On Monday evening, Representative Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who is the former cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, responded to news reports of surging violence in Israel and Palestine. Referencing the deaths of Palestinians following Israeli air strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip—including those of a number of young children—the representative declared, “We cannot just condemn rockets fired by Hamas and ignore Israel’s state-sanctioned police violence against Palestinians—including unlawful evictions, violent attacks on protestors and the murder of Palestinian children. U.S. aid should not be funding this violence.”
That blunt statement came at a point when the Middle East death toll was rapidly mounting—by mid-week it would pass 65 in Gaza, with as many as six reported dead in Israel—and media outlets were using words like “carnage.”
At almost the same time that Pocan spoke up on Monday night, Representative Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat who four years ago became one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, made a statement similar to that of her colleague. She posted a video from a convoluted press briefing where a US State Department official criticized the Hamas “rocket fire that is clearly targeting innocent civilians in Israel” but failed, even after repeated and specific questioning on the matter, to condemn the killing of Palestinian children in Gaza by Israeli air strikes. “This unsurprising response is devoid of empathy and concern for human suffering,” observed Omar. “He can’t even condemn the killing of children.”
The next day, former president Donald Trump chimed in, with a statement that attempted to blame his successor for the crisis. Despite the fact that the Biden administration has maintained many of Trump’s policies regarding the region—to the deep frustration of the Palestinians—Trump said, “Biden’s weakness and lack of support for Israel is leading to new attacks on our allies.” The absurdity of that attack would be revealed Wednesday, when Biden, after speaking at length with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a standard “Israel has a right to defend itself” statement that did not mention the Palestinians.
The harshest language in Trump’s statement was reserved for the member of Congress he invariably goes out of his way to denigrate. “Unbelievably,” complained the former president, “Democrats also continue to stand by crazed, anti-American Rep. Ilhan Omar, and others, who savagely attack Israel while they are under terrorist attack.”
Noting that Trump was not the only Republican attacking Omar this week, Pocan tweeted, “I’m seeing a lot of right-wing extremists criticize my wonderful colleague, @IlhanMN, because she rightly condemned the murder of Palestinian children & Israel’s violence against Palestinians in [East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and at the Al-Aqsa mosque]. I did the same, wonder why they’re not criticizing me?”
Pocan was being ironic. He knew.
Trump has been obsessed with Omar from the time he was elected president and she was elected to the House in 2016. During his presidency, Trump raged against the representative, on Twitter, in media statements, and at rallies across the country.
Trump’s animus toward Omar—who came to the United States as a teenage refugee from Somalia—can and should be seen in the context of his long history of targeting Muslims in general, and Muslim immigrants and refugees in particular, for abuse. During his 2020 reelection campaign, he made attacks on the representative central to his campaign, not just in Minnesota but across the country. Undaunted, Omar condemned Trump for “spreading fear” at “cult-like rallies,” and carried on with her own reelection campaign. She won, while Trump lost—both Minnesota and the presidency.
There is no question that Omar has been outspoken on Israel-Palestine issues. This week she argued, “Israeli air strikes killing civilians in Gaza is an act of terrorism. Palestinians deserve protection. Unlike Israel, missile defense programs, such as Iron Dome, don’t exist to protect Palestinian civilians. It’s unconscionable to not condemn these attacks on the week of Eid.” After as many as 300 Palestinians were wounded when Israeli police entered the Al-Aqsa mosque on Monday and fired rubber bullets, stun grenades, and tear gas, Omar explained that for “families who pray all night during Ramadan, the mosque is like home. Palestinians deserve to find refuge in a mosque and peace in Ramadan. Where is the media coverage?”
But Omar was certainly not the only member of Congress expressing outrage.
Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American Muslim, said on MSNBC Monday, “This is an apartheid system.… Israeli’s own prominent human rights organization B’Tselem has declared it, Human Rights Watch has declared it, and Palestinians on the ground have been telling us for decades that their homes have been demolished, that they have been targeted, that violence has been met by Israeli-led forces under Netanyahu’s racist policies.” Citing a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights statement on Israeli moves to force Palestinian families from ancestral homes in the Sheikh Jarrar neighborhood—which sparked tensions last week—Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen said, “As this makes clear, evictions of families in East Jerusalem would violate international law. If the Biden Administration puts the rule of law and human rights at the heart of its foreign policy, this is not a moment for tepid statements.” Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren condemned the evictions as “abhorrent and unacceptable,” and said, “The Administration should make clear to the Israeli government that these evictions are illegal.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders decried “the violence by government-allied Israeli extremists in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
The House member from the Minnesota district that borders the one Omar represents, Democrat Betsy McCollum, announced on the same day that Trump issued his statement: “The Israeli government’s attacks on the basic human rights of Palestinians has led to this conflict. I want each Israeli child and Palestinian child to sleep in their own bed peacefully at night, not worrying about being attacked. The violence must stop.… The only way to bring peace forward is for the U.S. to stand up for everyone’s human rights—and that includes Palestinian rights.”
But Trump named only one member of Congress in his screed.
So I asked Pocan to answer his own question about why so much of the pushback from Trump and his allies targets Omar.
“The answer pretty clearly is there is a lot of xenophobia out there—a lot of people are hating on the Muslim woman of color,” said the Wisconsin representative. “They think it will distract from the message. Rather than focusing on the simple message that the US needs to work for peace in the region, which we have both talked about, and which a lot of other people are now talking about, they are attacking the messenger who is a Muslim woman of color.”
If the goal of Trump and his allies was to silence the Minnesota Democrat, it wasn’t working.
In a blistering response to the former president, Omar declared, “It’s no surprise that a white supremacist who incited an insurrection against our government, called Neo-Nazis very fine people, and separated kids from their mothers would support human rights abuses against innocent kids.”
“It’s ok,” she concluded, “to be pro-humanity and pro-Palestinians.”