Media Critic Sam Husseini on the Rep. Ilhan Omar Flap, Part 1

A Palestinian critic of American media offers some insights on this recent AIPAC spectacle and what to keep in mind about the Israel lobby's power in the Democratic Party...

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Sam Husseini is a media critic based in Washington, DC and director of communications with the Institute for Public Accuracy as well as a Palestinian and has been a longtime advocate on that issue. He also has been advocating for a long time now the idea of principled conservatives and liberals working together to build meaningful coalitions taking on single issues, including teaming up in Vote Pacts where both partners agree to vote for a third party candidate of their choice. I spoke to him about the recent developments in Congress and his take on what has occurred following the recent controversy surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar writing two provocative Tweets about the nature of the Israel lobby and its influence on our public discourse. This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.

Image by MPAC National/CC BY 2.0

AS: Sam, you are both Palestinian and have been working in media criticism for a very long time now. What is your reaction around seeing all these Congresspeople, women of color, bringing to the forefront the cause of Palestinians?

SH: The most prominent thing was Rep. Omar talked about AIPAC and their influence, then she issued an apology and I thought, honestly, that was a weak move. I thought that was an opportunity to come up with real specifics about what AIPAC does and about broader, even more insidious reasons for US support of Israel, geostrategic and so on.

I see some attempts here but I do think that some people are over-romanticizing it. People have to remember, there’s a long history of Congresspeople raising these issues and then getting smacked down for it. From Charles Percy and Rep. Paul Findley, who started to seriously question the US-Israeli relationship, AIPAC targeted them and they got voted out of office, both were from Illinois, one was the Senator and one was the Congressman. Findley wrote a book titled They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby about people who were speaking out about the Israel lobby. Cynthia McKinney from Georgia and Dennis Kucinich to a lesser extent also have done so.

I am glad that people are engaged and looking at these new Congresspeople who are more ethnically diverse, which is great, but we’re talking about a system that is very deeply entrenched that has a lot of geopolitical aspects to it as well. Israel is very functional for the most imperialistic aspects of the United States. This is a very serious fight.

We just saw Rep. Omar, after issuing her apology, lob some serious questions at Elliot Abrams, which was good to see, regarding his record of backing genocide and so on in Central America and what he’s trying to do in Venezuela, which is all tied in with the Palestinian issue.

This is a geopolitical contest between different blocs of countries that has ramifications not just for Palestine because it goes back to a neocolonial project both in this hemisphere and in the Middle East.

AS: Opinion polls are showing a divide between the young and the old within the American Jewish community around Zionism and Israel. But then you are also seeing a divide between Democrats and Republicans that really didn’t exist in previous generations because the GOP catered to a much more outright antisemitic base. But now instead you see an Evangelical religious movement that is (somewhat in a contradiction) both Zionist and antisemitic. Your thoughts?

SH: Right, you see people on the right who are pro-Israel and harbor anti-Jewish sentiment, which I don’t think is a contradiction. That highlights that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are totally different things. Antisemitism is a form of bigotry and anti-Zionism is an opposition to bigotry, to settler-colonialism, and the notion of Jewish supremacy over the indigenous Palestinian people.

You do now see more of the Democratic Party base being more critical of Israel and that is a good thing. But it’s largely confined to a handful of Congresspeople. Even AOC, she’s been mute, and so many people put a lot of hope in her. I think it is a mistake to put that kind of hope into political people who don’t have track records here.

Most of the Democratic Party establishment is still very pro-Israel, from Pelosi to Schumer to Hoyer! The hearings featuring Elliot Abrams about Venezuela were presided over by Eliot Engel. He spells his name different than Abrams but there’s a narrow spectrum between the two of them and they are the two dominant poles of the US establishment!

So I think there is some reason for people to be excited for some level of change but we need to be clear-headed about this, it’s at the periphery. If there’s going to be a flood of new, exciting grassroots people who are going beyond groups like the Justice Democrats, who are not taking corporate PAC money and are trying to organize themselves to not take any PAC money, that they are truly independent, truly grassroots, based on $25 donations from a mass base of people, that would be an awesome thing!

But we need to be clear-eyed about who’s in charge here with this new Democratic Congress. It is is still a cadre of very pro-Israel, very pro-establishment on a whole host of foreign policy and economic policy issues people in the leadership of the Democratic Party.

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