The recent maelstrom that enveloped Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her comments about the power of the Israel lobby is as frustrating as it is unsurprising. And it has everything to do with who she is and what she looks like.
Omar is a black Muslim woman, a refugee from Somalia, and, most importantly, defiant and unapologetic. Her visible markers of distinction—not white, not Christian, not male—make her a presumptive threat to the political establishment. These markers may not have triggered the establishment’s anxiety, however, had Omar simply adorned them as displays of diversity that could be celebrated during moments of performative tolerance once or twice a year, such as Black History Month or International Women’s Day. But Omar did not come to Congress to fit in. She does not apologize for being radically different or base her political agenda on making sure that she and others like her fit in. She came to confront the system that systematically excludes people like her. By definition, therefore, she is a threat the moment she walks into a room and before she even says a word.
Last week, Marc Lamont Hill, academic, activist and media personality, addressed the United Nations at its commemoration of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Hill’s speech was a bold call because it countered U.S.-led orthodoxy clinging to a two-state solution despite a one-state reality in which Palestinians are neither sovereigns of their own state nor citizens of Israel. Hill’s closing words, imploring international actors to support Palestinian freedom “from the river to the sea,” effectively demanded the dismantlement of an apartheid regime and the establishment of a bi-national state. In that sense, his views are commensurate with leading voices critical of the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet apologists for Israeli policies quickly mobilized a vicious smear and harassment campaign. CNN responded by firing Hill, and the chairman of Temple University’s board of trustees said he was searching for ways to essentially punish Hill, a media studies professor there.
Understanding the significance of Hill’s address and the motivations of his detractors requires us to move beyond the immediate question of Palestine and issues of academic freedom and free speech. His speech forms an important part of a renewed manifestation of Black-Palestinian solidarity, itself a component of a longer legacy of black internationalism and Third Worldism. In this sense, his speech echoed a discourse and vibrancy once emblematic of diplomatic revolutionary efforts at the United Nations that had receded in the folds of a collapsed internationalism.
Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney and an Assistant Professor at George Mason University. She has taught international human rights law in the Middle East at Georgetown University since Spring 2009. Noura is a Co-Editor of Jadaliyya. Read more . . .
My book, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine(Stanford University Press, 2019) narrates the Palestinian struggle for freedom as told through the relationship between international law and politics during five critical junctures between 1917-2017 to better understand the emancipatory potential of law and to consider possible horizons for the future.
My research interests include human rights law, humanitarian law, refugee law, national security law, social justice, critical race theory, and the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Read more . . .
As a Co-Founding Editor of Jadaliyya, I have the privilege of working with a remarkable team of scholars and analysts who have their hand on the pulse of dynamic change and historical perspective in the Middle East.
Legal Agenda is a Beirut-based NGO established in 2010 dedicated to legal reform throughout the Arab world through civic and judicial empowerment including the interdisciplinary study of law and society.