Friedman: Facts Have to Matter, the words of Ilhan Omar

On July 17, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs convened for a markup of several bills, including a few that were directly related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. One member of the committee, Ilhan Omar (D-MN), whom you might have been hearing about for other reasons this week, spoke for a few minutes about achieving a resolution to that conflict. Her words were subsequently distorted and attacked.

Often those attacks have conflated her words with the presentation of a bill, also this week, which Omar is co-sponsoring with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) which defends the right of people to boycott, as enshrined in the First Amendment. The bill has been prompted by a bipartisan House effort to move legislation that, while not criminalizing boycotts of Israel (an effort which was thwarted on legal grounds last year), heavily stigmatizes it. This will both have a chilling effect on free expression and lay the groundwork for more steps against boycotts in the future.

Omar, Lewis, and Tlaib quite correctly understand that not only does this put an obstacle in the path of non-violent action to oppose Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights but can lead to the stifling of organized economic action on any political matter, domestic or international. They have, therefore, not brought a bill that addresses BDS, Israel, or Palestine, but rather protects the right to boycott, one of the few effective tools grassroots movements have for impacting political realities.

The distortions and attacks were far from confined to Republican congress members. The op-ed editor of the Jewish Weekly Forward, Batya Ungar-Sargon sarcastically tweeted that perhaps Omar was “working for Donald Trump’s campaign.” The Forward didn’t stop there, repeatedly misrepresenting the bill Omar brought in their headlines as a “pro-BDS bill” despite the fact that, although the bill was brought because of the House’s own attack on free speech and the BDS movement, the bill is clearly aimed at protecting the right to boycott broadly. By way of comparison, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz headlined their far more professional article about the bill, “Ilhan Omar Introduces Resolution to Defend Americans’ Right to Boycott.”

Due to the massive misinformation being leveled at Ilhan Omar from so many quarters, Middle East expert Lara Friedman tweeted a long thread that included the video of Omar’s brief speech (just about five minutes) as well as a transcript. Since not everyone is on Twitter, I thought it would be worthwhile to reprint Friedman’s thread here. It is edited only to combine the tweets into a format that is readable. Also, if you are on Twitter and you don’t follow Lara, you really should by clicking here. 

Video of Omar’s speech at HFAC markup

Watch the video or read the transcript. It is certainly possible to disagree with Rep. Omar on her points. But no reasonable person, whatever their political views, can possibly characterize her words as anti-Israel, much less antisemitic.

Friedman started by stating, “The pervasive mischaracterization of [Ilhan Omar’s] speech in the Foreign Affairs Committee this week is appalling. Watch & judge for yourself (I’ve made this super easy by clipping the video – you have NO EXCUSE not to make this small effort).

“And if you prefer to read and study the text…yes, I’ve made a transcript. It’s gonna be a long thread – sorry – facts have to matter. Irrespective of how you feel about BDS/boycotts.”

From there, she transcribes Omar’s words.

Omar: “Thank You Mr. Chairman. What are we doing to achieve peace? I believe that simple question should guide every vote we take in this committee. It was the question that guided Prime Minister Rabin in 1993. it was the question that guided President Carter, President Sadat, and Prime Minister Begin in 1978. It should continue to guide our approach to Israel-Palestine conflict. I believe the best way to guarantee self-determination for both the Israeli and Palestinian people is to go through a two-state solution based upon international recognized borders.

“This is why I proudly supported Mr. Lowenthal’s resolution to affirm what has been the official bipartisan US policy across 2 decades & has been supported by each of the most recent Israel & Palestinian leaders as well as the consensus of the Israel security establishment. That solution is a two-state solution. But if we really believe in a two-state solution we must acknowledge the obvious – which is that one group of people currently has statehood while the other lives under indefinite military occupation of their land.

“This is not my definition of it; this is the definition of the conservative Israeli leader Ariel Sharon who in 2003 said, and I quote, ‘to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation in my opinion is a very bad thing for us and for them. This is occupation’ he said. ‘You might not like this word, but it is really an occupation.’ I end quote.

“I believe that truly achieving peace means ending this occupation. And ending the occupation means being honest when Israel takes steps to undermine the cause of peace. So when Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, and I quote, he is ‘more committed to settlement than any in Israel’s history’ we should honestly say that it is an impediment to peace. There are consequences to these actions.

“When Netanyahu vows to make the occupation permanent by annexing Palestinian land in the West Bank at the same time we are providing him with billions of dollars in military aid, we should say: there are consequences to these actions. And in previous times, Bush and Reagan have said that.

“But, as in all diplomacy, truly pursuing peace isn’t just about punishing bad behavior. We must support efforts to end the occupation and achieve two-state solution. I believe firmly that the path to peace does not lie in a violent means. As Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.’ We should condemn in the strongest terms violence that perpetuates the occupation, whether it is perpetuated by Israel, Hamas, or individuals.

“But we if we are going to condemn violent means of resisting the occupation, we cannot also condemn non-violent means. We cannot simultaneously say we want peace then openly oppose peaceful means to hold our allies accountable. It is precisely when people say when people feel hopeful [sic], when people feel that non-violence does not work, that their voices won’t be heard, that they turn towards violence.

“This week I introduced a resolution with civil rights leader, our colleague John Lewis, and Rashida Tlaib, who know the importance of non-violence movements. It recognizes the proud history of boycott movements in this country dating back to the Boston Tea Party. We should honor these movements and that history, and we should honor our commitment to the principles that say we must hold our friends to the same standards as we hold our adversaries.

“I understand and appreciate the bipartisan nature and history of this committee. In fact, there are two bills today that I am co-sponsoring with Republicans, and I have co-sponsored the Sri Lankan resolution with Mr. Johnson and the resolution with Mr. Zeldin. I am also proud to sponsor Mr. Lowenthal’s resolution that we just voted on and excited that every single person was on board on our side. I will not be supporting the en bloc package today, Mr. Chairman. I thank you and I yield back.”