Ilhan Omar Apologized. Can We Talk About the Palestinians Now?
Anti-Semitism is abhorrent, in all forms. But America stills need to talk about Trump’s, and Israel’s, treatment of the Palestinian people.
There’s absolutely no place for anti-Semitism in America—it’s morally repugnant. And that especially includes in discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by those advocating on behalf of Palestinians. I say that as the son of a Palestinian man.
Using anti-Semitic words or tropes while discussing the Middle East conflict is not just wrong, it derails vitally needed conversations regarding the facts surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and conflates valid criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism. And this discussion is especially needed now that Donald Trump is again championing his vision of a “peace plan” for the Middle East over the next few weeks.
That’s why Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) use of an anti-Semitic trope that support for Israel is all about the “benjamins,” as she put it, funded by the pro-Israel group AIPAC was especially troubling. It was wrong, as she noted in her apology, and it conflates rightful criticism of the policies of the Netanyahu administration with bigotry in a time when robust debate on the topic is desperately needed.
Omar, whom I interviewed last week before this controversy, shared with me how she very much wanted to build more bridges with the Jewish community, including with her frequent critic Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY). She then stated in her apology, “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” adding, “I unequivocally apologize.”
Now, with that controversy behind us, my question is: Can we finally talk about Palestinians? Yes, those people who are at best ignored but in general demonized. I mean Palestinians like the nearly three million living in the West Bank—some in thriving communities with gleaming new buildings like in the recently constructed city of Rawabi, and some living in poverty in refugee camps like in Am’ari outside of Ramallah.
And I mean the Palestinians where my family is from, a small town called Battir outside of Bethlehem, known for its eggplant that’s uniquely sweet, making it famous across Palestine. A place where my late grandmother was born in what was then known as Palestine; where she died living under Israeli military occupation, and where her family’s ancestral land was taken from them by Israeli settlers without compensation.
The same Palestine people whom Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) tweeted about last month, writing that simply wanted her Palestinian grandmother to “be seen and heard just like any other human being. She deserves human dignity.”
And the nearly two million Palestinians living in Gaza, a place where recent images reveal it to be an apocalyptic nightmare. The numbers paint an even worse situation, with 54 percent of those living in Gaza being unemployed, including 70 percent of young people. As the World Bank recently warned, “A recent liquidity squeeze in Gaza has led to a rapid collapse in humanitarian conditions, including access to medical treatment, electricity, and clean water.” It sounds like hell on earth.
In the case of Trump, his response to those human beings known as Palestinians has been a combination of ignorance and cruelty. In terms of ignoring, we learned this week that the Trump administration has drafted a detailed peace plan that Jared Kushner will champion.
But there’s not even a hint that the Palestinians were consulted in this proposal. And considering Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear when running for re-election in 2015 that there will be no Palestinian state on his watch, it’s unlikely the Trump plan will offer self-determination to the Palestinians.
And keep in mind that it’s not just Netanyahu who opposes a Palestinian state but also other leaders of his right-wing coalition, members like the head of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, who declared, “There will not be a Palestinian state established" while he’s part of the Netanyahu government.
But far worse than Trump ignoring the Palestinian people, in terms of policies, Trump is the most anti-Palestinian U.S. president yet. Trump’s actions toward the Palestinians can been summed up in one word: cruel.
Trump ended our nation’s support of $360 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA.) This organization for 70 years has been a lifeline for Palestinian refugees, providing, as a UNRWA spokesperson explained, assistance to “526,000 children who receive a daily education from UNRWA; 3.5 million sick people who come to our clinics for medical care; 1.7 million food-insecure people who receive assistance from us, and tens of thousands of vulnerable women, children and disabled refugees who come to us.”
In September, the Trump regime cut $25 million in aid to hospitals in East Jerusalem that primarily assist Christian-run hospitals there that help Palestinians with complex medical conditions that hospitals in West Bank and Gaza aren’t equipped to treat. Add to that, in August, the Trump State Department cut $200 million in infrastructure programs for the Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza.
Just weeks ago, on Feb. 1, the Trump administration officially ended funding to USAID, a U.S. government agency that administers our nation’s foreign assistance programs in the West Bank and Gaza. The impact was that construction was halted on projects already started. Many of these were designed to make life bearable for Palestinians, including sewage networks in the West Bank area of Jericho that could serve about 10,000 Palestinians, and a school facility under construction near my family in Bethlehem. The pleas to the Trump administration to at least allow funding to complete these projects fell on deaf ears.
But now Trump wants to be a fair broker for peace in the Middle East! While I sincerely hope for a just peace deal, it’s unlikely, given Netanyahu’s own words and Trump’s actions. But maybe—just maybe—during the discussions of these peace talks there will be an opportunity for my fellow Americans to hear about Palestinians in a way they rarely do: as human beings.