Ilhan Omar and the Systematic Silencing of Israel Criticism

Ilhan Omar (Leopaltik1242 via Wikimedia Commons)

by Laila Ujayli

Over the past two weeks, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has been the victim of anti-Muslim attacks and death threats. But rather than stand in solidarity with her in the face of this chilling and dangerous racism, her colleagues have exploited the opportunity to reignite bad faith accusations of anti-Semitism against her. They’ve referenced earlier tweets for which she has already forcefully apologized and grossly twisted her latest critique of U.S. policies toward Israel. And in response to the “outrage” over Omar’s comments, House Democratic leaders will bring to the floor a resolution condemning anti-Semitism.

The smear campaign currently deployed against Omar is nothing new in the world of advocacy around Palestinian rights. It is consistent with the systematic silencing of critics of Israel. And like the attacks on Omar, these tactics do not involve substantive policy debate. Instead, these tactics involve the gross weaponization of anti-Semitism to shield Israel from criticism and rely on ad hominem attacks deeply rooted in racism and Islamophobia.

Take, for example, last week’s explosive reporting from Adam Entous at The New Yorker about a private Israeli intelligence firm, Psy Group, spying on pro-Palestinian advocates in the United States. As part of a project to silence the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, Psy Group disseminates negative information about pro-Palestinian advocates and uses “narrative warfare” to send the “main message that anti-Israel activity equates with terrorism.” By publicizing derogatory information about an activist—for instance, if a pious Muslim drinks alcohol or has an affair—Psy Group works to effectively blackmail individual activists and deter future ones.

Similarly, the notorious Canary Mission exists as a McCarthy-esque blacklist of pro-Palestinian rights advocates on college campuses. Primarily targeting Muslim and Arab student groups, the Canary Mission “compiles dossiers on Palestinian rights advocates and labels them racists, anti-semites, and supporters of terrorism,” posting their names and photographs online to intimidate young people concerned about their future job prospects.

Moreover, there is a systematic campaign to silence pro-Palestinian advocates—particularly BDS activists—at the legislative level. As its first act in the new Congress, the Senate passed a bill that allows state and municipal governments to punish companies and individuals that boycott Israel, protecting the anti-BDS laws currently enacted in 26 states and facilitating the passage of future anti-BDS legislation. These laws force employees to sign de-factoloyalty oaths” affirming that they will not boycott Israel or support such boycotts, a practice the ACLU firmly maintains violates Americans’ First Amendment rights. It’s laws like these that in effect legally force Americans to hold “allegiance to a foreign country”—the very claim Omar made that drew such ire.

Like Omar, Americans across the country who dare question Israel’s policies risk being smeared as anti-Semites and terrorist sympathizers. The net result is that the majority of Americans are not talking about this integral piece of U.S. foreign policy. They’re not interrogating Washington’s unwavering support of right-wing Israeli policies. They’re not questioning the role of the powerful Israel lobby and the millions it spends to advance right-wing pro-Israel legislation in Congress (for example, the prominent advocacy organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), spent $3.5 million on lobbying alone last year). Discussing foreign policy can be hard enough without having to navigate the systems in place to silence pro-Palestinian advocates.

In the face of little outcry, both the U.S. and Israeli governments have been emboldened in their discrimination against the Palestinian people. The Trump administration recently closed the Consulate General in Jerusalem, which served as the de-facto U.S. embassy to the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Gaza could be unlivable by next year. The UN recently found that Israel may be guilty of war crimes for the murder of unarmed protestors in Gaza, including 35 children. In Israel’s upcoming elections, embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a deal with the extremist Jewish Power party, a successor to the racist Kahanist movement that advocates for total apartheid. And the Palestinians that bear the brunt of these racist and right-wing policies will not have the right to vote in these elections. Meanwhile, the new Democratic majority in the House has spent more time debating semantics with Omar than addressing these dire developments and condemning the racist policies of the Israeli right wing.

Ilhan Omar could stand to learn more about anti-Semitic tropes and choose her words more carefully in the future. Yet, her words can so easily ignite this grossly disproportionate outrage because the script is already written. Not only are Democrats playing into the hands of the right by unjustly censuring one of their own, they are entrenching the systems in place that prevent criticism of Israel and choosing to remain silent in the face of Israel’s racist occupation. The resolution House Democrats are bringing to the floor to condemn anti-Semitism is an important one, considering the rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes. But the resolution should also be accompanied by one that condemns Islamophobia, anti-blackness, and other forms of insidious, systemic discrimination—and fortunately, recent reports indicate that the resolution’s language will be adjusted to condemn anti-Muslim bias. It should also assert that every piece of U.S foreign policy can be questioned—even the U.S. relationship with Israel.


Laila Ujayli

Laila Ujayli focuses on the human impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. She was previously a Fall 2018 Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at Win Without War. Follow her on twitter @lailaujayli.



  1. James Clarke, I assume your comment is one of irony. Should the executioners use silencers on their rifles? (Once again, I found your comment among my e-mail receipts this morning but not here at the site…?)

  2. (Here’s your comment, James Clarke, that I received via e-mail) —

    “She should be executed by firing squad, along with all other pro-Palestinian sympathizers, without the benefit of a hearing.”

Comments are closed.