Thursday, June 10, 2021

Between "One-Sided" and "Equating", and Other Curmudgeonly Thoughts

So there's another Ilhan Omar thing in the news. I'm in Portland, and having a very nice trip thank you very much, and most certainly do not have time to give this any real attention even though it is pushing all my curmudgeonly buttons.

The short version: Referring to a discussion she had with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken regarding ICC investigations in war crimes which included inquiries into cases involving the U.S., Israel, Hamas, Afghanistan, and the Taliban, Omar tweeted that:

We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. … We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”

This generated a public response from 12 Jewish Democrats who asked Omar to "clarify" her remarks:

Equating the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban is as offensive as it is misguided. Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice.

The United States and Israel are imperfect and, like all democracies, at times deserving of critique, but false equivalencies give cover to terrorist groups. We urge Congresswoman Omar to clarify her words placing the US and Israel in the same category as Hamas and the Taliban.

And in turn, Rep. Omar provided said clarification:

On Monday, I asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken about ongoing International Criminal Court investigations. To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding those ICC cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel. I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial system.

Framed that way, I might have ventured that this was a success story. Rep. Omar issued a perhaps awkwardly worded tweet; she was asked to "clarify" her views; she did so. Huzzah!

But of course, life is never so simple, and so in the midst of this we had people making claims of antisemitism and Islamophobia and silencing and double-standards. This Is The Bad Place.

So -- a few thoughts:

Thought #1: A common refrain I've heard many times from pro-Israel sorts is that they're fine with criticizing Israel, of course they're fine with criticizing Israel, it's slanderous to say they're not fine with criticizing Israel; but the criticism can't be one-sided criticism, it needs to be clear that Hamas commits wrongs worth criticizing too. Which, sure, that makes sense. Except that it often seems that if one does criticize both sides, then the fact of criticizing both sides will itself be indicted -- this time for "equating" the two (this is the mirror image of those who assert that any mention of Hamas misdeeds represents an illegitimate blurring of the "power dynamics" between Israel and Palestine, acting as if there are "two sides" to the conflict).  Such persons don't really object to "one-sidedness" -- they love one-sidedness, they just want the one-side to be the other side.

Indeed, the cynic might wonder whether the only time criticism of Israel is legitimate is when it's one-sided, because only then do we get the litany of affirmations agreeing that "criticism" is legitimate so long as it's not "one-sided". If one comes out of the gate with the "two-sided" criticism, those invocations go mysteriously mute in favor of complaints about "equation". That inconsistency is a problem.

Thought #2: A lot of people have been sharing a Mehdi Hasan tweet where he compares what Omar said to Trump's infamous "You think our country's so innocent?" retort to condemnations of Russian human rights atrocities. As far as Republicans go, that's a fine hypocrisy argument; but as with all hypocrisy arguments it cuts both ways -- the standard Democratic view of Trump's statement was not to say "hey, when he's right he's right" but rather to condemn an alarming failure of perspective. And to Hasan's credit, he cops to this and says forthrightly that "once you take out all the nakedly partisan pointscoring and thinskinned patriotic chestbeating, Trump's point is right." But folks who aren't willing to go down that road should think more carefully about their arguments.

Thought #3: Someone suggested on Twitter that Omar, insofar as she calls out human rights violations from sources that would normally be taboo in American politics (such as, say, American violations), stands out for being consistent in a way other politicians aren't. But I'm not sure that's quite right. It's true that Omar calls out violations in places many other politicians don't, but its also true that Omar can be weirdly reticent to call out human rights violations in places many other politicians wouldn't hesitate (see: her "present" vote on the Armenian genocide resolution). So perhaps it's fairer to say she's inconsistent in an atypical way -- albeit an atypicality that is very much aligned with a particular style of leftist politics associated with her base.

Thought #4: We saw a lot of claims from Omar's defenders that the criticism of her on this issue was itself a case of racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, or these all in combination -- a double-standard where women who look like her and have her background are jumped on by mobs baying for blood whilst other politicians of different identities are given infinite benefit of the doubt. I have more sympathy for this argument than one might expect. But, having read the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism I now know that both claimed double-standards and seemingly excessive vitriol and attention devoted to members of or entities associated with marginalized groups are not valid signifiers of bigotry, even if one disagrees with them on the merits, and that asserting otherwise is itself an attempt to silence free speech. It's nice to have that cleared up.

Thought #5: I said I'm a curmudgeon above, but I'm a curmudgeon with a heart of gold, and what that means in practice is that what I'm most curmudgeonly about is what I see as unnecessary fighting. So my main takeaway is this: Omar's original point was not unreasonable. The Jewish Democrats letter asking for clarification was also not unreasonable. And Omar's response to that letter was also, also not unreasonable. Neither "side" did anything that was worth me spending a millisecond thinking about any of this during my first "trip" in a year and a half.

So, to everyone else, I'll quote a sadly disgraced former jurist who nonetheless was good with the bon mot: "The parties are advised to chill." And let me enjoy my Portland trip in peace, dammit!

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