Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Back to Opinion

Ilhan Omar’s Pro-BDS Bill Is Important. But She’s The Wrong Person To Fight For It.

All week, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has been subject to a racist Twitter tirade from the President of the United States, which culminated last night in President Trump beaming as his supporters chanted “send her back.”

Remarkably, Omar has not let this interrupt her legislative activity. She told Al-Monitor on Monday that she planned to introduce a resolution to defend Americans’ right to boycott, which she said is “an opportunity for us to explain why it is we support a nonviolent movement, which is the BDS movement.”

In response, Omar faced criticism from Jewish conservatives, who saw it as yet another example of her alleged Anti-Semitism. Less harshly and on strategic grounds, The Forward’s opinion editor, Batya Ungar-Sargon, tweeted that Omar was “playing right into Trump’s hands,” presumably by underlining his reference to “the squad” as anti-Israel.

As promised, the resolution was soon introduced. Neither Israel nor the BDS movement is mentioned in it directly, but there is only one possible controversy to which the resolution could be responding: the steady increase of state and federal legislative proposals that would penalize supporters of the BDS movement.

Two things are immediately apparent: First, in perhaps a truly fitting manner, Omar has responded to Trump’s unseemly call for her to leave the country with a robust defense of a most august American creed, freedom of expression.

Second, she is the wrong spokesperson and leader for both the opposition to illiberal anti-BDS laws and for the Palestinian cause in the U.S. more generally.

Omar’s resolution, H.R. 496, frames the support for boycotts in American political history and heritage: the Boston Tea Party, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the grape boycott of the 1960s all receive early prominent mentions in the text. The resolution hails “Americans of conscience [who] have a proud history of participating in boycotts to advocate for human rights abroad.”

She is right to do so. Anti-BDS laws undermine the basic spirit of a free society by enabling government authorities to evaluate political beliefs and impose sanctions on citizens who run afoul of the rules. Apologists for these laws will often say they only affect commercial enterprises. This is not true for all the state laws, but even if it was, they would nevertheless provide government with a role in assessing business owners’ political views if they are suspected of engaging in a boycott of a foreign country.

H.R. 496 emphasizes America’s expansive free speech regime when it comes to political expression, including boycotts. It cites the 1982 Supreme Court case NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, which concluded in a unanimous decision written by John Paul Stevens (who died this week) declaring that a local NAACP boycott of white-owned businesses was constitutionally protected speech.

By opposing anti-BDS laws, which have attracted the strong opposition of the ACLU, Omar is defending a quintessentially American freedom.

But however noble this particular resolution is, it should not conceal that Omar has been an ineffective if not dreadful advocate for Palestinians, and thus is probably not helping the opposition to these laws. I don’t say this in terms of her political vision — she and I, both non-Palestinians, abhor the Occupation and support dividing the land into two states — but in how she has entangled Palestinians and their supporters in an irrelevant drama about Ilhan Omar.

Omar’s history of irresponsible comments around the issue inevitably turns every one of her initiatives on it into a debate about anti-Semitism on the left. Some of her supporters will counter that she has brought unprecedented domestic attention to the issue. But so has Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. — and today the Labour Party has little room to criticize Israel without raising legitimate questions about their intentions.

Not all attention is good attention.

Fortunately, there is an easy fix to this problem. Omar’s resolution has two co-sponsors: Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian woman elected to Congress, and Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon who has maintained longstanding relationships with the American Jewish community, and is thus much less vulnerable to dishonest attacks from the right painting opponents of anti-BDS laws as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.

Omar should step aside and allow them to take the lead.

Abe Silberstein is a freelance commentator on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations. His work has previously been published in the New York Times, Haaretz, +972 Magazine and the Forward.

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.