On Monday, an ad began appearing on Facebook showing Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar’s face next to Hamas rockets. A caption reads: “When Israel targets Hamas Rep. Omar calls it an ‘act of terrorism.’” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group known as AIPAC, purchased the ads, which are still active as of today. Omar’s office is calling on Facebook to immediately remove the ads, which “blatantly peddle both anti-Muslim hate speech and disinformation,” and on AIPAC to apologize.
“Given the number of threats of death and violence the congresswoman receives on a near-daily basis, it’s not just irresponsible—it’s incitement,” Omar’s deputy communications director, Isi Baehr-Breen, told The Nation.
The ad is factually inaccurate: The Minnesota representative has not stated that Israel’s targeting Hamas constitutes “an act of terrorism.” In a tweet last week, she used that phrase in reference to “Israeli air strikes killing civilians in Gaza.” According to the latest reports, civilian casualties in Gaza number at least 227. Omar has also repeatedly denounced the firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel, calling it a war crime. Muslim civil rights groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations have criticized AIPAC’s ad for using Islamophobic tropes to attack Omar, calling it a “shameful attempt” to “unleash anti-Muslim bigotry” on one of the two Muslim women in Congress.
“It’s par for the course for AIPAC to demonize electeds who stand up for Palestinian rights and an end to the occupation,” Baehr-Breen said in an e-mailed statement. “What’s more surprising is their attempts to link Congresswoman Omar herself to Hamas terror attacks in their own advertising—ads that only target her, a Black, Muslim woman, in this way. It’s dangerous, plain and simple. It is also dishonest since Rep. Omar has been one of the few Members of Congress to condemn war crimes committed by both Netanyahu and Hamas while calling on the United States to actually take steps to end both the current outbreak of violence and the broader occupation.”
The ad is one of three versions running on Facebook, reaching an estimated 1 million people each. Another of the ads includes an image of New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, while the third goes after other congressional progressives, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Representatives Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. These ads are consistent with AIPAC’s broader rhetoric; in 2019, the pro-Israel group was forced to apologize and remove at least four Facebook ads saying that Omar, Tlaib, and Representative Betty McCollum, one of the few congressional critics of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, pose a threat “maybe more sinister” than ISIS. AIPAC did not respond to a request for comment.
“Clearly, AIPAC is fanning the flames of Islamophobia rather than peace,” Pocan told The Nation. “And I think the graphics and rhetoric [are] deceitful, I just wish that they supported the Israeli and Palestinian people like Ilhan Omar does. They could really learn from her.”
Since entering Congress, Omar has been the subject of racist and anti-Muslim attacks and death threats. Though the most unhinged rhetoric has largely come from the right, prominent Democrats have, on multiple occasions, failed to come to her defense, or even given credence to conservative pile-ons. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and majority leader Steny Hoyer, both of whom are close friends of AIPAC’s, did not respond to requests for comment on the ads in time for publication.
As Israel’s military offensive against Palestinians continues to intensify, progressives have been ramping up pressure on the Biden administration for a more forceful response. On Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pocan launched a last-minute effort to block the administration’s planned $735 million weapons sale to Israel. Even some centrist Democrats, all of whom have consistently backed Israel in the past, have begun to question aspects of the US approach. “I’m troubled by it,” Virginia Senator Tim Kaine said of the United States veto of a United Nation Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire. “I just can’t remember a shooting war where kids are being killed on both sides where the US hasn’t aggressively pushed for a ceasefire.”
In a “special order hour” on the House floor last week, organized by Representatives Mark Pocan and Marie Newman, progressives displayed an unprecedented shift on the issue among congressional Democrats, criticizing the assault on Gaza and standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, gave a powerful speech about the humanity of Palestinians, and the “duty to end the apartheid system” that for decades has subjected Palestinians to inhumane treatment. Omar, meanwhile, called Netanyahu an “ethno-nationalist.” And Representative Cori Bush of Missouri connected the fight for Palestinian liberation to the fight for black lives in the United States.
“I remember learning that the same equipment that [US police] used to brutalize us is the same equipment that we send to the Israeli military to police and brutalize Palestinians,” Bush said. “That harassment, that extortion, that brutalization by a heavily armed militarized presence in our community—that’s what we fund when our government sends our tax dollars to the Israeli military.”