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Ilhan Omar’s Pro-BDS Bill Is Gaining Momentum – Thanks To A Surprising Supporter

Last week, freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar announced the introduction of a new resolution protecting the right to boycott in the United States. A response to the 25 states which have passed laws curtailing the right to participate in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Israel, Omar introduced H.Res.496 along with Representative Rashida Tlaib, who, like Omar, supports BDS.

But the real story here is not Tlaib and Omar but the third person who joined the push for this resolution: Representative John Lewis.

On the one hand, it makes sense that Lewis would support the resolution. He is a civil rights hero. In Congress since 1987, Lewis is the longest-serving member of the Black Congressional Caucus. He was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders in 1960. He was one of the “Big Six” who organized the 1963 March on Washington and a coordinator of the 1964 “Mississippi Freedom Summer” to register black voters across the South.

There’s no question as to Lewis’s credentials as a long-standing member of Congress and champion of American civil rights. But that isn’t what makes Lewis’s name on H.Res.496 so important. It’s his reputation as a staunch supporter of Israel.

In 2002, Lewis wrote an article about Dr. Martin Luther King’s support for Jewish Americans and the state of Israel. King “consistently reiterated his stand on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, stating ‘Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable,’” Lewis wrote.

But he took it one step further. “During the recent U.N. Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa, we were all shocked by the attacks on Jews, Israel and Zionism,” he wrote.

In 2010, when Israel announced its intention to build more settlements in East Jerusalem, Lewis added his name to a letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “reaffirm our commitment to the unbreakable bond that exists between our country and the State of Israel.” Unlike Lewis, 94 House Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, and eight Republicans chose not to sign.

In 2015 less than a year since the Israeli assault on Gaza that killed over 2,000 people, Lewis said, “In this Congress, I take a backseat to no one in my commitment and support of Israel and the American Jewish community.”

Not only has Rep. Lewis been a vocal supporter of Israel, but he has been eerily silent about Israel’s attacks on Palestinians. In March 2018, when Senator Bernie Sanders and Reps. Betty McCollum, Barbara Lee, Keith Ellison, and others condemned Israel’s murder of unarmed Palestinian protestors in Gaza — murders that the UN said likely amounted to war crimes — Lewis said nothing.

In fact, Lewis is also a cosponsor of the bipartisan anti-BDS resolution H.Res.246 being promoted in the House.

And that’s the point. His support for the resolution protecting the right to boycott, positioning himself alongside only two members of Congress to ever publicly support BDS, shows that the right to use boycotts as a tactic has nothing to do with Israel but is rooted in the First Amendment and must be protected.

That Lewis, whose pro-Israel bonafides are deeply credible, would support this resolution — which crucially doesn’t mention Israel at all — is proof of what the bill is about, which is protecting the freedoms of Americans.

Lewis’s stance is a very courageous one. As soon as Omar introduced her resolution, criticism started pouring in. Representative Lee Zeldin wrote on twitter, “Shame on Rep @Ilhan Omar for bringing her hateful twist on that reality to House Foreign [Affairs Committee] today, propping up the BDS movement & blaming Israel for all of its challenges.”

Both Zeldin and Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow accused Omar of using the resolution to compare Israel to Nazi Germany because the resolution includes reference to the 1933 through 1941 boycott of German products in response to the “dehumanization of the Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust”; Zeldin went so far as to say that Omar should be removed from the Foreign Affairs Committee for it.

And conservative commentator Ben Shapiro slammed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for refusing to chastise Omar for the resolution.

As H.Res.496 collects more cosponsors — as of July 19, two days after it was introduced, it was up to six cosponsors — and organizational supporters — JStreet has endorsed it — it may gather momentum among other key Israel supporters. If, indeed, the resolution introduced by the freshmen congresswomen gains significant momentum, it will be thanks to the reputation of civil rights icon John Lewis.

Ariel Gold is the National Co-Director of CODEPINK Women for Peace.

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