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AIPAC and the blockade on critiquing Israel

From President Donald Trump’s early morning rants to the hashtag origins of the now international Black Lives Matter movement, Twitter has increasingly become the digital platform of choice for U.S. political discourse. The geopolitical and financial relationship between the United States and Israel has been no exception. 

Over the weekend, freshman Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins” in response to a tweet that questioned recent bipartisan attempts by U.S. politicians to criminalize boycotts of Israeli products and services. When asked to clarify who she thought was “paying American politicians to be pro-Israel,” Omar responded “AIPAC!” referencing the U.S.-based, pro-Israel public affairs committee.

The tweet drew some deserved criticism for her admittedly ill-conceived wording, and Omar subsequently offered an apology. However, what has been lost in the spectacle is that the congresswoman is right: AIPAC has a considerable influence over American politicians and legislation. Pundits and politicians—both Republicans and Democrats—immediately admonished and silenced Representative Omar’s attempts to question AIPAC’s outsized and damaging role in American politics by labeling her as anti-Semitic

The firestorm of events surrounding Omar’s correct assertion that a powerful lobbying group hold sway over politicians is indicative of just how difficult it is to have substantive conversations about Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The representative didn’t even delve into how AIPAC has ensured that Israel remains one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid without having to answer for the 295 Palestinians killed and 29,000 injured by Israeli forces in 2018. Nor did she demand attention be paid to multiple reported war crimes committed by the settler state. Yet, Omar received harsher backlash for her poorly worded tweet than Steve King, who recently questioned why white supremacy is offensive, illustrating that it is clearly especially hard to critique Israel when you are Black, Muslim or both.

Over the last few months Black internationalist activists including Angela Davis and Marc Lamont Hill have incurred material consequences for their critiques of Israel’s murderous policies in Palestine. These attacks occur as American politicians work to criminalize individuals and businesses that participate in the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and the Israeli state continues to kill Palestinian activists protesting Israel’s 12-year blockade of Gaza. The fact that American politicians are more committed to anti-Blackness and Islamophobia than they are to scrutinizing the inhumane treatment of Palestinians—conditions that the U.S. actively bankrolls through its funding of Israel’s military—is symptomatic of the U.S. state’s long history of settler colonialism: a logic that Israel has replicated in Palestine. 

This attitude is also emblematic of U.S. politicians' long tradition of courting corporations and lobbyists for monetary donations at the expense of Americans and those impacted by U.S. policy abroad. Although Rep. Omar’s tweets could have been more sensitive and cautious—indeed, language matters—she rightfully critiqued AIPAC for leveraging its monetary resources to to generate congressional support for Israel and its genocidal policies. The logic undergirding AIPAC’s mission is not unique, and yet even as Democrats critique the influence of oil corporations in U.S. policy on climate change, or the wide-ranging influence of the National Rifle Association on gun policy, critiques of pro-Israel lobbies are not only threatening to establishment politicians but also interpreted as “deeply offensive” and “hurtful,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it

At the root of these accusations is a refusal to differentiate between anti-Zionist critiques and anti-Semitism. While anti-Semitism has continued to proliferate across the United States, even infiltrating our own communities here at Duke and in Durham, there have been consistent and deliberate efforts to conflate anti-Semitism with critiques of Israel’s settler colonial practices—maneuvers that contort the legitimate political and social claims of Palestinians, as well as the wellbeing of Jewish communities. 

Similarly dangerous conflations have frequently been made on Duke’s campus. Jewish people are often imagined as always already pro-Israel, while others who critique Israel are often labeled anti-Semitic. This false binary hinges on an anti-Semitic conflation of Judaism with Zionist settler colonialism and it negates the possibility of important conversations that are long overdue, given the hostility that student groups who advocate for Palestinians are met with. It also erases the radical activism of many Jews around the world who have bravely stood against both Israel’s settler colonialism and the U.S.’s imperial policies, like Jewish Voices for Peace.

In a globalized age where our fates are deeply entangled even across borders, it is critical that we engage with this issue. A critical analysis of how Israel and the US have emerged as nation-states over time allows us to an understanding of the ways that state violence connects us transnationally. Through such an analysis, an interrogation of AIPAC not only becomes important, but obligatory—not just for Omar, but for all Americans committed to justice more broadly. The missiles used to destroy Palestinian communities in Gaza are in part funded by US tax dollars; the tactics used to surveil and police Black communities in many cities across the US are the product of collaborations between U.S. police and Israel police and military forces. In the wake of those exchanges are hundreds of Black and Palestinian bodies—the victims of US and Israel state violence. The only approach that can liberate us all is a rigorous and unyielding international solidarity, “from Ferguson to Gaza,” as many Black organizers have put it. Whether it is calling politicians to account for enabling Israel's occupation or participating in local divestment efforts, solidarity is imperative. Palestinian activists in Palestine and across the diaspora regularly make this call to action and radical Black and Jewish organizers across the United States have acted on it. It is high time that more Duke students heed this call to action too.

This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

Editor's note: This piece was updated to include "Palestinian" in a description. 

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that AIPAC is a political action committee, when it is a public affairs committee. The Chronicle regrets the error. 

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