In the US, just as in Israel, Palestinian suffering is silenced, and any mainstream discussion of pain in Palestine immediately gets redirected towards sympathy with Israel. And as Israel is successfully conflated in mainstream discourse with “the Jewish people,” a supposedly homogeneous global community whose members all embrace Zionism, criticism of Israel, or of Zionism, becomes an act of bad faith, an act of antisemitism.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is the latest public figure to be smeared with such false accusations of antisemitism by Zionists who are alarmed at the growing support for Palestinians in Congress. Her tweet about the power of AIPAC does not state anything multiple other commentators had not acknowledged years before. In the stormy aftermath of her post, many have noted that Thomas Friedman himself quipped in 2011 that the standing ovation Benjamin Netanyahu received in US Congress had nothing to do with his charisma or eloquence, but was “paid for by the Israel lobby.” AIPAC itself, on its website, speaks of making donations to US politicians. Omar was not “exposing” some deeply-concealed secret, she was stating a very well known fact. But unlike Friedman, she was being critical of it, and she was doing so from within Congress. As Sandra Tamari of the Adalah Justice Project posted on Facebook: “Palestinian organizers have won the left. We’ve won campuses. We’ve won other communities of color. Ilhan is being attacked because we are destined to win Congress.”
The fierceness of the attacks on Omar is indicative of the panic of Zionists of all stripes (yes, there is a broad spectrum) over the fact that we now have courageous incoming politicians who denounce the Israel Lobby, and are determined to center, and end, Palestinian suffering. Ilhan Omar was not taken to task, “reprimanded” (what an offensive term) because of a poor choice of words. She is being hounded for the cause she embraces. No eloquence, no refined terminology, would make Palestine palatable to Zionists. They are coming after her, just as they came after every public intellectual, every activist, every organizer, who ascended to a public podium and advocated justice for Palestine. And her being a black, Muslim, immigrant woman puts her under increased scrutiny.
Sadly, the debate ensuing within progressive circles is once again proving to derail the critical issue: Palestinian suffering. In this context, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet commending Omar on her apology is extremely disappointing, as it suggests naivete on the part of Omar. “Unlike this President, Rep. [Omar] demonstrated a capacity to acknowledge pain & apologize, use the opportunity to learn abt history of antisemitism,+grow from it while clarifying her stance. I’m also inspired by Jewish leadership who brought her in, not push her out, to heal,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.
As Ocasio-Cortez commends Ilhan Omar on taking the time to “acknowledge pain,” what exactly is she suggesting? Is Ocasio-Cortez insinuating that Omar is unaware that Jews have historically experienced discrimination against them, and has not been sufficiently schooled in Jewish suffering? Why isn’t “pain” qualified, so as to suggest that more than one community suffers? Or was Ocasio-Cortez asking Omar to return to the exceptionalist herd, where the “capacity to acknowledge pain” seemingly only corresponds to a greater knowledge of the history of antisemitism?
Even with that knowledge, Ilhan Omar has chosen to also listen to the pain, the screams, of another people—pain and screams that the US, like Israel, have historically tried to muffle. The fury and panic following Omar’s tweet, then, are attempts at derailing her, redirecting towards antisemitism so as to yet again ignore Palestinian suffering.
Every year, on September 11, I re-read Emmanuel Ortiz’s powerful poem, “A Moment of Silence,” about catastrophic suffering around the world. Let us take a moment of silence, Ortiz asks his audience, in honor of those who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And could we also take a moment of silence, he adds, for “all those who have been harassed, imprisoned, disappeared, tortured, raped, or killed in retaliation for those strikes.” In his poem, Ortiz asks for a full month of silence in honor of the Palestinians. The fact is, we have had decades of censorship and efforts to derail those who seek to address our plight. Even now, as Omar’s comment about AIPAC fuels a vibrant and necessary debate about the powers behind the US support for Israel, we are losing sight of the issue at hand: Palestinian suffering.
We want silence no more. Now is the moment for us and for all our allies to speak out, as loud as we can. So yes, maybe Omar could have written a better tweet. But It doesn’t really matter. I know I could have written a better essay. That’s not what matters. If our screams are harsh, don’t blame us: the tortured, the gagged, the hounded, don’t have the luxury of fine tuning their screams.