Coming on the heels of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) anti-Semitic statements and subsequent apology, another Democratic politician was forced to apologize for vitriolic statements about Israel. Ibraheem Samirah, a dentist and the Democratic nominee in a special election next week for a seat in the 86th District of Virginia’s House of Delegates, issued a written apology Friday for a slew of statements, made on social media over several years, including one comparing Israel to the KKK and another wishing for the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to “burn in hell.”
Coming so closely on the heels of Omar’s controversial statements, and following similar support for radical anti-Israel measures by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—for whom Samirah served as a campaign official charged with getting out the vote—Samirah’s candidacy is further evidence of a fundamental sea change in Democratic party politics. “In one generation,” said Kyle Shideler, a scholar with the Middle East Forum think tank, “positions once viewed as radical—literally held up only by groups the U.S. government says were affiliated with Hamas—have now became mainstream and are presented totally without apology.”
In his apology letter, Samirah characterized his earlier remarks as the ill-considered statements of a young student, while, at the same time, arguing that he was the victim of a “slander campaign.”
The candidate offered no details as to who was behind said campaign or why it might’ve been orchestrated. Nor has Samirah stated whether or not he still held the worldview evident from his messages on social media platforms as well as from his years as a leader in Students for Justice in Palestine, a key organization in the BDS movement to single out the Jewish state for censure.
The central tenets of that worldview include Samirah’s claim that the Israeli government stole Jerusalem from Palestinians, a theft, he argues, that was “washed off as the Promised Land for Jews only (using the Torah and Zionist ideology).” Samirah also tweeted, in July of 2014, that he believes the United Arab Emirates “secretly promised to fund Israeli attacks on Gaza.” More recently, on Aug. 16, 2018, the Virginia Democrat took to Facebook to commemorate the 2013 massacre of hundreds of protesters in Egypt’s Rabaa Square, including many members of the opposition party, Muslim Brotherhood, by military forces under then-general Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. “I do not know what other message God is sending me other than I am not dead because I am to avenge the murder of innocent protestors,” Samirah wrote, “not only in Egypt, but in the entire world.” The 2013 killing in Rabaa was widely condemned, including by the U.S. government, but Samirah’s connection to the politics of the Egyptian conflict include a personal element. Samirah’s father, Sabri, whom the candidate had described in social media posts as his “role model,” has served as a spokesman for the Islamic Action Front, a Jordanian party that is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in that country. Between 1993 and 2002, Sabri Samirah also served as board member of the American Muslim Society, also known as the Islamic Association for Palestine, an organization listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial for serving as the propaganda and fundraising arm of Hamas, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department.
And while some, including Samirah’s historically Jewish fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, have defended the candidate from accusations of anti-Semitism, others have said it remains to be seen whether Samirah has outgrown his offensive views. “If this is an individual who’s matured from mouthing what, unfortunately, generations of Palestinians have been raised on, and has a different worldview that includes an understanding of the relations between Israel and the United States, and if he supports the two-state solution, it’s fine,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the director of global social action agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “But now that he’s out in the public arena, he needs to enunciate fully whether or not his views have changed, and, if so, what these changes are. The ball’s in his court.”
Samirah’s campaign has not made the candidate available for comment, and did not reply to a detailed list of questions sent to them via email.
Finally, there are questions surrounding Samirah’s description of himself as a “second generation Palestinian refugee.” According to Article I (c)(3) of the 1951 United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, an individual is no longer considered a refugee if he or she has “acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality.” However, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, has a different definition, extending the status of refugee to all descendants of male Palestinian refugees in perpetuity. Last year, Congress introduced a bill asking that the status of Palestinian refugees be made consistent with the definition of refugees in the Immigration and Nationality Act, which states that “derivative refugee status may only be extended to the spouse or minor child of such a refugee,” adding that “an alien who was firmly resettled in any country is not eligible to retain refugee status.” The Herndon, Virginia-born Samirah did not reply to Tablet’s question inquiring whether he himself aspires to be repatriated in a future Palestinian state.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.