Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib on Israel: A Plea for Consistency

Gary A. Rendsburg on Israel

I am a strong supporter of Israel and a great admirer of its manifold accomplishments in its 71 years of independence – often against great odds and in a hostile environment – but I am not a supporter of many or most of the policies advanced by its current government.

The Israel that I love and admire is the one that was launched by its founders, with socialist ideals, founders who firmly believed that they could create a Jewish state with respect for its minority populations and who could live in peace with its Arab neighbors. My attachment is personal: six of my aunts and uncles were of the generation that built the country. Five of them fled Nazi Germany and arrived in the land in 1938, one, yet alive, is a sabra.

Domestically, I am a left-of-center supporter of the Democratic party. We should have universal health care. We should have strict environmental controls throughout our society. We should move away from fossil fuels towards greater use of alternative energy sources. We should ban all guns and assault weapons throughout the land.

I celebrated, along with all other like-minded people, when the 116th Congress was seated on January 3, 2019, and diversity filled the hall as never before, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, with more women and more people of color. Among the contributors to the diversity were the two Muslim-American women referenced in the title, one the child of immigrants to these shores, the other an immigrant herself.

Almost 100 years ago, the first Jewish Congresswoman, Florence Kahn (R-Calif.), was elected and seated, serving during the years 1925-1937. The historian in me compared the election and seating of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the third and fourth Muslims ever to serve in the U.S. Congress, to this prior landmark event. I express these views here as background, or perhaps better, as foreground, to what follows.

Earlier this year, a major kerfuffle arose when Israel denied entry to Reps. Omar and Tlaib, who sought to visit the country, including the West Bank. Their goal was “to highlight Palestinian grievances over the Israeli occupation.” To my mind, Israel erred in not allowing the two Americans to visit as they please, but that is only one side of the story.

Here is the main issue: if Reps. Omar and Tlaib wish to work for peace and to relieve human suffering, both in the region and throughout the world, especially for Muslim populations, one must question why they focus their attention so narrowly on Israel and the West Bank.

In the lead-up to the planned trip to Israel and the West Bank, on June 3, 2019, Sudanese soldiers massacred dozens of innocent people demonstrating in favor of civilian rule on the streets of Khartoum.

In the wake of the planned trip to Israel and the West Bank, the world’s second-most populous country, India, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, with its nationalist tendencies, stepped up its various initiatives to suppress the Muslim minority in the country. The Indian army increased its presence in Kashmir, where the local population, the vast majority of whom are Muslim, lives essentially in lockdown mode. Concurrently, in a single stroke, about two million Muslims in Assam had their citizenship revoked by the government of India.

Next door, the Rohingya refugee crisis continues unabated, as approximately one million Muslims are caught in limbo between Myanmar and Bangladesh. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are the most persecuted people in the world. Myanmar has conducted a program of ethnic cleansing against them, with the result that large numbers have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. But their fate in their new (temporary?) home is not secure either. They are not granted refugee status, the government seeks to repatriate them to Myanmar, and just last month Bangladeshi authorities stated that the country plans to cut off mobile phone service for the Rohingya people.

In Syria, a despotic leader and his regime have killed hundreds of thousands of their own citizens (estimates between 400,000 and 550,000), about half of whom, it appears, were not involved in the civil war per se, but were simply innocent civilians. In addition, Amnesty International estimates that between 5,000 and 13,000 people have been executed in government prisons, while thousands more are reported to have died during torture by Syrian authorities. We all have seen the news coverage of huge numbers of people flooding across the border to Turkey to escape the horrors of the past eight years, and more recently the renewed conflict on the Turkish-Syrian border, with the Kurds now under attack.

In Yemen, the Houthis have been accused, by both UNICEF and Human Rights Watch, of employing child soldiers in the conflict. One estimate suggests that one-third of the Houthi army is comprised of such young people. On the other side, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Estimates have bombed civilian targets throughout Yemen, leading to the deaths of c. 18,000 innocent people. But that is the only beginning, for the real death threats come from the severe food shortage and the cholera epidemic. We hardly hear about Yemen any more, but the crisis continues unabated.

In China, approximately one million (yes, one million) Uyghurs have been detained in “re-education” camps and/or imprisoned. China’s goal is to assimilate this proud ethnic-Turkic Muslim people in western China to the Chinese system, including removing their devotion to Islam.

Earlier this summer, in Libya, 53 migrants and refugees were killed in an airstrike. Both sides share the blame: the rebels who conducted the strike, and the government for establishing the refugee camp within a military compound and within 100 yards of an arms depot, thereby ignoring the warning of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The human rights violations in Iran are well known. To cite just two recent cases, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian journalist, has been imprisoned in Iran since 2016, while Adelkhah Fariba, a French-Iranian anthropologist, was imprisoned earlier this year.

As far as I know, the two Congresswomen have not spoken up on any one of these or other similar issues, nor have they attempted to use their good offices to assist the peoples whose suffering is indescribable. By contrast, instead of leading a call to boycott the aforementioned countries, to divest from companies that do business in these countries, and to issue sanctions against these countries, Reps. Omar and Tlaib are on record to carry out precisely these three actions (the so-called BDS) against Israel.

Rep. Tlaib stated on the House floor, during the debate on H.Res. 246, the resolution to condemn BDS: “I stand before you as the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, parents who experienced being stripped of their human rights, the right to freedom of travel, equal treatment. So I can’t stand by and watch this attack on our freedom of speech and the right to boycott the racist policies of the government and the state of Israel.”

The irony is clear: Rep. Tlaib states that she cannot stand idly by in light of (perceived) human rights violations in Palestine, but she follows precisely that course of action when millions of others (mostly Muslims) are stripped of their human dignity and suffer to the extreme.

I repeat what I stated at the beginning: I do not approve of all the policies of the current Israeli government. Yet Arab citizens of Israel have the right to vote, and 12 Arabs (9 men, 3 women) currently serve in the Israeli Knesset (spread across the political spectrum), equaling 10% of the body. In the Palestinian territories, the entire population also has the right to vote; in fact, this is how Hamas came to govern Gaza, after winning a free election in 2006. The only other Arab country that has ever held a free election is Tunisia (most recently in 2014).

To single out Israel for its “racist policies” (Rep. Tlaib’s term), while totally ignoring the litany of truly horrific policies conducted by the aforementioned countries, is inconsistent, out-of-proportion, and indeed hypocritical. There have been no mass killings, no mass deportations, no wars that have brought famine and cholera, no mass re-education camps, no removal of citizenships, no cessation of mobile phone service, no detentions of academics and journalists – none of this.

It is true that within the Palestinian territories, travel is restricted, but this is for security concerns. If a Palestinian Arab in the territories wishes to travel to Jordan or to Saudi Arabia or to wherever, almost always such is allowed. This year, for example, about 4000 Muslims from the West Bank and about 1000 Muslims from Gaza made the annual ḥajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Democracy Index for 2018 ranked Israel no. 30 in the world, between France and Belgium (certainly good company), while Palestine (that is, the territories) ranked no. 109. Why, then, criticize Israel and not other countries with far worse human rights records?

Anett Haskia, a Muslim citizen of Israel, born and raised in Akko, has stated the following: “I was born in Israel, and it is my homeland. I thank God every day that I was born in the Jewish state because of everything that happens in the Arab states in general and Syria in particular. Not only do I support Israel, I am also willing to sacrifice my family for the existence of this state. You have to understand, Israel is my homeland. Just because I am an Arab Muslim does not mean I will support Arab countries against Israel or identify with a murderous organization like Hamas that wants to destroy my homeland.”

As this statement indicates, one can hold multiple identities, often in somewhat surprising and even inconsistent ways. But regardless of how we align ourselves, and into which pigeon hole we place ourselves, we all should strive to be cosmopolitan citizens of the world, using the best of America to its greatest potential.

Rep. Omar’s official government website promotes “human rights, justice and peace as the pillars of America’s engagement in the world,” with a call to “protect vulnerable populations” around the globe. One may assume that Rep. Tlaib would agree with her colleague on these positions.

My left-leaning bona fides are at my core, but when I see inconsistency or even hypocrisy emerging from politicians, whether they identify with the political left or the political right, I feel the need to speak out. Israel and the Palestinians one day will reach a peace agreement. It must be. Or if such is still not on the horizon, then lu yehi ‘may it be’, as one says in Hebrew. But unless people like Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib speak up for the downtrodden people of the world referenced above, I am afraid that no one will, and the suffering and discrimination against them will continue without an end in sight.

Gary A. Rendsburg holds the rank of Distinguished Professor and serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair of Jewish History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. His areas of expertise include the Bible, ancient Israel, the history of the Hebrew language, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Cairo Geniza, and medieval Hebrew manuscripts – though as this article attests, he also keeps his eye on the contemporary world.