I googled the phrase “anti-Palestinian tropes.” Nearly all the articles I saw were about Omar’s alleged antisemitism.
I then used the advanced search feature and found a thread on “anti-Palestinian tropes” from Yousef Munayyer.
It is safe to say that concern over anti-Palestinian racism and concern about anti-Palestinian tropes is virtually nonexistent in mainstream American politics or the media. People in those venues seem unaware that such concepts could exist, let alone wonder whether they themselves might be influenced by them. Most people who write for or read papers such as the NYT are probably upper middle class or above and see themselves as liberal and sophisticated. They judge others by the standards they hold and it doesn’t occur to them that they might have their own moral blindspots and their own taboos, some justifiable and some not.
Ilhan Omar is not part of their bubble. She said things which upset them, so for them the issue is whether she did this out of deliberate malice or did she just stumble into it out of ignorance? The fact that she upset them twice in one month has caused an upheaval of sorts.
One finds liberals defending Omar by treating her as an unsophisticated immigrant who doesn’t know the minefields of this topic. This comes from people who see themselves as her nuanced frustrated critical defenders, like Michelle Goldberg.
Nancy Pelosi has also adopted this stance.
It might be useful to think of what to say to pundits and American liberals in general who live inside this bubble, complacently assuming that they have the understanding and moral authority to determine how the Israel-Palestine issue should be discussed. I exist in this bubble myself and might still be under its influence. Still, here are my suggestions for Americans on anti-Palestinian tropes to avoid when writing about antisemitic tropes to avoid. If you fall into such tropes, you run the risk of encouraging anti-Palestinian racism. A sincere liberal wouldn’t want to do this. They might fall into using anti-Palestinian tropes in the way they think people less sophisticated might blunder into saying something antisemitic, but they should want to avoid doing this. Of course some or many of Omar’s critics are anti-Palestinian bigots who do not wish to change, but this piece is written for liberals who would not want to spread racism if they were made aware of how they might be doing so.
You should read the list in Munayyer’s thread above. Then here is mine. In no particular order—
Trope 1. “Israel has a right to exist.”
Boom. You just stepped on a mine. It is possible to say this without intending anything anti-Palestinian. You might be arguing, as some have, that Israel has the legal right (like any other nation no matter how bad its human rights record) to exist inside well-defined borders without being invaded, though we could then move on to that topic of the human rights violations. One could argue about all this. It sounds funny talking about the sacred nature of borders coming from any American given how often we invade or bomb or support terrorist attacks on others and also given the ill defined location of Israel’s borders. But there is no need to argue about it, because few people mean it that way.
What the phrase actually means in most cases is that Palestinians have no right to exist in their own homeland so don’t bring it up or you are an antisemite. The sentence is meant to shut down any moral judgement about the Nakba, or preferably any mention of it at all. One can employ the concept without using the actual sentence. See, for instance, Roger Cohen’s recent attack on Jeremy Corbyn, where Cohen says he is a proud Zionist and gives a one line history of 1948, complete with parenthetical invading Arab armies.
(Arab armies went to war against [the U.N.’s] Palestinian-Jewish territorial compromise and lost)
One could say something about that invasion, which came weeks after the April 9 massacre at Deir Yassin and the generation of 300,000 Palestinian refugees and which in the case of Transjordan was an invasion of the land to be granted the Palestinian State– but never mind.
The big point here is that Roger Cohen leaves out the Nakba. Cohen wants to make a case for Zionism based on the threat of antisemitism. If he asked me what Jews in the 1930’s should have done facing the Nazi threat, I have no good answer. The threat was real and became genocidal. Even the countries opposed to Nazism were permeated with antisemitism to varying degrees. There was clearly an extremely urgent need for a refuge for Jews in that era.
But I know the Nakba was an enormous crime, two wrongs don’t make a right, and it is impossible to have a serious discussion about Zionism without even mentioning the Nakba. Some would try to justify it. Mr. Cohen, I imagine, realizes he can’t bring himself to do this, so he solves the problem by not mentioning it.
To some degree Zionist arguments prevail with Western Christians because of Christian guilt. Christians know that Jews were persecuted over the centuries because of Christian antisemitism. Supporting Zionism and ignoring the crimes committed by Israel amounts to a cheap way to atone. The Palestinians become the scapegoats for the crimes of others. Of course, as they are not willing scapegoats, they have to be demonized to justify their treatment.
Trope 2. “Israel has a right to defend itself”.
This is always stated after Israel has committed some war crime. American politicians cite it like some sort of mantra. It is immoral to use this trope to excuse war crimes. But invariably, whenever Israel kills civilians you will find America politicians saying that Israel has a right to defend itself. Obama said this during the Gaza War of 2014, in which Israel defended itself by killing around 1500 civilians including 500 children. Several dozen Israelis died, including six civilians. Mainstream US politicians seem comfortable with calling all this self defense.
Israel continues to shoot unarmed Palestinian protesters. Last year, the New York Times carried four columns defending this practice and putting all the blame for the deaths on Hamas.
Two of these columnists, Bret Stephens and Tom Friedman, now condemn Omar.
Can anyone imagine the New York Times publishing a piece defending a Palestinian terror attack on civilians as justified because Palestinians have the right to defend themselves, one which said that the blame should fall entirely on Israel? What would the reaction be if they did?
There would be a nationwide uproar, because a defense of the murder of Israeli Jewish civilians would be rightly seen as a moral outrage , but the murder of Palestinians is just a PR problem for Israel and not in any sense a moral outrage. If people defend it, they get space in the New York Times to do so and there is no fuss about this at all.
Cohen and Goldberg work there. I gather that there is apparently a policy in place forbidding New York Times columnists from criticizing each other by name, or criticizing the editors.
But they could write columns criticizing the callous contempt of some of Israel’s American supporters without naming their colleagues. Will they? I don’t know.
Trope 3– “One can criticize Israel as harshly as one wants, but one should avoid antisemitic tropes in doing so.”
I agree. But for most of those who say this, it is empty rhetoric. How many of the people saying this about Omar actually write articles condemning Israeli apartheid or war crimes or the indecency of those who defend them? And what exactly did Omar say that was inaccurate regarding the Lobby? It is almost certainly true that part of Omar’s crime was criticizing the Lobby while being a Muslim. But even Bret Stephens condemns Islamophobia.
Bret Stephens, the honest critic of Israel and foe of Islamophobia, actually gets to strike that pose in the same paper that prints his defense of killing protesters.
Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Warren have weighed in with statements that painted Omar as a victim of Islamophobia — which she is — without mentioning that she’s also a purveyor of anti-Semitic bigotry — which she surely is as well.
And notice that the instant an accusation of antisemitism is made, it immediately takes center stage, while Palestinian rights, never very important to begin with, fade away to the level of a meta- topic if they are mentioned at all. Yes, theoretically we are told, you could say some mean things about settlements and Netanyahu. It won’t make any difference to our support for Israel if Israel just brushes it off, of course. It never has. People have been criticizing Israel for decades and we continue to support them. It is Kabuki theater.
Let’s move on. Goldberg is angry that Republicans who are far more bigoted than Omar (in her view, Omar is a bit of a bigot) get away with so much.
This is the safe way to defend Omar. To Goldberg, the other Democrats are the heroes of the story, trying to figure out how to punish Omar for her “mild antisemitism” (Goldberg’s words, not my view) while not letting the bigoted Republicans get away with anything.
Could there be anti Palestinian bigotry in the Congresspeople of both parties who give billions every year to Israel no matter how badly Israel treats Palestinians? Should these people be criticized for their cowardice or apathy or bigotry? It doesn’t seem to be a question that any of Omar’s critics wish to ask. Omar is not part of the club, so she can be called a bigot.
As it turns out, she has supporters in Congress, so Congress decided to condemn all forms of bigotry except the one they nearly all practice, which is anti-Palestinianism. I sound sarcastic here, yet believe it or not I am trying to avoid any cheap sarcasm. Much of our political discussion in America makes sense if you think of it as the behavior of high school cliques. That extends well beyond this topic, but I digress.
Trope 4– “What about X? How can you be motivated by anything except bigotry if you focus only on Israel and ignore X?”
I don’t object to “whataboutism” in general. I use it myself. “Whataboutism” when honest is pointing out hypocrisy. One of the earliest known examples is from the Bible when the prophet Nathan confronts King David for his plot to have Uriah murdered to cover up David’s adultery with Bathsheba.
(It is fascinating and touching to reach across millennia and see that David feels genuine outrage on behalf of the poor man whose beloved pet was slaughtered by the rich man. Whataboutism works best on people with a conscience.)
But whataboutism when used should be accurate.
Whataboutism has been used several times against Omar. In a deleted tweet for which she apologized, Julia Ioffe said Omar should criticize the Saudis. Of course, Omar has been a very harsh critic of the Saudis. People who employ this move are making an unconscious bigoted assumption that because Omar is a Muslim she must be a bigoted antisemitic hypocrite who doesn’t criticize any Muslim state.
Tom Friedman used this argument, though he used Syria instead.
[W]hen I see [the dual loyalty charge] coming from a congresswoman who seems to be obsessed with Israel’s misdeeds as the biggest problem in the Middle East — not Iran’s effective occupation of four Arab capitals, its support for ethnic cleansing and the use of poison gas in Syria and its crushing of Lebanese democracy — it makes me suspicious of her motives.
He couldn’t use the Saudis, because Friedman has been one of the biggest bin Salman boosters around and after the murder of his friend Khashoggi he said that this murder was worse in principle if not in number than the war in Yemen, a war he had largely ignored.
Whataboutism is also used in a unique way with Palestinians. There is no other group where, if you advocate for their rights, you can guarantee that some liberals will say you should be looking at fifty other groups first. The unspoken assumption, probably below the level of conscious thought in most cases, is that Palestinians don’t matter and so the only reason one could possibly care must be antisemitism.
Trope 5. “Rain of rockets”.
No one with any sense of fairness would compare Hamas rocket fire with what Israel does to Gaza. But there is no more widely-used mainstream cliche that describes the vastly more destructive Israeli actions except “Israel has the right to defend itself.”
It also doesn’t matter who shoots first or whether the Gaza blockade itself is a war on the population. By definition Hamas rocket fire is the justification for Israeli brutality, no matter what the order of events.
Trope 6– Apologetics for pint-sized Hitlers.
This is actually off the topic of Palestinians, but a couple of weeks ago Ilhan Omar clashed with Elliott Abrams, a noted defender of murderous and even genocidal Central American allies in the 1980’s. Several members of the foreign policy “community” rushed to Abrams’s defense. This included some liberals. It is interesting to see how little interest this created among most of those who now criticize Omar. If you are part of the Blob, you can actually have a history of apologetics for pint-sized Hitler types, and it doesn’t matter.
One could go on. The point is that we do have dehumanizing anti-Palestinian tropes that are used all the time and so far as I know, it never occurred to any of the mainstream liberal Omar critics to write about them.
They need to come outside their bubble, turn around, and see what it looks like from the outside. As best I can tell, it looks like a high school clique, but one with a hugely magnified power to ostracize and bully and namecall, as well as bomb and invade and blockade and occupy. If you are part of the American Empire, maybe you could learn something from Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia, about how it appears from someone born outside.
Do I mean that as some sort of melodramatic cheap shot? No. Members of the educated professional American class (of all religions or none) need to stop thinking of themselves as the final moral arbiters of right and wrong.
Look at what America has done in the Middle East over the past few decades under both parties. Do we look like people in a position to give lectures to anyone?