By Michael Willard
As we walked down the hill toward the center of Sarajevo, Mustafa made a remark that might be considered anti-semitic by standards of the day or, in fact, any day.
This was a quarter century ago.
The Bosnian War had come to its bloody close. I had landed in a UN troop plane and been told that it was advisable to place flak jackets under our butts to avoid gunfire from below.
It was not necessary. Besides, there were no flak jackets. Unlike Hillary Clinton’s tall tale of dodging sniper bullets during her trip about the same time, I could claim no such experience.
“Pardon me,” the Muslim translator said, out of the blue, “if we haven’t had six million people murdered. But we Bosniaks have had our own holocaust.”
I felt the comparison was odd and lacked sensitivity. Mustafa, though, had gone through the worst imaginable hell living through the war in a city under siege.
The slaughter had ended a few months earlier, December 1995. He was expressing a feeling about the lack of empathy for Muslims, many of whom, including friends, had been killed.
The thought of Mustafa came back to me as controversy swirled around another Muslim recently, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. She was the target of both Democrats and the GOP.
Ms. Omar was roundly criticized for comments deemed critical of those who support Israel. Her thoughts, in my view, were ill-conceived, much like Mustafa’s.
While I carry no brief for the lady, I do understand the backdrop of her feelings. A Somali, she made it to America via a Kenyan refugee camp. Now she is a Congresswoman, the only one to wear a hijab on the House floor.
My assignment long ago was to work with the Bosnian Prime Minister, Izudin Kapetanović, to advise on an issue left undecided by the Dayton Peace Accords, that of the disputed city Brcko.
My colleague, Jennifer Williams and I, stayed in a house that had the back of it blown away. Several people had been killed we were told when a shell landed in the back yard.
Somersault to modern day:
Congresswoman Omar had said, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” — a reference to the $100 bill — suggesting congressional support for Israel was due to dollars directed from AIPAC, the Jewish lobbying group.
On another occasion, she indicated that many of her colleagues were more loyal to a foreign country, Israel, than to the United States.
Compared to statements made by President Trump, including that “Democrats hate Jews”, Omar’s remarks veered into poor taste, but didn’t cross a red line.
However, there was talk of stripping Omar of her committee assignments, and of a resolution condemning her. In the end, she kept her committees and the resolution was a milquetoast compromise.
To vote against it was to vote against mom and apple pie. As approved, it had the substance of cotton candy, sugary and wimpy. It didn’t mention Omar by name and said all forms of bigotry are bad.
Still, 23 Republicans cast “nay” votes, calling it a show ballot, which, frankly, is the nature of most such resolutions. They generally are opportunities to send out a press release.
I have conflicted and contradictory feelings about Omar’s rhetoric. I could play the “some of my best friends are (fill in the blank). Jewish, black, Muslim, Hispanic, Rednecks, etc.” card.
My rainbow streak against bigotry glows brightly. It also guides me in my thinking and writing about Arab countries where I have spent considerable time, including having a home in Turkey.
However, I think America’s policies are unfairly weighted in the region.
Israel is our friend, but we shouldn’t be Israel’s patron saint, including providing $34 billion in military aid when its own per capita income equals that of France.
This is especially true given our President’s complaint that Europe is not sufficiently ponying up to support NATO.
I believe AIPAC does bully Congress, whether this relates to the indirect allocation of campaign funds or from America’s historic backing of Israel, support I endorse but which cries out for even-handedness.
Furthermore, I don’t think the US position is in our national interest, particularly when it comes to the crucial role we should be playing in that tinderbox region.
To tick off a list:
— We should not have established an embassy in Jerusalem, outside the normal and on-going negotiation process,
— We should not have pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement at the behest of the Israeli prime minister, isolating the US from allies who signed the pact.
— Contrary to the concept of civil liberty, the Senate gave serious consideration to AIPAC-backed legislation that would have made it a felony for Americans to participate in an international boycott of Israeli settlements.
That legislation, which failed, should never have come up.
My lessons on Jewish history come from a first-hand source, the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sitting across from him in 1979, he gave an impressive backgrounder of the Israeli nation.
Not to exaggerate my importance, I was a note taker and media advisor My boss was Robert Byrd, then the Senate Leader and an emissary of President Carter.
He was attempting to shore up a fragile peace agreement, meeting not just with Begin, but with President Sadat of Egypt, King Hussain of Jordan; President Assad of Syria; and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Fahd, among others in the region.
I have visited the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem. I have toured Babi Yar, the field and ditch in Kyiv where 34,000 Jews were herded and shot by Nazis.
I challenge anyone to leave either site with a dry eye.
However, there can be no real peace in the Middle East without a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue and it seems now, under Trump, this can’t be seen with a giant telescope.
Yes, words do matter, but we should not — as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote about critics — saddle up our white steeds and attack a hot fudge sundae or, in this case, a congresswoman.
Omar was wrong, but it doesn’t call for a verbal stoning. It calls for serious debate and a renewed commitment to bring sides together.
(J. Michael Willard is an author, international business consultant, and entrepreneur. He is a partner in Willard Global Strategies, based in Orlando, Fl.)