This piece originally appeared in Jacobin.
As sure as the sun rises in the morning, the American political elite will periodically come together across warring party lines to disparage, slander, and otherwise malign Rep. Ilhan Omar (D‑MN).
On Monday, Omar posted on Twitter her exchange with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. There she raised what should be a fairly tame question: What mechanisms exist to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Palestine and Afghanistan?
The United States government opposes the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction to hear alleged cases of human rights abuses by both Israel and Hamas, the United States and the Taliban. If domestic courts won’t investigate war crimes, and if the United States opposes the ICC’s ability to do so, where can victims of war crimes go for justice?
Secretary Blinken offered a few vague assertions about the value of human life, followed by a reiteration of the State Department’s line: that it opposes the ICC’s jurisdiction to investigate claims unless they are referred by a state or by the United Nations (UN) Security Council. There are just two problems with this defense. One: what if it’s the state itself that is charged with war crimes? What possible reason would such a state have to call on the ICC to investigate itself? Two: what if that very state (in the case of the US) or its strongest ally (in the case of Israel), has veto power in the UN Security Council? How on earth could we ever expect that same body to fairly make a referral?
“We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,” Omar wrote. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”
Like clockwork, Republicans exploded in condemnations of antisemitism. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (CA) attacked Omar as “anti-Semitic,” “anti-American,” and “abhorrent.” Other Democratic leaders followed suit. A group of twelve Jewish Democrats issued a statement bemoaning the “false equivalencies” between “democracies” such as the United States and Israel with Hamas and the Taliban. The entire weight of the Democratic Party leadership chimed in with a similar statement demanding that Omar “clarify” (read: apologize for) her previous comments.
“Drawing false equivalencies between democracies like the US and Israel, and groups that engage in terrorism like Hamas and the Taliban,” they argued, “foments prejudice and undermines progress toward a future of peace and security for all.”
You could be forgiven for doing a double-take. Aren’t these the very same people that only a couple of weeks ago responded to carnage in Gaza, Israeli air strikes flattening residential buildings and killing hundreds of civilians, the violent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, unrestrained Israeli lynch mobs shouting “death to Arabs,” with detached denunciations of “both sides”? Drawing equivalencies is apparently only “false” if doing so threatens to hold Israel or the US accountable.
During Israel’s two-week assault on Gaza, mainstream politicians and the media insisted that “both sides” were responsible, despite the completely disproportionate death toll of Palestinians, and despite the fact that one side, Israel, is a powerful state which colonizes and occupies the other side, Palestine, a stateless population. The media sought to hone in on and vilify Hamas in order to dehumanize Palestinians, as though every one of the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli rule is launching rockets, and deserves to be bombed in response.
But, apart from the wildly unequal scale of destruction wrought by Israeli forces, to insist that there is something uniquely reprehensible about Hamas’s methods begs a serious question. If launching low-grade rockets, which lack precise targeting technologies and therefore risk hitting civilians, is an abomination, is it not a greater abomination that Israel uses state-of-the-art weaponry, which purposefully and precisely attacks civilian buildings, schools, the media, and infrastructure like desalination plants, power and sewage plants?
The Republican Party and the Democratic Party leadership claim that the United States’ and Israel’s mantles of self-defined “democracies” means that they can be responsible for policing themselves, and that they are in a category distinct from an organization like Hamas. But that argument falls apart when we realize, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world is my own government,” the United States.
Lest we forget, the United States’ ongoing “war on terror” is responsible for at least 800,000 deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan, and over 37 million people displaced from their homes. An estimated eight hundred US military bases in more than seventy countries patrol the world over in the service of US global domination. Israel, for its part, has killed almost 6,000 Palestinians since the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs started keeping tally in 2008, as compared to 262 Israelis killed during that time. In that sense, it’s true, there is no equivalency with the damage caused by a group like Hamas — what the US and Israel have done and continue to do around the world is far worse.
Let’s be clear about what this attack on Ilhan Omar is really about. First, every time the Republicans let loose on Omar, and the Democrats line up behind them, they encourage death threats and put Omar in danger. Second, such actions distract from the ongoing devastation of Palestinian lives, the blockade of Gaza, the ramifications of the most recent bombing campaign, and apartheid within Israel. Imagine, as Rep. Ayana Pressley put it, if instead of wasting time targeting Ilhan Omar, “Congress was as outraged by what Palestinians endure daily.”
Finally, in the context of a deepening rift within the Democratic Party on the question of Israel and Palestine, and growing public sympathy with Palestinians, the actions of the party leadership to call out Omar are an attempt to discipline the Left of the party. Last month, Omar and members of the “Squad,” along with other progressive Democrats, called out Israel’s ethnic cleansing and apartheid by name on the House floor. It is no surprise that now the party leadership has seized the first opportunity to try to shove that genie back in the bottle.
The Democratic Party establishment is as committed to unequivocal support for Israel as their Republican counterparts. Israel’s utility to the geopolitical interests of the US government means that they will fight tooth and nail to get their ducks back into their traditional pro-Israel row.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus, other members of the Squad, and grassroots organizations were right to come to Omar’s defense. It’s good to finally have a leftist on the House Foreign Affairs Committee calling out US hypocrisy and exposing war crimes, as Omar has consistently done. Neither she, nor the movement for Palestine, has anything to apologize for.
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Hadas Thier is an activist and socialist in New York, the author of A People’s Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics, and a regular contributor to Jacobin Magazine. She tweets at @HadasThier.