Freshman U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar was attacked by virtually the entire political establishment for having the courage to criticize the Israeli lobbying group AIPAC. At the same time, the wide publicity given her tweet provided an opportunity for progressives to take a stand with her. There are other Ilhan Omars whose stories are not known, and who need support. They are often on college campuses, where Zionist, neo-conservatives and even college administrators have waged pitched battle against free speech for Palestine. Here is the story of two of them.
Reprinted from The Daily Free Press, student newspaper at Boston University.
In the fall of 2015, we, Marwa Sayed and Kimberly Barzola, were elected to and subsequently impeached from the executive board of the Boston University Student Government by the student senate for our support for Palestine. Ostensibly, we had been impeached for not attending enough meetings or taking enough notes; in reality, a campaign of harassment and intimidation targeted at us and our political beliefs had geared up right as we took office. In fact, when running our campaign for election in the previous spring, we were dogged by rumors that we were anti-Semitic and sabotaging certain student organizations despite there being no evidence to support those rumors.
After our election, in the fall of 2015, in the face of renewed aggression by the state of Israel towards the Palestinian people in Gaza, we respectively posted on our private social media a single photo and reshared a student op-ed piece that highlighted the resistance to the unprecedented economic and diplomatic assistance Israel receives on behalf of the U.S. and that used against Palestinian people. A day later, a page on social media specifically targeting Kimberly for unsubstantiated claims of discrimination was created. Soon after, we started hearing accusations that we were anti-semitic and too dangerous to meet with. Weeks later, we were impeached in a farcical trial that was protested by a large group of students and faculty.
Our story is not uncommon. Although the impact of our experience with showing solidarity with Palestinian self-determination seems personal, it became clear that this was not the case. Other student and faculty activists across the country also experienced smear campaigns that showed us that we were not alone in experiencing the swift and concerted response by pro-Israel organizations. These groups employ tactics enabled by unparalleled access to funding and resources to discredit supporters by frequently rebutting any criticism of Israel with claims of anti-semitism, discrimination, or even ties to “terrorist organizations.” The consequences and targets of these claims continue to grow from the harassment and blacklisting of students to the demonization of Representative Ilhan Omar ultimately striving to discredit the stark reality of Israel’s apartheid state.
It is important to understand that the vicious backlash Ilhan Omar is experiencing is within a larger context of her existence as a Black Muslim woman. In the past year, high profile Black scholars such as Dr. Angela Davis and Dr. Marc Lamont Hill have had human rights awards rescinded and have been fired due to their statements in support of Palestine and their criticisms of Israel as an apartheid state. In Ilhan Omar’s case, the reaction to her simple statement of fact is Islamophobic and racist and betrays a belief that women, and more specifically women living at the intersection of being Black and Muslim, are not allowed to express their own political beliefs and that if they do so, can expect to be disproportionately attacked on both sides of the political spectrum.
Not only do we want to express solidarity with Ilhan Omar, but we also want to uplift her claims about AIPAC. What she said was true. Like any other lobby, AIPAC collects money to donate to political groups and actors in order to see that its interests are prioritized through policy and legislation. In the case of AIPAC, these priorities may include things like the further criminalization of speech that calls for a boycott of Israel and an increase in U.S. military aid to Israel. Pointing out that AIPAC plays this role in our political world and that it exerts its influence in this way is not anti-semitic; it leaves no room for discourse and exempts them from being subject to criticism that all countries and lobbies should be expected to hear.
Of course, anti-semitism is real and dangerous; it presents an everyday threat to our Jewish siblings and is not to be dismissed. However, the greatest threat comes from the surge of white nationalism and right-wing ideology and policy that has intensified in this country, not from legitimate criticisms of Israel. Conflating the criticism of Israel with anti-semitism does a disservice to members of the Jewish community with diverse political beliefs as well as obscures actual anti-semitic incidents and actions that require a swift and a serious rebuke from us.
We urge fellow members of the BU community, including alumna Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and all other progressive voices in Boston to support the steps that Rep. Ilhan Omar has taken towards foregrounding the disproportionate role that lobbies like AIPAC have in determining US foreign policy at the expense of Palestinian people. Despite our impeachment from the executive board of the Student Government for our unapologetic support of Palestine, there was an immediate wave of support from our fellow BU students and community members at large that reflects a growing wave of awareness and support for Palestine. We know that just as BU students in the ‘60s and ‘80s supported and demonstrated for the Civil Rights movement and the end to apartheid in South Africa, here, too, the just and correct choice to support Palestinian liberation will prevail.