This week AIPAC held its annual policy conference in the capital, with speakers including Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the biggest name at this year’s event wasn’t even in the room. Speaker after speaker took turns taking veiled (and not so veiled) jabs at freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar for comments she made on Twitter in February about the nature of AIPAC’s influence in Washington. Chuck Schumer equated Omar’s critique of AIPAC with Donald Trump’s praising of neo-nazis in Charlottesville. Others including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attacked Omar for her claim at a public event in D.C. last month that AIPAC promotes “allegiance to a foreign country.” Inconveniently for AIPAC, one of their biggest donors, Adam Milstein, had recently accused Rep. Omar and her fellow Muslim American lawmaker Rep. Rashida Tlaib of being representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that their values “clash with American values.” Yousef Munayyer of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Debra Shushan of Americans for Peace Now join Mehdi Hasan to discuss AIPAC’s obsession with Rep. Omar and its Islamophobia problem.
Debra Shushan: Even though Ilhan Omar was not there, she was absolutely omnipresent at the AIPAC Conference.
Yousef Munayyer: Islamophobia has become a major part of pro-Israel advocacy in the United States over the last 30 years.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to Deconstructed, from The Intercept studios in Washington, D.C.
This week AIPAC came to town. Yep, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which, I want to be very careful here, is a truly disgraceful organization. I’m not talking here about AIPAC’s clear opposition to any kind of viable peace process or two-state solution in the Middle East. I’m not talking about its de facto support for illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or its opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal, or even its hosting of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just weeks after he did a deal involving the far-right Jewish Power Party, which AIPAC itself has called a “racist and reprehensible party.” Put all that to one side for a moment. No, I’m talking about AIPAC’s obsession—yes, obsession—with Representative Ilhan Omar and its very explicit role in mainstreaming Islamophobia in the United States.
Let’s deal with Omar first. The annual AIPAC Policy Conference, attended by the great and the good of Washington D.C., and beyond —attended by top Democrats and Republicans alike — took place this week here in the capital. But the focus of the AIPAC conference, you could say, was less on Israel and more on Ilhan Omar, who of course criticized AIPAC’s financial influence on U.S. politics last month and had to apologize after being accused of anti-Semitism. In speech after speech, Omar was denounced, mocked, smeared, either explicitly or implicitly.
Israelis did it. Here’s Prime Minister Netanyahu:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Take it from this Benjamin. It’s not about the Benjamins.
MH: Republicans did it. Here’s Vice President Mike Pence:
Vice President Mike Pence: Recently a freshman Democrat in Congress trafficked in repeated anti-Semitic tropes, alleged congressional support for Israel reflected an allegiance to a foreign country.
MH: And here’s Senator Mitch McConnell:
Senator Mitch McConnell: I’ve heard it suggested that our support for Israel explained away by money or by secret dual loyalties.
MH: Even Democrats joined in the pile on. Here’s House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer:
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer: When someone accuses American supporters of dual loyalty, I say “accuse me.”
MH: And here’s Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer:
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer: When someone looks at a Neo-Nazi rally and sees some very fine people among its company we must call it out. [Audience cheers and applauds.] When someone suggests that money drives support for Israel, we must call it out.
MH: Did you hear that? In Chuck Schumer’s eyes, Ilhan Omar criticizing AIPAC is the equivalent of Donald Trump praising neo-Nazis. He actually said that, just to get some cheap applause! I mean, for God’s sake, shame on Schumer. Shame on him!
Let’s be clear: Omar is getting death threats every day; she was recently included in a hit list drawn up by a white nationalist domestic terrorist, a member of the Coast Guard no less. Hundreds of people are showing up to protest at her public events, to try and intimidate her and smear her as a Nazi.
There is anti-Omar hysteria out there, both on the far-right and in pro-Israel circles. And if God forbid, something were to happen to Congresswoman Omar, Schumer and Hoyer will have blood on their hands. I’m sorry, but they will. It’s reckless, irresponsible, and, frankly, disgusting for them, both senior Democrats, to attack her in this way, as they did at AIPAC.
By the way, on a side note, from a purely tactical point of view, it’s mad and totally self-destructive for craven Democratic leaders to go to AIPAC and basically endorse the cynical Republican argument that they, the Democrats, are the ones with an anti-Semitism problem, not the white nationalists on the Right.
Just listen to the president of the United States:
President Donald J. Trump: The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party, they’ve become an anti-Jewish party.
MH: The issue is not of course that the Democrats are anti-Jewish — an absurd smear — but that the Democratic base has in fact been drifting away from Israel, especially younger Democrats. That’s what the polls show. And that’s probably why Democratic presidential candidates didn’t turn up at the AIPAC Policy Conference this year.
It wasn’t a boycott, though, as Republicans are claiming — well, it was by Senator Bernie Sanders — but not really by the rest of them. While presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris, for example, didn’t turn up to AIPAC Conference in D.C., she did simultaneously host an AIPAC delegation in California and tweeted out a picture of it. If the senator can’t come to AIPAC, AIPAC can come to the senator.
But, look, what’s wrong with top Democrats associating with AIPAC, some say? Apart from the fact that it shills for Israel’s occupation? Well, the Islamophobia’s a big problem, too — a big, big problem.
AIPAC has hosted the anti-Muslim bigot Steve Emerson on multiple occasions. Emerson is the guy who falsely claimed, among other things, that Birmingham in the UK was a Muslim-only city, and a no-go-zone for non-Muslims. The then-Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron called him a complete idiot.
AIPAC gave $60,000 to Frank Gaffney, the head of the Center for Security Policy, a think-tank which peddles anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. Gaffney is credited as being one of the inspirations behind Donald Trump’s Muslim ban; in fact the Southern Poverty Law Center has called him “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes.” AIPAC gave him $60,000.
Also, this year, one of their big donors and former council members Adam Milstein had to pull out from speaking at the Policy Conference after he accused Ilhan Omar and her fellow Muslim-American lawmaker Rashida Tlaib of being representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose values “clash with American values.”
So AIPAC has a serious problem with Islamophobia, and it’s becoming more and more toxic in Democratic and progressive circles. But how do critics of AIPAC and the broader pro-Israel lobby carry on pushing back against them without getting accused of anti-Semitism?
MH: Joining me to discuss all this are Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and Debra Shushan, the Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now.
Debra, Yousef, thank you both for joining me on Deconstructed.
Yousef Munayyer: Thanks for having me.
Debra Shushan: Pleasure to be here.
MH: Debra, let’s start with you. You were at the AIPAC Policy Conference here in Washington D.C. this week. What was the highlight of AIPAC for you?
DS: Well, I think the highlight of AIPAC, Mehdi, is very relevant to what we’re talking about today, because even though Ilhan Omar was not there and even though her name was not mentioned from the dais, she was absolutely omnipresent at the AIPAC Conference. Most people, I think, who introduced the crowd addressed her comments again, without using her name, and this was across Republican speakers and Democratic speakers, all of whom, of course, either outright condemned her, which was generally the case, or certainly put significant distance between themselves and Ilhan Omar.
MH: What was the chatter amongst delegates like, amongst the rank and file, Similar?
DS: Of course. Of course. I mean, I think within the crowd at AIPAC, you would be extremely hard-pressed to find anyone who had something positive or even neutral to say about Ilhan Omar.
MH: And just for our listeners at home, around the world, tuning in, who hear about this kind of AIPAC, this big bogeyman, pro-Israeli force on Capitol Hill, when you’re at the policy conference in D.C., do you get a sense of power, influence, an organization that’s taken seriously?
DS: Yes. You do. Both in terms of the grandeur of the conference. This is a conference that takes place every year at the Washington Convention Center, which is a huge facility. It is no secret, AIPAC brags about the fact that 18,000 people — supporters — converge on AIPAC to participate in the conference. Everything is high-tech — and probably most importantly, there is a huge number of politicians who come to address the crowd. Their presence is ubiquitous. So, yes, I would say you get that sense.
MH: Yousef, why do you think AIPAC and the speakers of AIPAC this week have been so obsessed with Ilhan Omar. What is the strategy there, if there is one?
YM: I think it’s easy for them to do. I think I’ve been very vocal about this. Representative Omar is somebody who exists at the intersection of multiple vulnerable identities, as a black woman, as a Muslim, as a refugee in this country at a moment when we have a white supremacist-in-chief in the White House. And going after somebody like that is very, very politically inexpensive for Republicans and Democrats alike.
And I think even though in the last 6 months we saw the worst anti-Semitic hate crime that we have seen —
YM: In Pittsburgh, precisely, the focus around anti-Semitism at APAC was directed at Representative Omar, and, you know, the way I looked at it was as a washing machine for anti-Semitism and you know here if you were a Republican or close to the administration or a Republican who was engaged in anti-Semitism yourself, you could show up, present your pro-Israel bonafides, point at Representative Omar, and get a standing ovation from the crowd.
MH: Like Mike Pence did, the Vice President, who is Vice President to a man who praised Neo-Nazis.
YM: Like Mike Pence did, like the Secretary of State did, like so many of the officials that were there, including Representative McCarthy, who himself was tweeting —
MH: The House minority leader who put out a tweet last year targeting three Jewish billionaires.
YM: Exactly. And so I think one of the, one of the big problems in the entire conversation around anti-Semitism is if you can present yourself as pro-Israel, and specifically pro-right-wing in Israel, you somehow are able to put on this you know invisible cloak of immunity, when it comes to allegations of anti-Semitism, it doesn’t seem to hit you the same way.
MH: Debra, you’re Jewish.
DS: This is true, Mehdi.
MH: Breaking news.
MH: Is it fair, a lot of non-Jewish people who are watching this debate from outside will say, “Hold on! How come they don’t bring up the Republican anti-Semites,” as Yousef mentioned, “Why is AIPAC not going, why are they are hosting people like Pence who are part of administration which has spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories?” Is that fair? Is that whataboutism? What’s your response to people who say that to you?
DS: I think that’s absolutely fair. And I think there are plenty of progressive American Jews and it should be pointed out that the majority of American Jews are and always have been progressive, take very much that position. We recognize, just as Yousef said, we recognize where the chief threat to Jews in this country comes from, that it comes from white nationalists and white nationalism, which inspired of course the terrorist who killed 11 American Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue.
So no, absolutely, we recognize that. And let me say that one reason I think that Ilhan Omar is so useful for AIPAC, and it ties into exactly this point, is because it enables a pact to try to make the argument that BDS —
MH: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.
DS: Correct, and anti-Zionism, although actually Ilhan Omar has said that she supports 2 states. which is not in anti-Zionist position, but nonetheless BDS is certainly associated in the minds of many and not without reason with anti-Semitism — excuse me — with anti-Zionism, is what I meant to say, they’re not the same thing in my view, as the number one threat, as equivalent to anti-Semitism. And I think that very nicely serves AIPAC’s agenda in terms of its argument that BDS is a fundamental delegitimizer of the state of Israel, and AIPAC, of course, has made one of its key legislative priorities pushing anti-BDS legislation in Congress.
MH: On that note, about the vast majority of American Jews being progressive, as you mention, which is undeniably true and the Republicans are trying now to kind of switch that around, Yousef, AIPAC was targeted by moveon.org, the progressive activist group, which asked Democratic presidential candidates not to go to AIPAC this year for a multiplicity of reasons, including Islamophobia, its blocking of any kind of peace process, encouraging the Trump Administration to pull out of the Iran deal, et cetera, et cetera.
And yet, the top Democratic leaders turned up: Schumer, Pelosi, Hoyer. Is AIPAC an organization that the top Democrats, self-styled progressive should be allied with? And if not, why not?
YM: I think absolutely not. But I think what is happening is that there is a tremendous shift happening within the party and it is primarily a shift that is prevalent at the base and you have leaders at the top of the party who have long-standing relationships with individuals and also organizations where, you know, they have been present at for year after year after year, often recycling much of the same language to you know get standing ovations before a crowd of AIPAC supporters, and it has really been sort of one of the least controversial things in Washington historically.
MH: Until now.
YM: Until now. That’s definitely changed. But, you know, you have the legacy of that, with many of, particularly the politicians who have been around for some time who are sitting at the top of these parties who have really spent their careers developing these relationships caught in a bind between that past and the future of a party that understands that you simply cannot be progressive without supporting the human rights of Palestinians.
MH: Debra, do you agree about the shift in the base? You work at the grassroots level. Is there a rift between not just the Democratic base, but progressive liberals across the United States on this idea of being solidly pro-Israel ,no daylight between the U.S. and Israel, is there now a gap developing between that?
DS: I think there are different, there are definitely different notions of what it means to be pro-Israel and how one should be pro-Israel. There is the traditional AIPAC sense of being pro-Israel, which on the one hand ostensibly simply means being completely uncritical of whatever the current Israeli government is doing, although there is problems with that, because when there have been Labor governments in the past, particularly the government of Yitzhak Rabin, AIPAC actually tried to undermine what he was doing in terms of the Oslo Accord.
MH: He called them out. He called them out, didn’t he?
DS: He absolutely called them out, especially around the Jerusalem Embassy or the idea of moving the embassy to Jerusalem and congressional legislation around that. And then you have, of course, those of us who are pro-Israel, I work for an organization that is pro-Israel, but that views what is ultimately good for Israel is also pro-peace and pro-two-state solution and ultimately, as we see it, also pro-Palestinian in terms of support for a Palestinian national movement and its rights. So there’s a fundamental divide in terms of —
MH: Are you worried as someone who defines herself as pro-Israel in a liberal sense, or in a liberal Zionist sense, is it fair to call yourself a liberal Zionist?
DS: That’s fair. Yeah.
MH: So are you worried that people might be going from one end of the spectrum to the other, and just missing you out? So people are either in the diehard, pro-Netanyahu, Likud, pro-Israel, or they’re in the other extreme, they’re anti-Israel, they’re pro-BDS. I saw some Gallup polling that showed Democrat support for Palestinians over Israelis is at its highest level, I think, since 2005. This idea that American Democrats at a grassroots level now sympathize with Palestinians more than Israelis ,which was unprecedented in the past.
DS: But here’s the problem with that polling. I’m glad you brought this up. The polling itself is problematic. I mean, the question you ask defines the answer you get, which Yousef and I both know as political scientists. In this case, the way that that question is asked is: Who do you sympathize with more?
Well if I, as a liberal Zionist, who is pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace am asked that question, what do I answer?
MH: I don’t know.
DS: I sympathize both with Palestinians and with Israelis. Asking a question like that. there should be another alternative do you sympathize more with Palestinians or with Israelis or do you sympathize with both and want peace?
YM: So, of course, the way you ask the questions is going to, you know, shape the answers that you get. We know that. The thing though about this polling that I think is undeniable and one of the reasons why the question is the same this year as it was last year and so on in the poll that you referenced is because the posters are trying to measure change over time and that change over time, that partisan divide, is something that we’re seeing not just in polls that ask the question that you mentioned, with specific language around sympathy or whatnot, but on all issues around the Israeli-Palestinian question that we have seen over time, this gap is growing in an unprecedented way.
MH: So I want to come back to the partisan divide in a moment, but let’s just get into some of the details of the whole Ilhan Omar controversy because, what she was attacked for originally, what she originally apologized for was her tweet that “it’s all about the Benjamins, baby” referencing Puff Daddy, in relation to AIPAC, which she identified as the group, she was saying had a financial influence on members of Congress. And there was a huge backlash, she was accused of anti-Semitism. She was also accused of not understanding how AIPAC works.
Meghan McCain spoke at AIPAC this week, and she said:
Meghan McCain: “Americans don’t support Israel because APAC is influential. AIPAC is influential because Americans support Israel.”
MH: Yousef, what is wrong with Meghan McCain’s analysis there?
YM: I think with the way I would answer this is: That line from Meghan McCain is the same sort of line that you would get from the NRA, you know? The gun policies that we have in this country are the way that they are because America is pro-gun. And I think in a very generic sense, you know, the United States is a country where guns are supported in a general way more than many other places, and also a place where there is sympathy and support for Israel. It’s really not a question about the direction of the policy. It’s really more a question of the extent, right? Why is it that we don’t have common sense gun control legislation?
MH: The NRA. Nobody disputes that.
YM: Absolutely. And so the lobby — I think, you know, while AIPAC is a massive, massive player, it is one of many different pro-Israel interest groups that are involved in helping to shape policy in an extremely pro-Israel direction.
You know, if you look at the public opinion polling, yes, you find that there is general support for Israel, which I think is something, like all public opinion, is conditioned on the media environment, the information, education that people have on these issues. The other thing that you see, though, is that when you ask people: “What side do you want the United States government to take in resolving the Arab-Israeli issue?” over time it’s consistently large majorities that say, “We want the United States to play an even-handed role.”
MH: Which it doesn’t. People go to AIPAC to proudly say it doesn’t.
YM: What explains that gap between where public sentiment is and the way that representatives of public sentiment in Congress —
MH: So the pro-Israel lobby plays a role in that gap.
YM: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MH: So the only role, there’s other factors, geopolitics, et cetera, et cetera.
YM: Sure, there’s a lot of, I mean there’s a lot of things that shape the direction of the relationship, but if AIPAC is not having an impact, they might as well close up and go home and spend the hundreds of millions of dollars that they raised to do this work on other things, right? I think it’s very clear that they have an impact. I think it’s very clear that the impact is shaping the direction of U.S. policy, not in its totality, but shaping it. And I don’t think it has been in a positive way.
MH: Debra you were nodding as Yousef was responding to Meghan McCain’s line. When you, as an American Jew here Ilhan Omar say, “it’s all about the Benjamins,” what was your reaction? Did you say, “Yeah, that’s the correct analysis of how lobbying works.”
DS: No. No. No, no. I remember reading that tweet of Ilhan Omar’s and doing a facepalm and saying, “Oh no!” And I’ll tell you why, a couple of reasons. One of which is that for me, as an American Jew. I saw what many of us saw. which is that there is a connection, as the phrase has often been used, an anti-Semitic trope that that comment played into knowingly or unknowingly about Jews and money, which I found concerning.
Another thing that I found concerning about it is that it was overly simplistic, which I think for a member of Congress in particular was extremely problematic. And I realize it’s a lyric, right? But to say it’s all about the Benjamins, well no it’s not. Is it partly about the Benjamins? Yes. And that’s why I was nodding when Yousef was speaking.
MH: That doesn’t have the same resonance as a lyric though. “It’s partly about the benjamins.”
DS: Right. It’s partly about — do Benjamins play a role?
MH: Netanyahu said this weekend, “AIPAC, take it from this Benjamin, it has nothing to do with the Benjamins.”
DS: And I disagree with that.
MH: You accept Yousef’s point that there’s an analogy between AIPAC and the NRA. Is AIPAC the NRA of the Middle East, is that fair to say?
DS: I would say: Are they both lobbying groups —
MH: Quite influential lobbying groups.
DS: That bring a lot of money to bear in order to shape policy in their direction that they choose. Yes.
MH: So what’s the simplistic — unpack where you think she got it wrong.
DS: Right. So where I think she got it wrong is that, you know, there’s also some truth to what Meghan McCain had to say which is that there is still a very significant amount of pro-Israel sentiment among Americans, but, as we know, it’s not just about broad public sentiment as measured in opinion polls, what’s also important is the strength of preferences, and we know that single-issue voters have a very significant impact, and a disproportionate impact in terms of legislation, in terms of going to the polls.
So there are significant number of particularly Evangelical Christians, which we haven’t mentioned, and also American Jews, especially those on the right, who vote pro-Israel in a pro-Likud-ish sort of way as a single issue, so they’re able to have a disproportionate impact. So I think it’s complicated and to have a Congress, for me to have a congresswoman tweeting something, you know, flippant like, “it’s all about the Benjamins” is not a contribution to discourse, hence the face-palming when I saw that.
MH: And you mention the idea of single-issue voters. One of the other accusations against Ilhan Omar in relation to AIPAC and the lobby of course was her comments about “dual loyalty,” comments that she made at a public event in Washington D.C., which she says wasn’t in relation to dual loyalty, it was in relation to members of Congress being able to show allegiance to Israel.
Stenny Hoyer, the House majority leader, turned up at AIPAC this week and he said this:
Stenny Hoyer: “When someone accuses American supporters of dual loyalty, I say accuse me!”
MH: Debra, does that make any sense to you? On the one hand it’s anti-Semitic to accuse someone of dual loyalty, on the other hand, you get lots of applause at AIPAC if you say, “Accuse me of dual loyalty.” I’m lost.
DS: I think the reason why that got a lot of applause is because, first of all, he obviously doesn’t really believe that it’s dual loyalty, and also because hearing a non-Jew say that to express that sort of solidarity, you know, it’s not Jews, it’s Americans.
MH: To be fair to Representative Omar, she never referred to Jews either, she was referring to Congress, which is majority non-Jewish.
DS: Look, you’re absolutely correct and this is what I think is a really important point as we discuss Ilhan Omar, which is I think we have to be absolutely loyal as we quote her as we talk about what she said, to actually quote what she actually said. I mean many words have been imputed to her, most recently, let’s say by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post that said something like “blah blah blah, Jews control the world with money” which she never said!
MH: She never used the word “Jews” even once.
DS: Which she never said, she never said. Right.
MH: And you see lazy paraphrasing by journalists on TV, summarizing AIPAC as Jews. Weirdly, I was on CNN last week with Bill Kristol, and he went out of his way to say AIPAC is not a Jewish organization. I said, “I agree with Bill Kristol,” which is not a line I ever thought I would say in public. But he’s right! I mean he’s actually pointing out reality.
Yousef, how do we talk, if we support the Palestinians and we want to call out AIPAC, how do we talk about AIPAC without falling into some of these “anti-Semitic tropes,” without having people like Debra do a face-palm, without sounding simplistic about the role of lobbying. Is there a way, is there a way of navigating that?
YM: Yeah. I think it’s important to be accurate and precise and truthful to the greatest extent possible in every comment that we make about this issue.
I also think —
MH: Because there are anti-Semitic tropes involving Jews running the world and Jewish lobbies.
DS: Can I interrupt for a second, and this is maybe what Yousef was going to say, and I apologize, I want to actually reference Yousef here, because Yousef recently on Twitter did something that I think was super important and I shared it as well. He put out a list of common anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim tropes and I think it’s extremely important to realize that there aren’t only anti-Semitic tropes out there. The good news is, you know, from the perspective of this American Jew, you that even though we hear a lot of anti-Semitic tropes and that’s extremely problematic, there is generally acceptance in the United States that anti-Semitism is not OK. The same is not true of Islamophobia. The same is not true of anti-Palestinian sentiment and I think Yousef did a real service.
YM: I appreciate that. And the big problem that I had with the entire conversation around Representative Omar’s comments is how much Islamophobia there was in that entire spectacle and I think also was very much present and what we saw off of AIPAC’s dais in the last, you know, several days.
DS: I agree.
YM: And here’s the thing about racism: If it’s about anything, it’s about power. And it’s about using language and dividing people in a way to create power structures that benefit some over others. So if we’re going to combat racism it’s important to understand how in our efforts of doing that, we are contributing to these power dynamics. And I think in the singling out of Ilhan Omar, Representative Omar, and I think she was singled out in a way that nobody else has been for a language that was I think mistaken to be anti-Semitic, and I don’t think it was anti-Semitic. I think that entire process reinforced a tremendous amount of Islamophobia and this is what I think also needs to be part of this discussion is the extent to which Islamophobia has become a major part of pro-Israel advocacy in the United States over the last 30 years. It’s not all of pro-Israel advocacy but by many actors in the pro-Israel movement.
MH: AIPAC and people like Adam Millstein —
YM: Yes. Which is why it’s OK point the finger at Representative Omar, but people are very reluctant to point the finger at the white supremacists.
MH: Because it fits into to “Islamophobic tropes.” Debra, before we finish, I have to ask: Right now, there are all of these anti-BDS bills being pushed through Congress, a lot of them by Republicans, not only by Republicans, but the Republicans have made it clear in talking to the press that they see this is a way of dividing the Democrats, making them choose between their base and Israel, making them look anti-Jewish. The president of the United States has accused the Democratic Party of being anti-Jewish —
DS: Of all people.
MH: Of all people. Hello kettle, this is black. What should the Democrats be saying or doing in response to deal with this brazen, cynical smear?
DS: It’s a great question. There’s the issue of the anti-BDS legislation on its merits, which we could have a long conversation about. This is legislation that my organization, Americans for Peace Now, we’ve opposed for various reasons because we believe in free speech, because we don’t believe in the conflation of Israel with the settlements. So lots of, lots of reasons for that.
Frankly, I also think that having a congressional focus on these anti-BDS resolutions is a distraction from the real issues that are preventing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And for that reason, as well, I think they’re problematic. I think there’s demonization involved.
MH: Do you worry that these Republican smears are going to stick?
DS: Sure. Of course. I do. And we should say that it goes beyond just the anti-BDS stuff. We have seen, increasingly, I think we’re going to see more of it instances in which Republicans explicitly use anti-Semitism or at least a purported desire to combat anti-Semitism in order to defeat legislation they don’t like!
MH: We do it with Yemen.
DS: Exactly that has absolutely nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
MH: And Yousef, we’re out of time but I have to ask you this question because as Debra mentioned, you know, the reflection from the reality on the ground, as AIPAC is meeting in Washington D.C., as Nancy Pelosi is saying, “we have shared values” to the crowd Israel continues to besiege, blockade the Gaza Strip, which is still considered occupied territory by the United Nations. There have been rockets fired by groups inside of Gaza. Hamas have denied responsibility. Israel has blamed Hamas. Israel has been bombing Gaza at a level which we haven’t seen for several years, since the last major conflict in 2014. Tell our listeners why the Israeli argument that we are simply responding to rocket attacks on our homes — could you live under rocket fire — why is that argument erroneous, disingenuous in your view?
YM: It’s just completely devoid of context and history. There’s a history there that is, you know, inconvenient for them maybe to discuss, but anyone who understands what has taken place over the past 70 years knows that the Gaza Strip did not exist as it does today that way forever. The vast majority of people living in the Gaza Strip are refugees from areas outside of the Gaza Strip. They’ve been living under military occupation. They’ve been living under siege and they’ve had their basic rights and services denied to them, and what amounts to an open-air prison. If, you know, you look at the actions coming from the Gaza Strip completely devoid of that context you’re never going to understand what’s going on. Even, even if, you know, some folks on the pro-Israel side would like you to do that.
MH: On that note, Yousef Munayyer, Debra Shushan, thank you both for joining me on Deconstructed.
DS: Thank you.
YM: Great to be with you.
MH: That was Yousef Munayyer and Debra Shushan.
And that’s our show! Deconstructed is taking a bit of a break, we’re taking a month off, but we’re going to be back in May with many more fascinating episodes, discussions, debates, and interviews. But yeah, you’ll miss us for the month of April. Do come back in May.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com.
Thanks so much! Remember, we’re not around next week or in April, but we will be back in May, and hopefully Donald Trump won’t say anything controversial in the interim period. Have a great month.