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First Two Muslim Women in Congress Defend BDS Movement

Ilhan Omar, left, and Rashida Tlaib. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

In their first month in office, Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, have endured scrutiny, in part over their stance on Israel and Palestine. While many progressives are putting pressure on the U.S. to cut military ties to Israel, the growing awareness around Palestinian rights is threatening to politicians aligned with the lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee and pro-Israel donors.

The Senate is likely to pass legislation drafted by Florida’s Marco Rubio, a top recipient of pro-Israel money, that would allow states and local governments to cut business ties with companies that participate in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which aims to put economic pressure on Israel to recognize Palestinians’ human rights. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that boycotts are constitutionally protected speech, 26 states have passed similar legislation targeting the BDS movement.

Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York targeted Omar last week when he posted an anti-Semitic voicemail and asked whether she agreed with the caller’s ideas. Omar responded that she too receives hate mail, inviting him to share Somali tea and discuss a way to “fight religious discrimination of all kinds.”

“Zeldin’s Twitter rant was a classic racist dog whistle,” Jessica Schulberg wrote at HuffPost. “It was a wink and nod to all his pals who hate seeing a woman of color wearing a hijab in a position of power.”

Schulberg isn’t the only one who believes that attitudes toward Omar and Tlaib are rooted in bigotry.

“I see this as an Islamophobic attack against two outspoken women of color who are shaking things up by boldly standing for crucial issues,” said Yousef Munayyer, director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a coalition of groups focused on a change in U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine. “Palestine is increasingly becoming part of the progressive politics of justice for all,” he said.

Tlaib and Omar have been prominent defenders of the BDS movement. On Friday, Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported on Tlaib’s perspective in The New York Times:

“This respect for free speech does not equate to anti-Semitism,” Ms. Tlaib wrote, defending economic boycotts as peaceful and constitutionally protected. “I dream of my Palestinian grandmother living with equal rights and human dignity one day, and would never allow that dream to be tainted by any form of hate.”

Ms. Omar sought to turn the tables on Republicans. “Especially at a time when white supremacist violence is on the rise,” she wrote, “we all need to condemn hate against any religious group — something the current President has shamefully failed to do.”

Defenders of the women warn that their critics are entering dangerous territory by conflating anti-Zionism, hostility toward Israel as a Jewish state, with anti-Semitism, hostility toward Jews — a trend that Jeremy Ben Ami, the president of J Street, the liberal Jewish advocacy group, said he found “disturbing.” J Street did not endorse Ms. Omar and rescinded its endorsement of Ms. Tlaib after she declined to publicly support a two-state solution with Israel and a Palestinian state existing side by side.

Even so, Mr. Ben Ami said the two are “opening up a discussion that is absolutely needed on American policy,” and are helping to pull the Democratic Party more toward the view espoused by J Street and “younger liberal Jews” who believe that “you can be sympathetic to the state of Israel and also sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people.”

Naomi LaChance
Blogger / Editorial Assistant
Naomi LaChance has written for local newspapers such as the Berkshire Eagle and the Poughkeepsie Journal as well as national outlets including NPR, the Intercept, TYT Network and the Huffington Post. Her…
Naomi LaChance

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