They say that “dog bites man” is not news, but “man bites dog” is news. What about “Jews Defend Ilhan Omar?”
The marine layer has burnt off and the sun is hot at 2:30 pm on Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, but there is a cool ocean breeze refreshing everyone on this Saturday afternoon in July. Tourists from around the world are out strolling; all ages, from Japan, Italy, Brazil, and everywhere else. A Muslim family of seven with three women of different generations clad in colorful hijabs enjoy the shops and the breeze. Six excited Japanese teens giggling with each other, and a gaggle of American women tourists attired in bright casual bling are toting large logo shopping bags. Everyone is happily excited to be in the California that they’ve seen in movies, magazines, and on Bay Watch.
Intermixed are the Santa Monicans and locals from around L.A., all races, all backgrounds, also coming to shop at the corporate stores that have replaced the locally owned shops. Though the old shops are sorely missed, the place has a relaxed, clean and well managed feel, and it’s lovely to watch people enjoying themselves as couples, families, or just by themselves, all a part of the same walking human tableau bathed in the warm Pacific light.
There is a stage-savvy 10-year-old boy singing droning songs too loudly with an amplified guitar. He sings monotonously and completely off key at times, with a parent asleep in a chair, perhaps using the kid to make money. On the corner is an indigent man in a wheel chair, panhandling opposite a magnificent Chinese musician playing an unamplified lute with astounding grace, like a moment of grace from a distant world. Life does exist in Los Angeles.
The light turns green and the backed up throng crosses Arizona Avenue, going South on the Promenade. An American couple from New York is among them. The gentleman is originally from Egypt and his wife is from Bosnia. They cross and notice a knot of several people facing them, holding signs that stop them short: The signs say, “I Stand With Ilhan”. The couple approaches. The sign holders are all white men. One of their sign says, “Islamophobia Is A Curable Disease”.
The men holding the signs seem friendly and even somewhat jovial, talking amongst themselves and to one curious passerby. Now a close up of the couple. They see the smaller print on the signs identifying the sponsoring group as “Jewish Voice for Peace.” Jews defending Muslims in public? Interesting!
They have encountered something odd, unexpected. They are quite aware, like most people who pay attention to the news, that the President has been vilifying Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and the other Congresswomen of color, observing the hateful crowd around him chant, “Send them back!” as he smiles approvingly, pretending to be blithely ignorant of the fact that three of the four are American born. But the chant has teeth. He allows it to continue. It says, “you are not one of us, you are less than we are, and we will punish you!”
The President has targeted four Congresswomen of color, but has chosen Omar to receive the most abuse. She is the first woman in Congress born in Africa, and the first to wear a Hijab, the Muslim headscarf, as a Congresswoman. She is the most visibly “other”. Islamophobia is now in full bloom. He lies about her and about what she has said. He calls her a vicious Anti-Semite, in spite of the fact she is not known to have ever said anything even unkind about Jews. She has criticized Israel, but so have many others, some of them Jews, such as the thousands of members of Jewish Voice for Peace, a national organization, and so have many other public figures.. She has many Jewish supporters in her district. But the repugnant con man knows how to incite fearful and racially bigoted people, and that is what he is doing.
The racist presidential call to harm these women horrifies most Americans, even though Ilhan Omar has been getting death threats since she won office in Minnesota, and even though her mosque was bombed some time ago. With the president’s help, the threats have now multiplied. Ilhan, as the President knows well, is without the deep security detail that a President or Cabinet member would have.
At first Nancy Pelosi criticized Representative Omar, forcing her to apologize. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said Omar’s “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive.” Omar’s statements in question were completely distorted and taken out of context.. They were tweets issued from a conference at which nationally known scholar Phyllis Bennis, (a fellow at the Center for Policy Studies, and a member of the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace) was present, and here are her comments on what actually was said and its context;
“The most recent attacks on Representative Omar are based on her answer to a broad question about anti-Semitism during a recent town hall meeting at Busboys & Poets in Washington, DC. I was there, sitting just a few feet from Omar, asking a question during the Q&A. She never said that Jews have dual loyalty. She never expressed “prejudicial attitudes” or supported “discriminatory acts” against Jews or anyone else. And yet that is the language being proposed for a Democratic Party–sponsored resolution aimed at undermining Omar’s credibility, and likely that of Rashida Tlaib, the other Muslim woman just elected to Congress. Like Omar, Tlaib, who is Palestinian, stands forthrightly in support of Palestinian rights, against the power of the pro-Israel lobby and other lobbies that use money to influence Congress to support guns, environmental destruction, and Israeli violations of human rights—and she stands against racism and anti-Semitism.”
Omar apologized and made clear she was apologizing under duress. Even in her apology she held firm to her principles: “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 stop it.”
At the same time, many Americans rushed to Omar’s defense. “Lobbies influence politics, I don’t think that’s controversial to say,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. “It’s not anti-Semitic to accurately describe something that is completely obvious about the Israeli lobby,” tweeted Brandon Friedman, a former Obama official who heads a public-relations agency whose clients address national security and defense issues.
And by the way, why would Nancy Pelosi and the Dem leadership find Omar’s factually correct assessment to be an “anti-Semitic trope”, supposedly insinuating that Jews were throwing money around for political purposes? Well, let’s ask a pertinent question: how much did Nancy Pelosi take from AIPAC, i.e. the Israel Lobby, over the years? I wish I could tell you. I searched and could not find the specific numbers available. I couldn’t find the breakdown on who got what from AIPAC, which covers its tracks through encouraging individual members to contribute to specified candidates rather than direct donations. (Yes, Jews actually do engage in using money for political influence, like many other groups, anti-Semitic tropes notwithstanding.) What is readily observable is that Nancy Pelosi took in $478,391 in PAC contributions last year and was a featured speaker at the AIPAC conference earlier this year.
Omar’s real crime was to break the taboo against criticizing the powerful Israel Lobby, comparable to the NRA in influence, which is the American mouthpiece of the Israeli government.
As far back as two years ago Phillip Weiss in his on-line blog, Mondoweiss commented, “How many people have noticed that PEN America (led by a Clintonite) is holding its annual world literary festival this spring without money from Israel, following a campaign against the sponsorship by leading writers? Two Democratic former congressmen said at a teach-in about AIPAC last week that politicians are overwhelmingly partial to Israel because of campaign contributions, but the support for Palestinians is slowly rising– to 80. (I don’t know what that number represents.–ed) Bernie Sanders didn’t appear at AIPAC last year, or this year either, for good reason. He actually talks about the occupation, and young Democrats want him to.”…from an article by Phillip Weiss, Mondoweiss, 03/28/17.
Omar’s real crime was to break the taboo against criticizing the powerful Israel Lobby, comparable to the NRA in influence, which is the American mouthpiece of the Israeli government. AIPAC (American Israel Political Committee) is the most powerful group within the Lobby, which also includes virtually every traditional Jewish organization in the country, religious or secular. They all march in lockstep to keep Israel, not a poor country, the largest recipient of U.S. aid, which turns the U.S. taxpayer into the major subsidizer of the illegal occupation of Palestinian people and lands.
AIPAC is an enforcement outfit. To police its turf, i.e. massive aid to Israel and defending Israel against rhetorical attacks, it will spend mightily to drive congressmen and congresswomen out of Congress, (Packwood, Percy, McKinney, et al) with the full acquiescence of the Democratic party (and of course Republicans) in order to replace them with servile substitutes. Like so many already in place, folks will tow the line to defend any Israeli transgression, of which there are many, regardless of the evidence or severity. That is why “Thou shalt not accuse Israel” has been the unspoken taboo when Israel is acting against U.S. law in use of U.S. funded weapons, or committing violations of international law that it is a signatory to, or committing fully documented crimes against humanity. The list of such replacements is long, with Ilhan Omar and her assertive colleagues Rashida Tlaib, Ayana Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez undoubtedly in their crosshairs. But this bipartisan love fest has shown signs of stress.
With Trump attacking Omar he has taken the Dem’s “Israel First” ball and ran with it. The Dems reversing course and trying to speak against his racist excesses and in defense of principle and decorum comes off as an unprincipled tactical reversal, which it transparently is. The Democratic party is caught; How do Dems defend Israel at any cost, year in year out, just like Trump, dis Omar and Tlaib, and then protest Trump’s scapegoating? The Dems’ permanent politburo, the corporate DNC leadership, has never had a problem yielding to the Israel lobby, going back to Truman, but what used to be imperial bipartisanship on their part is now becoming for them a counter productive “collusion” with the GOP, agreeing with Trump and emboldening him at their own expense. Being “Pro-Israel” is no longer working for them but against them.
If the Democratic party is stuck in their ritual obedience to a blindly pro-Israel policy, it is now also against a rising young insurgency in its own ranks. As Israel has become more and more overtly racist, there are growing pluralities of American Jews, an important part of the Dem base, who are increasingly critical of Israel as well. The Democrat’s status quo wing (Pelosi, Schumer, et al) cannot compete for obsequiousness with Trump on Israel, so much so that Israel itself has long since traded in American Jewish support, overwhelming Democrats, for the GOP with its Evangelicals, who unlike American Jews don’t complain about niceties of Palestinian rights.
All this and yet, with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders (who recently called the Netanyahu government a “racist government”) as of now, every single Democratic candidate ritually intones the AIPAC talking points word for word, straight from the Israeli foreign ministry handbook.
While two million civilian children, women, and men are kept prisoners just above starvation level in the world’s largest concentration camp, Gaza, for thirteen years, these so-called “Progressive” candidates, somehow with a straight face, uniformly parrot absurd Israeli talking points about the long discredited “Two State Solution” and refuse to call out the slow destruction of a people, seventy-five years after the Holocaust. In the words of Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, what they are white washing is an “incremental genocide.”
So Pelosi and the Dem Liberals are thereby hoisted on their own petard; With the Evangelicals giving Trump wind at his back in cheerleading Israeli occupation, the Dems cannot either compete or reverse course on their unprincipled support of Israel. This mirrors their timid electoral strategy of not losing votes versus getting more votes. The latter would look like bringing disenchanted voters in from the sidelines; youth voters, more Latino and Black voters. Those people will have no truck supporting an apartheid Israel. Many minority voters don’t yet know that their taxes are giving a million dollars a day to Israel, but many do. Regardless, it cannot feel right: Ferguson is like Jenin. Palestinian children are in cages too, and “you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.” The Black Lives Matter manifesto condemned Israeli genocide outright. And need we say, since no one else is putting two and two together: Ilhan Omar is….African. Will some African Americans just stay home on election day thinking of Nancy Pelosi’s education of Ilhan Omar?
Nonetheless, according to the political class, including wall to wall corporate talking heads, from Fox to CNN and including Comcast/MSNBC?, the Israel Lobby cannot be criticized for spending for political outcome, and please note, even named for “meddling” in domestic politics. No, wait a minute; it’s supposed to be Russia that is doing large scale political interference, not the lobby for a different foreign country, that brought their foreign prime minister to publicly berate a sitting American President at a joint session of Congress. No wonder some “low information voters” may be enticed by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
See you at the Santa Monica Promenade this Saturday, August 10, and next Saturday, August 17, 2pm at 3rd and Arizona.
The couple from NY (who feared repercussions for their family if I had included their names, so we will call them Zara and her husband Issa) engage the Jewish Ilhan defenders on the sunny Promenade. She is a tall graceful woman, whose looks, demeanor, and elegant style make her look like she walked out of a Cosmopolitan magazine. (When I first saw her I thought, “she reminds me of a Nordic Jackie Kennedy.”)
They are relieved to see people openly defending Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from the President’s assault. They know these are false charges to create a scapegoat, a distraction from the dysfunctional and corrupt Trump policies designed to incite ethnic divisions and racism, and to subjugate anyone else but agreeable white males. It isn’t hard for them to recognize this. They have seen firsthand what happens when a group, in her case Bosnian Muslims, are targeted and demeaned, and not defended by elected politicians. What begins with indignities can end in mass killings.
They know that Ilhan has “sinned’ by being truthful. It is the same sin that everyone in the 70 national chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, and other dissident Jewish groups have sinned; that Black Lives Matter has sinned, and that every Palestinian sins by the very fact of being alive. Like this immigrant and educated NY couple, these people recognize the courage of Ilhan and now see in front of them, Jews defending her in public, as many have done in her home district. This is an unexpected twist.
Zara says, “I survived the war in Bosnia. I was a Muslim but I never went to the mosque, I didn’t celebrate the “Eid” holiday… but I knew we could be killed by the Serbian death squads that would kill anyone of Muslim extraction, and by the thousands, which they did. Many of my family and friends were murdered by them while the world stood by and watched.”
She was still a child when her city was surrounded by Serbian forces who rained artillery down on the city from the hills. Her cousins were killed, injured and raped. She was the lucky one to survive.
“If anyone has a reason to hate I do. If anyone has a reason to want to kill, I do. But I don’t want to hate anyone or kill anyone.” The emotion was rising in her face; tears were welling up in her eyes. This is an immensely poised woman, obviously very highly educated and beautifully dressed, and she was holding back strong and deep pain, with horrible memories behind them.
In the hot afternoon sun, I saw her arms get goose bumps right in front of me and that told me as strongly as her words that we, all of us, all of us humans, are in this together. I can’t describe how moved I was.
For those of us who have held these signs on Saturdays at the Promenade since April, when these attacks on Ilhan began, many interactions have been moving too. We get more positive than negative reactions, but the negative can be very ugly. We try and restrain ourselves in our responses and just say nothing or “have a nice day”, but it’s been a learning process. We also get such heartfelt support and encouragement back, such as from this NY couple.
So many people know that at the center of the controversy swirling around Ilhan Omar is the charge, the smear, alleging that she is a Jew hater. They’ve never believed that but know many do, even within a Democrat party that reflexively kowtows to the Israel Lobby, dogmatically portraying Israel as a democracy, which it is not, and one that only defends itself, which is also untrue.
When we are told it is a complicated picture, we need to remember that one single and simple fact that Ilhan Omar tweeted and was verbally crucified for saying out loud. Jewish or not, it is “the Benjamins”, and that must be spoken loudly and clearly. Freedom of speech and the ability to speak the truth to ruthless power must be exercised and jealously guarded.
Is there any other antidote to a racist demagogue better than the truth?
Zara, from NY with a PhD from an Ivy league school, who I met in this chance encounter, has seen and lived through the pain of a mindless hatred of a demonized group, has lived through raw power killing the truth and then taking masses of innocent lives. We can honor the pain of everyone who we have not been present for in the past, like the Zaras of this world, by being present now. Our choice as a people and as progressives is clear: allow a President to rhetorically and maybe literally “kill the messenger” or to stand up to him and make it clear: “I Stand With Ilhan!”
See you on the Promenade, Second and Fourth Saturdays at 2 pm.