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Where I Stand Congressman Omar gets a bad rap

March 7, 2019

For years as I was growing up, I was confronted by questions from friends and acquaintances because of my strong support for the establishment of a state of Israel and, later, my continued support for this Middle East democracy prompted some people to ask if Jews had “dual loyalty.” The question was a way of suggesting that Jews could not be truly American if they were committed to a state other than the United States. On its face, the suggestion was anti-Semitic without question

But that’s not what Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said in a recent town hall that prompted Nancy Pelosi and several high-ranking members of Congress who happened to be Jewish to condemn her statement as anti-Semitic. Regarding U.S. policy toward Israel, Omar said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance or pledge support to a foreign country. ... I should not be expected to have allegiance or pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.”

She didn’t say or even imply she was talking about Jews. She said she was being asked to support Israel in order to be able to serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee, which was true. Her argument was not about how Jews feel about Israel, but rather what was being demanded of her.

But the House will be voting on a resolution on the danger of accusing Jews of “dual loyalty.” The resolution doesn’t mention Omar by name, but is clearly meant as a condemnation of her. But as Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman points out in a recent column, “the whole purpose of the Democrats’ resolution is to enforce a dual loyalty not among Jews, but among members of Congress, to make sure that criticism of Israel is punished in the most visible way possible.” And that’s what Omar was complaining about.

As Waldman points out, many on the right, including that sainted champion of racial and religious harmony, Donald J Trump, have called for Omar to be removed from the Foreign Relations Committee and, in Trump’s case, removed from Congress. But let’s remember Trump speaking in 1991 to then Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino president John R O’Donnell in which Trump was complaining about an African-American finance employee. “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that were yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. No one else.” No anti-Semitic trope there?

Omar is one of only two members of the House who supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement — the other is Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. BDS is an effort to pressure Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands and guard Palestinian human rights.

But as Waldman says, the ultimate irony is that dual loyalty is precisely what AIPAC, the principal long-standing pro-Israel lobby, “demands and what it gets. It makes this demand not of Jews, but of every member of Congress, and even of politicians at the state level” where he says that a number of states have passed laws in opposition to the BDS movement, in which a state will refuse to do business with anyone who supports BDS.

So let’s be clear. Criticism of the occupying state that in the last nine months of 2018, according to the United Nations, killed Palestinians, many of them children, at the rate of about one a day while they were taking part in protests along Israel’s perimeter fence with Gaza about their right to return to ancestral homes is not to be borne. Those killed included medics and journalists. Most of the dead were unarmed and posed no danger to anyone with little more than rocks in their hands and slogans on their lips. But Israel continued with an immoral and unlawful policy that sees soldiers of its military shoot, gas, shell, and kill protesters.

This is not the Israel I grew up supporting. Israel has occupied Palestinian lands for more than half a century and operates a system of discrimination almost reaching the levels of South African apartheid. It deserves to be criticized; it needs to be criticized and Ilhan Omar is brave to do so.

Stephan Lesher is a retired journalist and a Southbury resident.