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Ilhan Omar and the “Compromise of 1954”


Our call this week will be at our regular time, Friday at Noon EST.

Our guest will be Ilhan Omar, who represents Minnesota’s Fifth District in Congress, and was last week removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a vote of the House. This call will be cosponsored by Jewish Currents.

As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week.


Sources Cited in this Video

My New York Times column on Ilhan Omar’s record on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Professor Gerald Horne on the Compromise of 1954. Horne uses the term more broadly than I do: To refer to the civil rights movement’s decision not just to restrict itself to domestic affairs but to eschew a critique of American capitalism.

In this 2020 Jewish Currents essay about Raphael Warnock, I touched on the ways pro-Israel orthodoxy reinforces the Compromise of 1954—by punishing Black politicians who challenge US policy toward the Palestinian people.

In my discussion in the video about Black Americans who paid a price for challenging US foreign policy, I may have been imprecise. W.E.B. Dubois renounced his US citizenship late in life and died in Ghana. The State Department revoked Paul Robeson’s passport in 1950, which denied him the right to travel. Jackie Robinson criticized Paul Robeson in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949. Robinson later criticized Muhammed Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam.

It’s important to acknowledge that interspersed with Dubois’ and Robeson’s valid critics of US and Western foreign policy was an idealization of the Soviet Union that led them to overlook its appalling human rights abuses. To her credit, Omar does not similarly romanticize America’s adversaries. She has, for instance, been profoundly critical of China’s repression in Xinjiang. What distinguishes her from her congressional colleagues is her willingness to acknowledge that America’s “war on terror” has helped China justify that repression.

Things to Read

In Jewish Currents (subscribe), Mari Cohen investigates the campaign to insulate Israel from the effects of socially responsible investing.

Last week, Rula Jebreal and I spoke to Chris Hayes on MSNBC about the rising violence in Israel-Palestine. (Our segment starts about 34 minutes in. You have to listen to some ads first.)

I’m speaking at Temple Israel of New Rochelle on February 16.

A smart twitter thread by Josh Leifer on why establishment American Jewish organizations will never truly challenge this Israeli government

A deeply moving and challenging 1995 lecture by the late Rabbi David Hartman about Shabbat and the relationship between parents and children.

See you on Friday,



Hi. I’m really excited to announce that our guest this Friday for our weekly Zoom conversation is going to be Representative Ilhan Omar. Paid subscribers will get the information on Wednesday as usual. It’ll be on Friday at noon, which is our usual time. And also this will be cosponsored with Jewish Currents.

I wrote a column in the New York Times last week about Ilhan Omar’s removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and I wanted to elaborate a little bit on some of the thoughts that influenced that column. Now, as you probably know, the debate about Ilhan Omar has been centered on these claims that she is antisemitic. And her defenders have kind of responded with a counter claim of bigotry, suggesting that her accusers are themselves bigots because they are attacking an African-born Muslim woman. As I’m sure you know, Ilhan Omar is the only African-born Muslim refugee in Congress. It’s a very, very unusual profile for a member of Congress.

I don’t want to talk about these accusations of antisemitism now, just because I’ve written a lot and talked a lot about the kind of weaponization of antisemitism. And so, I think anyone, if you’re familiar with it already, you’ll know why I think that two comments that Ilhan Omar made over the course of 10 years which evoked antisemitic tropes, perhaps—even though in the case of AIPAC she was talking about something which is a very real reality, which is the influence of their money—and then apologized, right? Hardly constitutes a serious degree of antisemitism, especially when compared to the kind of pervasive bigotry that exists in conversations in Washington about Palestinians, where it’s considered completely legitimate to basically want Palestinians to live their entire lives without the most basic rights.

But that’s not actually what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is that I think the fact that people have focused so much on Ilhan Omar’s identity as the reason that she’s under attack has missed something really important about what’s happening here. Yes, obviously the fact that she is a Black Muslim woman plays a role in the fact that she was removed from the Foreign Affairs Committee. But if she were a Black African-born Muslim woman who was not a particular kind of critic of American foreign policy, then I don’t think this would have happened at all. Which is to say, it’s the intersection of her identity and her politics, particularly her perspective on foreign policy. And this is something that I think really ties in. This is something we’ve seen repeatedly throughout American history. Which is that when Black public figures express a kind of what you call anti-imperial critique of US foreign policy, which is that they identify with the victims of American foreign policy and offer a kind of fundamental critique of American foreign policy, they are very, very severely punished by the American political system.

And the historian Gerald Horne, who’s at the University of Houston, has a really, really interesting discussion of what he calls the Compromise of 1954. What does he mean by this? He means that there were a series of important African American figures in the early and mid-twentieth century. People like W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson, who twinned their support for African American civil rights with a very strong critique of America’s imperial policy as America was becoming more of an empire into the twentieth century. And Horne argues that the kind of white American political system had no tolerance for that. And Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois were both at various points, you know, at risk of losing their citizenship. And Horne argues that what the civil rights movement did, particularly the NAACP, and what he calls the Compromise of 1954, is it separated off its domestic struggle for civil rights from this critique of America’s place in the world.

And so, you see this with figures like Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson was a strong supporter of civil rights, but he was also a public critic of Robeson and of Muhammad Ali when they criticized American foreign policy. And when Martin Luther King then kind of violated the Compromise of 1954 by coming out against the Vietnam war, he was also very, very harshly critiqued. And then you see later figures like Andrew Young, coming out of the civil rights movement, losing his job as Jimmy Carter’s Ambassador to the United Nations because of some of the things he says about American foreign policy, which are considered very critical, and for his interactions with the PLO.

I think this is the context in which you have to understand Ilhan Omar. Horne has a very interesting line. He writes: “it may inhere in the nature of being an oppressed nationality to adopt viewpoints that are considered to be beyond the mainstream.” What Horne is saying is it’s really not that surprising that Black Americans might incline towards a critique of American foreign policy given the solidarity they might feel with people in the Global South who suffer often from the effects of American foreign policy to make a kind of critique of American foreign policy, which essentially challenges American exceptionalism—American exceptionalism being the idea that America is kind of naturally inclined to promote democracy and freedom around the world. That that’s just kind of what we do. And that human rights violations are generally the products of our adversaries.

And what was so striking about Ilhan Omar, because I went back for this New York Times piece and read a lot of the transcripts of the hearings, is again and again and again you see the other Democrats and Republicans on the committee essentially speaking in an American exceptionalist framework. They basically focus inordinate attention on the human rights abuses of America’s adversaries—Russia, China, and Iran, in particular—and they ask these witnesses, basically, how America can counter those adversaries, and how America can basically increase its power and do more good around the world? Ilhan Omar does something very different. Again and again, she zeros in, especially talking to US administration officials, on specific cases of America’s human rights abuses in Africa, in Latin America, specific questions about—and in this way she gives voice I think to the experience that many people in the Global South have of American foreign policy, which is not America as a beacon of freedom and democracy, but as America as a country that sends drones over their territory. America as a country that arms and supports the dictators who oppress them. America as a country that imposes sanctions, broad-based sanctions, that often make it hard to get medicine and other basic necessities in countries like Cuba, for instance, that have long been under US sanctions. Ilhan Omar is the only person who talks that way. And I think it’s that particular critique, which is very rare in Congress—you hear it a bit from Bernie Sanders, but it’s generally quite rare—in conjunction with her identity that essentially led her to violate Gerald Horne’s Compromise of 1954, which essentially says to Black politicians: you can focus on Black civil rights at home; you can’t become a serious critic of American imperial foreign policy.

And the role of the Palestinian question plays an important role here because Israel is the country that gets the most US military aid, right? And so, if in some ways the fact that America is giving the largest amount of military aid to a country that has now been designated as practicing apartheid by its own leading human rights organizations and the leading human rights organizations in the world is in some ways the single biggest challenge to the whole notion of American exceptionalism. And so, if you’re gonna challenge that entire paradigm, you almost inevitably end up partly focusing on this issue. Although Ilhan Omar’s involvement in foreign policy, if you read the hearings, most of it, the vast majority of it is really not about Israel-Palestine per se, but that her critique of American military support for Israel is part of a broader critique that she’s making about the militarism of American foreign policy all over the world.

And so, I’ll just end by saying that if one were to think about who the Democrats should replace Ilhan Omar with on the House Foreign Affairs Committee—since I think they now have this spot because she’s been removed—I think the only person, the best person who comes to mind for me is Rashida Tlaib. Now, someone might say, well OK, you want to replace one Muslim woman with another Muslim woman, or put a Palestinian on there to kind of poke a finger in their eye. That’s actually really not the point. The reason that I think Rashida Tlaib would be the best successor to Ilhan Omar is Rashida Tlaib is one of the very, very few other members of Congress who I think has this broad-based critique of US foreign policy, where she recognizes that—as do many, many people outside the United States, but not many people in Washington—that the United States is fully capable of very grave human rights abuses. And the role of the oversight of Congress is to be a check against those human rights abuses. That there’s nothing wrong of course with talking about the human rights abuses committed by Russia and China and Iran. They are legion. But that the US has much, much less influence.

And it makes sense for members of Congress to focus on oversight of the human rights abuses that America actually commits itself. And if one wants to focus on those things—in addition to focusing on America’s counterterrorism policies in Africa, and our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and in numerous governments around the world, and our drones strikes, and our sanctions policy—you have to also focus on American military aid to Israel. Not because you want to single out Israel, but precisely for the opposite reason: because you don’t want to single out Israel and the Palestinians. You want to have the same perspective towards them that you would have towards American foreign policy in general. And if you’re concerned about America’s violation of human rights, you have to be concerned about almost $4 billion dollars in unconditional military aid to a government that the human rights community claims is practicing apartheid, that has been holding Palestinians without basic rights in the West Bank for more than 50 years.

And I actually think that Rashida Tlaib is probably the member of Congress, other than Ilhan Omar, who is most committed to that human rights framework. Which is the reason that on the Foreign Affairs Committee, she would be a threat not just to Israel because of the oversight, but also to Saudi Arabia, to the UAE, to Ethiopia, to a large range of regimes around the world that commit human rights abuses with American support. So, I’m looking forward to talking to Ilhan Omar about some of this on Friday at noon ET and I hope many of you will join us.

The Beinart Notebook
The Beinart Notebook
Peter Beinart