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The Backlash Against Omar Shows Justice Is Coming For Palestinians Like Me

Watching Ilhan Omar confront attacks for her criticism of Israel has been disheartening, and revealing of the fraught discourse surrounding Israel in the United States. As a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, having Omar, a United States Congressperson, speak up on our behalf has been a breath of fresh air. And watching her be torn down for doing so has been an object lesson in Israel’s ability to export the repression of dissent.

In truth, I’m not surprised at the enormous backlash against Omar. For as a recent opinion piece in the New York Times put it, we are in the midst of a “progressive assault on Israel.”

The piece was written by former editor in chief for The Jerusalem Post Bret Stephens. But for once, Stephens right. There is an attack against Israel underway in progressive spaces.

It’s about time, especially since history has taught us that any oppression will ipso facto procure a form of resistance to it.

And the backlash against Omar speaking up for justice in the face of the oppression of Palestinians, and the complicity of the United States in its perpetuation, is proof that the days when Israel could oppress us with impunity are coming to an end.

We no longer have to save our criticism for safe spaces. We no longer have to whisper our demands for justice and freedom for fear of recrimination.

Our cries for a peace built on justice are finally being heard.

But this end will not come without a fight, and Stevens’ oped is useful insofar as it highlights the contours along which that fight will take place.

For starters, in the eyes of Israel and its proponents, anti-Zionists will always be portrayed as anti-Semitic. As Stevens put it, “Anti-Zionism — that is, rejection not just of this or that Israeli policy, but also of the idea of a Jewish state itself — is becoming a respectable position among people who would never support the elimination of any other country in any other circumstance. And it is churning up a new wave of nakedly anti-Jewish bigotry in its wake.”

This is of course false. More and more Jews are becoming anti-Zionists. The life of oppressive regimes can last only so long and opposing the State of Israel, a sovereign nation, is not at all comparable to bigotry against an ethnicity.

But this smear tactic is regularly used to silence Palestinians and their advocates. It’s both dangerous and fortifies the false notion that being Jewish, or not being anti-Semitic, means being unequivocally in support of Israel. And of course, this vilification is partially the result of Israel exporting the tactics whereby it represses Palestinians confronting its brutal regime, even in non-violent ways such as the BDS movement.

Israel is often presented as the safe-haven of the Jews from a world that has indeed historically been hostile to them. This image is one that recognizes the grave injustices that have and in fact continue to plague the Jewish community around the globe. There is no denying that anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise in this age of neo-Nazism and violence, in the burning of synagogues and even murder in France and the U.S. It’s therefore understandable that Israel portrays itself as the refuge for global Jewry.

But since its inception, that refuge has been our repression. Even today, 70 years after the Nakba that saw Palestinians massacred and expelled, Israel continues to build more settlements and displace more Palestinians. It controls the movement of Palestinians and bans the marriage of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to those that carry Israeli citizenship. It erected an eight-meter high cement wall behind which it enforces an apartheid system where one population is advanced over the Indigenous other.

Even deeper than all this is how Israeli policy is built around quashing Palestinian identity, which you see in everything from the renaming of streets in Hebron to the appropriation of Arab cuisine to the tokenizing of Palestinian members of Knesset as an exhibition to Israel’s tolerance of it’s “Arab” population.

We often hear Israel described as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” And yet, how can you call a country that occupies millions of people without granting them basic civil rights a democracy?

Instead of focusing on all the ways Israel fails to be a democracy, Stevens and his ilk instead routinely compare Israel to their Arab neighbors, including the brutal dictatorship of Syria. “If the Jewish state is really so villainous, why doesn’t it behave more like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or Russia’s Vladimir Putin”? asks Stevens.

It is as though Israel being better than Syria makes it worthy of some kind of prize. Worse, there’s a trick at play here. Israel is supposedly better than Syria and other Middle Eastern tyrants because Israel doesn’t oppress its own people.

But of course, oppression takes more than one form. While tyrants in the Arab world are oppressing their own population, Israel is oppressing Palestinians. And Israel has oppressed its Mizrahi Jewish community because of their Arabism, quelling their protest and voices. While Stephens notes their place in Israeli society, he fails to acknowledge that Mizrahi Jews in Israel have been historically oppressed, kept in Israel’s lowest socio-economic classes, and are routinely discriminated against, with a systemic prejudice and racism that is inextricable from Israel itself.

And while Stevens notes that “Arafat practiced terrorism,” just this past year when Gaza undertook a non-violent protest movement against its ten-year siege, unarmed protestors were sniped down, including journalists, medics and children, all of whom posed no threat to the Israeli army.

If Israel and its defenders deem the call for boycott an assault, they should take a long hard look at the actual assault on Palestinian lives that have been part and parcel of Israel from its inception.

But at the end of the day, they are right to be worried. What the Omar brouhaha showed is that the left is no longer content to be progressive on everything but Israel. It’s about time.

Mariam Barghouti is a writer based in Ramallah.

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