Ocasio-Cortez: ‘Criticizing the occupation doesn’t make you anti-Israel’

Freshman lawmaker targeted by Trump opens up about anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Bernie Sanders in lengthy radio interview

Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York on stage during the 2019 Athena Film Festival at Barnard College in New York City, March 3, 2019. (Lars Niki/Getty Images for The Athena Film Festival via JTA)
Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York on stage during the 2019 Athena Film Festival at Barnard College in New York City, March 3, 2019. (Lars Niki/Getty Images for The Athena Film Festival via JTA)

TA — Despite the US president calling her an anti-Israel Jew-hater, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t actually said a ton about Israel and the Jews.

Until now, that is.

In a lengthy radio interview Tuesday, AOC expounded on a huge range of Jewish topics — from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to anti-Semitism to Jewish social justice activism to her use of the term “concentration camps” to her possible Jewish ancestry to Jews of color in Israel to Bernie Sanders.

The conversation about Jewish issues lasted more than 12 minutes, a long time on radio. The interview aired Tuesday on “Ebro in the Morning,” a show on New York City hip-hop station HOT97. The show is hosted by Ebro Darden, whose mother is Jewish, and who attended Hebrew school as a child. A co-host, Peter Rosenberg, is Jewish.

Ocasio-Cortez is critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank — but framed it as a criticism of Israeli policy, not of Israel’s existence. She said that doesn’t mean she’s anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. She gave a shoutout to the leftist Jewish group IfNotNow, which opposes the occupation and is controversial in many parts of the Jewish community for not taking a stance — for or against — Zionism, the Israel boycott or the “question of statehood.”

She also accused the Trump administration of anti-Semitism. She defended her use of the term “concentration camps” to describe detention centers on the border. She praised New York City Jews for standing up for minorities. She discussed Ethiopian Jews protesting in Israel.

Ethiopian-Israelis and supporters protest police violence and discrimination in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Her comments have drawn criticism from the Republican Jewish Coalition, which objected to her agreeing with Darden’s comment that “what’s going on with Israel and Palestine” is “very, very criminal and is very, very unjust.” (Ocasio-Cortez responded, “Absolutely.”)

RJC also objected to comments by Darden, who said, “It’s an oxymoron: How do you have white supremacist Jews? How do you have people like Stephen Miller? How do you have these individuals who are legit aligning with racism and white supremacy, but they’re Jewish?” Ocasio-Cortez was not heard to respond to those questions.

“Ocasio-Cortez could be forgiven for being ignorant about history, about Israel, or about the Jewish community, but these comments don’t come from a place of ignorance,” the RJC said. “They come from an intolerance of Jews and Israel that is unacceptable in the halls of Congress and in American political discourse.”

The RJC, as well as Fox News, claimed that Ocasio-Cortez said Palestinians “have no choice but to riot.” In the full quote, said while discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she appears to be saying that under oppressive conditions, all peoples have no choice but to riot.

“Once someone doesn’t have access to clean water they have no choice but to riot and it doesn’t have to be that way,” she said. “And I’m not even talking about Palestinians. I’m talking about people, communities in poverty in the United States. I’m talking about Latin America. I’m talking about all over the world.”

Here are the main points of AOC’s most Jewish interview ever.

On Israel:

“The Netanyahu administration is very much like the Trump administration.

“The right wants to advance this notion that if you engage in critique of Israeli policy, that you are anti-Semitic, but it’s the furthest thing from the truth.

US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks as, from left, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley listen during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, July 15, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“The same way that me criticizing Trump doesn’t make me anti-American, criticizing the occupation doesn’t make you anti-Israel, frankly. It doesn’t mean you are against the existence of a nation. It means you believe in human rights. It’s about making sure that Palestinian human rights are equal to Israeli human rights, and there are a lot of troubling things happening there.

“We don’t engage in any other country like that. We don’t talk about the U.K. like that, we don’t talk about China like that, we don’t talk about the United States… If you criticize any other country, they don’t say ‘Do you believe in Britain’s right to exist?’

“And I understand that there’s a very deep history, there’s a reason why we ask that question when it comes to Israel, because Jewish people have been persecuted throughout all of human history. But I don’t think that by marginalizing Palestinians you create safety.”

(Earlier in the interview, she suggested that “young Jews in Israel are sick of” Netanyahu and Israel’s right-wing policies. Some undoubtedly are, but as a group, young Israeli Jews are more supportive of Netanyahu than older ones.)

On anti-Semitism (and accusations of anti-Semitism):

“You want to engage in actual discussions of anti-Semitism? That is a legitimate conversation that we can have, because anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States,” she said.

“The actually troubling part about it is that I believe this administration does traffic in anti-Semitism, and then they play these cards as though it’s like their cover. But it’s super disturbing.”

On her use of “concentration camps”:

“If I didn’t say it that way, no one would be talking about concentration camps. We’ve got members [of Congress] going to the border every single weekend because we jostled this discussion. And we named it for what it was.

A woman who sits with her son at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center after recently crossing the US, Mexico border on June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

“I didn’t pull that word out of anywhere. Academics, historians, people who study political science, they all started coming and saying, ‘This is what this is’ before I did. I just amplified what the experts were already saying, and people tried to make this about anti-Semitism too. But I never said these were Holocaust-style concentration camps or death camps. We have had concentration camps before in the United States when we interned Japanese Americans.”

(After Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps,” the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum said that it “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.”)

On the social justice activism of New York City Jews:

“Growing up in New York — New York is like a Jewish capital of America, in many ways of the world. It is a huge part of our culture here and one of the things that I always knew and appreciated growing up is that this is a huge part of why New York Jews have been such staunch advocates for marginalized communities. Jewish communities have long stood for civil rights. They’ve long stood for people who are economically marginalized, for low-income people, for the arts, for all of these things, because it is literally in the culture to say, ‘We don’t let anyone get left behind.’”

On Jews of color and her own (possible) Jewish roots:

“There are Ethiopian Jews, there are Latin American Jews. I mean, Puerto Rico, we have Sephardic Jews. I haven’t done a [DNA test with] 23andMe, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was part Sephardic. In fact, my uncle did a genealogy and there’s a lot of stuff in my family history that points to the fact that we were Sephardic Jews that fled the Spanish Inquisition and ended up in the Caribbean.”

“That’s important because in Israel they are also targeting Jews of color,” she added, presumably a reference to accusations of discrimination there against Ethiopian immigrants and Mizrachi Jews.

IfNotNow activists marching to demand that then President-elect Donald Trump fire Stephen Bannon, Philadelphia, November 22, 2016. (Courtesy of IfNotNow/via JTA)

(In December, at a Hanukkah event, Ocasio-Cortez said, “One of the things that we discovered about ourselves is that a very, very long time ago, generations and generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews.”)

On Bernie Sanders and the Democratic presidential primary:

“[I] love Bernie and I love Elizabeth Warren. Those are not just my politics, but I think they really in a big way check off that box in advocating for the things that I think can win a presidential election,” she said. “But there are a lot of other really great people out there.”

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