The obsession with US Congresswoman Ihlan Omar’s criticism of Israeli influence over American politics really is unique. And what makes this debate genuinely immoral is that it focuses on Omar’s words but ignores the killing and oppression of Palestinian civilians by Israel.
The Minnesota Congresswoman has been pilloried over the past few weeks for criticising members of Congress who take money from pro-Israel Political Action Committees (PACs) in exchange for political support for Israeli policies. Omar has also highlighted the ugly tendency for many pro-Israel activists and politicians to have an apparently greater loyalty to Israel, a foreign country, than they do to the United States.
As a journalist for nearly half century, I know it is a reality that PACs donate millions to congressmen and women specifically to influence their votes. So why is Omar’s legitimate criticism of donations by supporters of a foreign country, Israel, denounced viciously by Republicans and Democrats alike as an “an anti-Semitic trope”? This is the quid-pro-quo: literally, “something for something”. Translated from Latin into US politics it comes up as, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”.
As I have written before, pro-Israel activists and the Congressmen and women they “buy” with their PAC donations have weaponised anti-Semitism, turning it into a political bludgeon rather than trying to suppress the racist hatred of Jews, although Arabs are Semites, too, by the way.
When Omar quite legitimately questioned the “loyalty” of some American politicians who put Israel’s interests above those of the United States, she was again denounced as “anti-Semitic”. Yet “loyalty” is a legitimate concern when we look at some of the American politicians who support Israel. Take the outgoing Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, for example. He served as a volunteer at an Israeli military base but has never felt the need to do a similar stint in America. As a Palestinian American, I served in the US military during the Vietnam War, not in the military of a foreign country, so to me this issue is more than relevant.
Critics of Israel are not permitted to bring these things up without being demonised. Rather than playing a role in educating Americans, the mainstream US news media is an accomplice in weaponising anti-Semitism. They provide a platform from which it is made to look as if Omar’s criticisms are anti-Semitic, when they are not.
At this very moment, Congress is considering a resolution to denounce anti-Semitism as a direct response to Omar’s legitimate criticism of pro-Israel lobbying and Americans who put Israel’s interests above US interests, and above both the rule of law and morality.
Why is this important to Israel? Let’s face it, there are only a handful of members of Congress who challenge Israel’s political influence obtained through its PAC donations. Israel and its lobbyists could ignore them, but they don’t, because they need to prevent American citizens from understanding the legitimacy of the criticism. Using the allegation of “anti-Semitism” helps to blind Americans to the truth because they too fear being demonised in this way. After all, who wants to be labelled as a racist?
Moreover, this skewed, twisted national debate distracts the US public from what Israel is really doing to the oppressed Palestinian civilians living under its illegal occupation. While the political assault on Omar is taking place, Israel continues to brutalise Muslim and Christian Palestinians with the impunity bought by those PAC donations. Israel doesn’t want mainstream American Christians to empathise with their co-religionists suffering under Israeli oppression in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Beit Sahur, Beit Jala and East Jerusalem. The pro-Israel lobby’s attack against Omar which dominates the mainstream news coverage in America shuts out coverage of people like Iyad Burnat, who is in America to raise public awareness of the suffering of the people in his home village of Bil’in in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Burnat, 45, has a powerful story to tell about Bil’in that Israel wants to suppress, and the mainstream news media and US Congressmen and women who receive pro-Israel PAC money want to ignore or marginalise.
Bil’in is a “Palestinian David and Israeli Goliath” story. In 2005, Israel’s 8-metre-high Apartheid Wall began to make its way through Bil’in, separating the 1,800 residents, almost all farmers, from more than 60 per cent of their farmland. They live off the land and taking it away destroys their livelihood.
Under the leadership of Burnat and others, Bil’in successfully forced Israel to tear down the Wall and redirect it through other areas. That small victory, though, has led to Israeli soldiers taking personal satisfaction from punishing the residents of the village, explains Burnat. As the villagers’ protests continue against the theft of their land by nearby illegal Jewish settlements, the Israeli oppression has worsened.
Burnat opposes violence by any side, but because of his activism he has been singled out and shot numerous times. So have two of his five children.
“Bil’in is under occupation and from time to time it gets worse,” he told me during an interview this week. “They confiscate lands, destroy lives. They are destroying our olive trees and our livelihood so push the people out of their homes.”
According to Burnat, anti-occupation activists in Bil’in recognise that they must be creative to rise above Israel’s distracting propaganda and media bias to bring attention to their struggle. In 2009, the villagers mimicked the Hollywood movie Avatar when tying themselves to olive trees in protest at their destruction by Israeli security forces. In 2012, Burnat’s brother Emad, a keen photographer, produced a documentary about Israeli soldiers who repeatedly destroyed his camera equipment to silence him. His film 5 Broken Cameras was nominated for an Oscar in 2013.
Bil’in residents pay a high price for their protests. Burnat told me that Israeli soldiers once grabbed him after a peaceful protest against the wall. They drove him to a remote location and repeatedly beat him, breaking his ribs. “They targeted me and then attacked me,” he recalled. “They started beating me without asking any questions. They tied my hands. They sprayed my eyes with Pepper Spray and covered them with a wet cloth to make it even more painful. They tried to make my injuries look like an accident. They tried to kill me.” The Israelis threw him to the side of the road where he was found by another Palestinian and taken to hospital.
Iyad Burnat believes that the Israelis also target Bil’in’s children in order to put pressure on the village protestors. In July 2014, he and his then 14-year-old son Majd had just left a protest in a neighbouring village and returned to their home when Israeli soldiers pulled up. The commander of the unit aimed his gun and shot Majd. “They were saying that they can get us at any time without any consequences,” Burnat pointed out. “He could have shot me but he shot my son instead with live ammunition because he wanted to send a message that he can get us anytime and anywhere.”
Despite all of this, he insists that the answer to the constant violence from the Israeli soldiers and armed settlers is not violence but education. “We need to educate our children so that they can become strong voices for our freedom. That’s what the Israelis fear.”
Burnat set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to help his son attend college, and is touring the US this week to find sponsors to set up a larger fund for all of the children in Bil’in.
The question I have is that if the critics of Ihlan Omar claim that she is anti-Semitic for raising legitimate questions about issues such as the activities and political donations of the pro-Israel lobby, what do they say about Israeli soldiers whom such critics support and who intentionally shoot civilians with live ammunition, including children? That, of course, is why the Congress is criticising Omar; its members want to keep the American public in the dark about the very real atrocities being committed in Palestine by the state behind those influential PAC contributions: the State of Israel.
You can watch a video podcast with Iyad Burnat by clicking here.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.