long and for this she is being punished?


          The Republicans as usual are nitpicking something related to Rep. Omar in order to demonize and degrade her and will twist her comments into the usual lies they spew to whip up their totally ignorant base. If Time magazine had a set of bawls they would put Rep. Omar on the front cover as a "real" person of the year.

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              Richard Caslon
              2 months ago

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              All of what you said, I agree with. Which is especially hard to accept.

              I've always believed USA stands for Justice for ALL and that we are the 'good guys'.

              This shows us as the exact opposite.

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                      DougSabbag
                      3 months ago

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                      Debate Over Labeling Omar Obscures Vital Debate on Israel/Palestine

                      Though it was not their intention, Ilhan Omar’s critics did her a favor: They proved the very point she made at the Progressive Issues Town Hall at Busboys and Poets bookstore in Washington, DC, last week.

                      Referring to herself and fellow Democratic Rep. Rashid Tlaib, who was also on the panel, Omar said:

                      It’s almost as if, every single time we 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 something, and 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.


                      Of course, you wouldn’t know what she said or what point she was making, because the media and the politicians attacking her ignored those remarks and focused almost exclusively on a single sentence she added: “So I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

                      Jonathan Chait’s article in New York magazine (2/28/19), which launched the days of outrage that followed, reported only on this “allegiance” sentence with the headline “Ilhan Omar Accuses Israel Hawks of ‘Allegiance to a Foreign Country.’” Yet the article Chait linked to as his source, a rather neutral report on the event in the Jewish Insider (2/28/19), under the headline “Reps. Omar and Tlaib: Antisemitism Charges Shut Down Criticism of Israel,” contained the earlier sentences and a context for Omar’s remarks, which Chait chose to ignore.

                      It also included the moderator’s question to which Omar was responding, asking what

                      we as a community here can do to support you criticizing Israel for some of the war crimes that it has done so that it’s not seen as “you’re antisemitic”? Because you’re not criticizing the religion, you’re not criticizing Jewish people, you’re criticizing the government policies.

                      But Chait omitted that in his hit piece.

                      https://fair.org/home/debate-over-labeling-omar-ob...

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                          DougSabbag
                          2 months ago

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                          This is why it is so important to have an informed electorate who can see through the BS and manipulated reporting and find the truth for themselves. The Republicans see a real threat now after the 2018 elections and it comes in the form of three women, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Omar and Rep. Rashid Tlaib all of whom are questioning the status quo and are not beholding to anyone but their constituents and are free to truly speak out and actually represent the 98% of us our politicians seem to have forgotten about once they got our votes.

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