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On Ilhan Omar and the white liberal feminists

For stating the obvious about AIPAC, the first black Muslim congresswoman faced a terrifying backlash
US Representative Ilhan Omar speaks to the media in Washington on 24 January (AFP)

Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came with fury at Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for exposing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s influence, lobbying efforts and money in US politics. 

They immediately jumped on their high horses, accusing her of anti-semitism, and poured fuel on the flames. Yet nowhere did Omar mention “Jewish money” or tweet an “anti-semitic trope”, she simply criticised Israel for its endless violations of Palestinian human rights and dispossession of Palestinian livelihoods. 

Omar was stating the obvious, but due to the terrifying backlash, which included racial slurs and threats against her, she was forced to apologise.

A few days later, the Wall Street Journal issued an article confirming that “AIPAC raises more than $100 million a year, which it spends on lobbying politicians and sending members of Congress on trips to Israel”. 

Fierce abuse

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that US-Israeli political links are scrutinised and questioned in political debates - but it is a precedent that the first black Muslim woman elected to the US House of Representatives has done it so courageously. 

Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor at the Forward, went so far as to associate Omar, a black woman, with the Ku Klux Klan. Ungar-Sargon, a proclaimed Zionist, is incapable of understanding that being Jewish does not exclude one from being racist, which epitomises the state of Israel. 

Chelsea Clinton's response built a dividing wall between 'Americans' and 'others', including Omar - a metaphor that resonates with what Israel is doing to Palestinians

Ungar-Sargon fiercely abused Omar, not to combat anti-semitism - which was not at stake in this case - but to contain the debate on Israel, and to maintain the acceptability of anti-Palestinian and anti-Islam rhetoric in mainstream media and Congress.

Clinton jumped on the bandwagon, demanding that officials shouldn’t “traffic in anti-semitism” in a tweet that was loaded with condescending bigotry as she “co-signed” Ungar-Sargon’s attack on Omar “as an American”. Her response built a dividing wall between “Americans” and “others”, including Omar - a metaphor that resonates with what Israel is doing to Palestinians. 

Hawkish statements

Nor have Clinton’s parents refrained from using Islamophobic language when addressing Muslim Americans, black Americans and people of colour around the globe.

In 2016, former President Bill Clinton addressed Muslim Americans in the frame of terrorism, noting: “If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.” 

Equally hawkish former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who has made numerous appearances at AIPAC conventions, said the US should provide Israel with “the most sophisticated defence technology so it can deter and stop any threats. That includes bolstering Israeli missile defences with new systems like the Arrow Three and David’s Sling.”

Hillary and Bill Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea, speak in Chicago on 16 October (AFP)
Hillary and Bill Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea, speak in Chicago on 16 October (AFP)

After that 2016 speech, Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said the convention dialogue was “a reminder of the current limits of the mainstream discourse on Israel, which [relies] on racist and Islamophobic tropes to justify unquestioning support for Israel".  

In all fairness, one should not hold Chelsea Clinton accountable for her parents’ crimes - but then again, her tweet “as an American” was tone-deaf and condescending, coming from a place of white privilege and nepotism.

Silencing women of colour

Finally, Pelosi - who was all too quick to censor Omar for suggesting that AIPAC spreads “Benjamins” - has herself received $514,000 throughout her career from the pro-Israel lobby, according to The Guardian newspaper. 

Pelosi has been part of a system that refuses to hear the struggles of women of colour and continuously silences them. Elected officials should be able to criticise support for an apartheid state, without being labelled anti-semitic. 

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Self-proclaimed white liberal feminists, such as Pelosi, claim a throne built on the courage and integrity of many other women, and mostly women of colour, who have been fighting with grit and grace for generations.

But the Democratic Party’s leadership failed to treat Omar with dignity and respect, instead throwing her under the bus.

Omar acknowledged the impact of her choice of words after these vicious attacks. Feeling superior again, after policing and censoring her, the three white women used a patronising and demeaning tone, apparently content to have taught the rebellious black woman a lesson. Luckily, Omar is standing tall and strong.

A new fierce voice in town

For these women, the bullying of Omar is cringeworthy and ugly, and it has been witnessed by women all around the globe. They should be humble enough to acknowledge that their disproportional accusation was meant to harm the political speech of this black woman, who also happens to sit on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Anti-semitic tropes are dangerous because they validate violence. Equally, falsely accusing black leaders of anti-semitism validates and perpetrates that same violence against them. 

They have failed to stand by their sister and learn from her, as their imperial feminism in defence of Israeli interests stood in the way. They chose to whitesplain racism to a women of colour.

Omar should never have had to apologise for telling the truth

Once again, Zionism is not a religion or an ethnicity: it is a racist colonial movement that claims European Jews should dispossess and settle in Palestine, eliminating all native lives and history. 

Omar should never have had to apologise for telling the truth. Her intelligence, passion, courage and integrity have caused white women in the establishment to panic, having lost their monopoly on the uncritical discourse of defending Israeli violations.

There is a new fierce voice in town, and for that courage, we applaud you, Ilhan Omar. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hanine Hassan
Hanine Hassan is a Teaching Fellow of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) department at Columbia University Twitter: @hanine09