Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Miftah, and the problem of anti-Semitism within the movement for Palestinians’ right to self-determination

By Sahil Handa | Business Insider

Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar in St. Paul, MN

REUTERS/Caroline Yan

  • President Donald Trump and his allies have been working overtime to paint Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tliab as the flagbearers of American leftist anti-Semitism. 
  • The two freshman members of Congress and supporters of the Boycott Divestment Sanction (BDS) movement were scheduled to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories this weekend, but Trump helped put an end to those plans.
  • But Miftah, the pro-Palestinian non-profit group that was going to host Omar and Tlaib, has a problematic past, which includes support for suicide bombers and publishing blood libel against Jews.
  • It remains to be seen whether Tlaib and Omar will make a concerted effort to differentiate between such activists and those who have worked hard to try to banish anti-Semitism from the Palestinian struggle.
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President Donald Trump on Wednesday suggested that any American Jew who chooses to vote for a Democrat can be accused of demonstrating “disloyalty” to Israel — an age-old anti-Semitic dual loyalty trope. Ironically, Trump made the anti-Semitic remark in order to demonstrate his support for Israel.

Trump intended it as a warning to the Jewish people of the anti-Semitic forces within the Democratic Party. Specifically, the president and his allies have been working overtime to paint Reps. Rashida Talib and Ilhan Omar as the flagbearers of American leftist anti-Semitism. 

Omar has made comments widely condemned as anti-Semitic even by members of her own party, for which she has since apologized. And Tlaib has faced criticism for her continued association with Maher Abdel-qader, an activist who has fundraised and organized for the Michigan congresswoman and who has shared what The New York Times described as a “a blatantly anti-Semitic video on his Facebook page.”

The two freshman members of Congress were scheduled to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories this weekend, but Trump helped put an end to those plans.

He demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bar the pair from entering — a demand that Netanyahu duly accepted. The Israeli leader cited the congresswomen’s support for Boycott Divest Sanction, or BDS — a movement that advocates the boycott of Israel until it withdraws from the occupied territories and grants full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens — as his justification. 

The decision was nearly universally condemned – not even the hugely influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC could defend it. 

We need to talk about Miftah — the group that was hosting Tlaib and Omar’s trip to Israel

Equating criticism of the Israeli government — or even criticism of Zionism itself — with anti-Semitism cheapens the meaning of the word. But in the ensuing backlash, only a handful of conservative outlets took a skeptical look at Miftah — the pro-Palestinian non-profit organization that arranged Tlaib and Omar’s since-scuttled trip.

Miftah’s website has featured praise for Palestinian suicide bombers that have indiscriminately murdered civilians, an anti-Semitic treatise lifted from an American neo-Nazi website, and an article which claimed that the Jews use the blood of Christians during Passover — the eternally deployed “blood libel” against Jews. Miftah promptly apologized for the blood libel post, and blamed its publication on a junior staffer.

Given this history, it is worth understanding exactly what Miftah is, what role it plays in the Palestinian liberation movement, and what it means for Omar and Tlaib to be partnering with the organization on a trip to the West Bank

(Representatives for Omar and Tlaib did not respond to Insider’s request for comment. A representative for Miftah replied after publication with a statement that read in part:

MIFTAH is and has always been a respected organization both in Palestine and abroad and is known for its contributions to good governance, the empowerment of women and youth, to maintaining open, inclusive and democratic dialogue and to the exchange of ideas. We will not tolerate any attempts at the misrepresentation and defamation of MIFTAH’s good name.”)

This is not the first time that Miftah has sponsored a congressional delegation to Palestinian areas. In 2016, it organized a trip through Israel and the West Bank for five US representatives. The visit preceded Israel’s passage of anti-BDS law, which banned supporters of the movement from entering the country. Apart from being prevented from visiting Gaza, Miftah was allowed to escort the representatives without a problem.

Despite its problematic record, Miftah is hardly a fringe group.

Its founders include the late writer Edward Said, one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the late 20th century,  and its funders include the European Union, the United Nations, Oxfam, and a string of individual European governments. Its mission statement is to “promote the principles of democracy and good governance” in Palestine, and it is primarily focused on female empowerment and various sustainability projects.

As is often the case with entities pushing for revolution, Miftah can’t be defined solely by its most disagreeable aspects. Yet its critics are hardly engaged in convenient cherry-picking.

The group’s leader, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, is an Executive Committee Member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO is an umbrella association with a long line of sub-militias – some advocate violence, others do not; some indulge in anti-Semitism, others exist in order to eliminate it from the movement.

This is not only a Palestinian tension, but a tension at the heart of all anti-colonial struggle: Choosing whether or not to accommodate violence and bigotry in the pursuit of freedom is a decision that must be made by anybody dedicated to the cause.

It is no surprise that Miftah has trodden on both sides of this decision in the past. 

The group is a member of the PNGO (the Palestinian NGO network that refused to sign an anti-terror clause for US funding), and operates under the same umbrella organization as Fatah, the guerilla group and political party that controls the Palestinian Authority which governs the occupied West Bank.

Yet almost all of Miftah’s past work categorically condemns armed struggle.

One article published on its website in 2011 reads, “If I asked to choose to fight or to dialogue with a counterpart who simultaneously is fighting my presence,” my choice is “not to fight, but to resist, and not violently.”

The case of anti-Semitism is even more complicated. 

Israel’s right to exist, Palestinians’ right to self-determination

Miftah takes the standard Palestinian and Arab view of the the 1948 creation of Israel, referring to the establishment of the Jewish state as “al Nakba,” or “the Catastrophe.” 

The organization has published countless pieces questioning Israel’s right to exist. While such anti-Zionism cannot be equated with anti-Semitism, it is a legitimate concern when one considers that the dominant representatives of the Palestinian people for decades have sought to destroy the Israeli state.

No political actor outside Palestine can determine whether or not its leadership would pursue such a policy, and that is why concerns about anti-Semitism are legitimate on the left as well as the right.

Anti-Semitism is a historical burden, and Miftah makes this fact patently clear – it is a form of racism that has arisen under almost every political regime since the dawn of Western Civilization, and anyone in the West supporting the Palestinian cause has a moral duty to recognize the implications of this fact on such an approach.

When Tlaib and Omar were asked about Miftah at a conference on Monday, they labelled the line of questioning a “distraction” from the issue. The heart of the matter, they said, is state-sponsored violence, with the state of Israel as the real culprit. They added that Netanyahu is the one denying basic rights to his supposed citizens, noting that the US has hardly kept its distance from him. 

The congresswomen’s outright dismissal of legitimate concerns about Miftah may have been crass, but it is not devoid of reasoning. President Trump has turned a blind eye to Israel’s human rights violations and treated the Palestinian people as though they don’t exist.

He moved the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, blessed the Golan Heights annexation, cut funding from the UN agency for Palestinian Refugees, and cancelled over $200m in aid for Palestinians in the Gaza strip. His treatment of the Palestinians has been so reprehensible that many Democrats are lamenting the end of the American bipartisan pro-Israel consensus – a consensus which many reasonable people, including supporters of Israel,agree ought to have ended a long time ago.

The Palestinian people deserve freedom, safety, and a home. Their plights must be recognized, and immediate action taken. But this can’t happen so long as the US offers the Israeli government unconditional support and exercises no leverage to bring a change to status quo.

But it is also true that the Palestinian movement’s base is a complex web of activists, a certain number of whom condone acts of terrorism and vicious forms of anti-Semitism. They may consider it self-defense, but blithely dismissing such odious actions severely undermines any cause that claims to be on the side of peace and justice.  

It remains to be seen whether Tlaib and Omar will make a concerted effort to differentiate between such activists and those who have worked hard to try to banish anti-Semitism from the Palestinian struggle.

Taken alone, their decision to travel with Miftah raises deep questions. But in refusing to condemn the organization’s mistakes on Monday — with Tlaib proceeding later that evening to share a cartoon by an artist who placed highly in a Holocaust denial cartoon competition sponsored by the government of Iran — it is clear the two congresswomen have not yet shown any deep reflection in attempting to answer them.

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