New US lawmakers’ criticism of Israel pressures Democrats

Ilhan Omar, left, and Rashida Tlaib made their debut in the House of Representatives openly declaring their support for the BDS movement. (AP)
Updated 10 February 2019
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New US lawmakers’ criticism of Israel pressures Democrats

  • Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib made their debut last month as US representatives by openly declaring support for the Palestinian-led BDS
  • The movement calls for sanctions against Israel over its apartheid policies

WASHINGTON: The support for a boycott of Israel by the first two Muslim women in the US Congress has opened a breach in the Democratic Party and threatens to create a fissure in the ironclad US-Israeli alliance.

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib made their debut in the House of Representatives in January openly declaring their support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, or BDS.

The movement, launched more than a decade ago and modeled on the 1960s movement to pressure South Africa over apartheid, calls for people and groups to sever economic, cultural and academic ties to Israel, and to support sanctions against the Jewish state.

But for Israel partisans — including many Democrats and Republicans in Congress — BDS smacks of anti-Semitism and poses a threat to Israel.

Tlaib, 42, has Palestinian roots and represents a district of suburban Detroit, Michigan that is home to thousands of Muslims.

She argues that BDS can draw a focus on “issues like the racism and the international human rights violations by Israel right now.”

Omar, 37, is the daughter of Somali refugees who was elected to represent a Minneapolis, Minnesota district with a large Somali population.

She accuses Israel of discrimination against Palestinians akin to apartheid, but denies that she is anti-Semitic.

Her remarks in January to Yahoo News however sparked anger among the large pro-Israel contingent in Congress, the powerful, largely Democratic US Jewish community, and Israel itself, where BDS is seen as a national threat.

“When I see Israeli institute laws that recognize it as a Jewish state and does not recognize the other religions that are living in it, and we still hold it as a democracy in the Middle East, I almost chuckle,” she told Yahoo News.

“Because I know that if we see that in another society we would criticize it — we do that to Iran, any other place that sort of upholds its religion.”

Omar and Tlaib sparked the BDS controversy during a period when Donald Trump’s administration has strengthened relations with Israel and slashed aid to the Palestinians.

But Republicans saw their support for BDS as both a threat to Jews and an exploitable rift among Democrats.

“Democrats have made it clear that hateful, bigoted rhetoric toward Israel is not confined to a few freshman members. This is the mainstream position of today’s Democratic Party and their leadership is enabling it,” Republicans said in a statement on Jan. 29.

The worry about the still small but growing support for BDS in the US predates Tlaib’s and Omar’s political rise.

A number of states have passed or proposed constitutionally questionable legislation and policies that would penalize supporters of the boycott movement.

But the arrival of Tlaib and Omar in Congress was greeted with the first proposed federal law to fight to that end, in the Senate.

Sen. Marco Rubio argues that BDS aims to eliminate the state of Israel, and said his legislation would protect states’ rights to exclude from public contracts any supporters of BDS.

Republicans, the majority in the Senate, along with more than half of the Democrats approved the legislation.

But a significant number of Democrats opposed it, because, they said, it violates constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.

That has left Democrats vulnerable to charges of anti-Semitism.

To fight that, in January prominent party members formed the Democratic Majority for Israel, touting themselves as “The Voice of Pro-Israel Democrats,” which for some came across as a rebuke of Omar and Tlaib.

After Omar joined the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee, according to The New York Times, Jewish committee Chairman Eliot Engel privately made it clear that he would not ignore any “particularly hurtful” remarks she might make.

“You hope that when people are elected to Congress, they continue to grow,” he reportedly told her.

“There is obviously a serious fight going on within the Democratic Party with respect to how to deal with BDS and some within their party who advocate for it,” said Alvin Rosenfeld, who directs the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University.

“Should the party swing to the far left and appear to be way out of line with America’s traditional ties to one of its strongest allies, Israel, the party will surely suffer at the polls,” he told AFP.

Amy Elman, a political science professor at Kalamazoo College, said anti-Semitism should not be used as a “political football by any party.”

“Democrats should care less where the charges of anti-Semitism come from. What matters is if the accusations are valid,” she said.


Largest mass grave of 3,500 people found outside Raqqa city in Syria

There are some 2,500-3,000 bodies estimated there, plus between 900 and 1,100 bodies in the individual graves. (AFP)
Updated 5 min 16 sec ago
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Largest mass grave of 3,500 people found outside Raqqa city in Syria

  • First responders learned of the burial site in the Al-Fukheikha suburb last month

 RAQQA: Two feet deep, below a plot of farmland outside the Syrian city of Raqqa, lies a large and deadly legacy of Daesh: A mass grave holding an estimated 3,500 people.

First responders learned of the burial site in the Al-Fukheikha suburb last month, more than a year after US-backed forces captured Raqqa from Daesh and as they closed in on the group’s final redoubt of Baghouz further south.

The belated discovery is the biggest example yet of how the violence Daesh sowed will be harvested for years to come, diggers and activists said.

Several dozen mounds of dirt line one side of the Al-Fukheikha plot, marking the more than 120 bodies already dug up by the Rapid Response Division of Raqqa’s civil defense service.

“These are individual graves, but behind us, by the trees, are the mass graves of those executed by Daesh,” said Asaad Mohammad, the 56-year-old forensic assistant at the site.

“There are some 2,500-3,000 bodies estimated there, plus between 900 and 1,100 bodies in the individual graves, so at least 3,500 total,” he said.

Eight other mass graves have already been identified around the northern Syrian city, including one nicknamed “Panorama,” from which more than 900 bodies had been exhumed.

Earlier this week, diggers in flimsy medical masks excavated a small bundle wrapped in greying, damp cloth.