Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments about Israel are consuming Congress with Trump, Pelosi, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all taking sides

  • Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar has provoked debate and division in Washington after making comments critical of Israel that many believe trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes.
  • Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have taken the opportunity to slam Democrats, despite the party’s mixed record on condemning bigotry.
  • The controversy over Omar’s comments has divided Democrats, exposing a rift in the party on issues of race and religion as the House plans to vote on a resolution condemning “all forms of hate.”

Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, provoked a high-profile and contentious debate in Washington after she accused pro-Israel lawmakers of pushing “for allegiance to a foreign country” in a tweet last weekend.

Many Democrats, including some members of leadership, accused Omar of playing into decades-old anti-Semitic stereotypes about American Jews’ “dual loyalty” to Israel.

Omar supports the movement to boycott Israel and has been critical of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. She has also been vocal in her opposition to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington that nearly always aligns with the Israeli government.

Read more: Several 2020 Democratic candidates are rushing to defend embroiled Rep. Ilhan Omar over accusations of anti-Semitism

Last month, Democratic leaders in the House condemned another tweet in which Omar argued that pro-Israel American lawmakers were influenced by donations from groups like AIPAC. Omar apologized amid the intense backlash.

Omar, who is Muslim and moved to the US from Somalia as a refugee, also faced criticism for tweeting during the Israeli military campaign against Hamas in November 2012 that “Israel has hypnotized the world.”

The congresswoman has repeatedly rejected accusations of anti-Semitism.

“I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attack,” she tweeted on Sunday.

The GOP attacks, despite

Many Republicans jumped on the opportunity to attack Omar and Democrats more broadly. Some, including President Donald Trump, pushed for the congresswoman to be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

At the White House last month when Omar was under fire for previous anti-Semitic comments, Trump also said the embroiled congresswoman should resign from Congress.

“What she said is so deep-seeded in her heart that her lame apology, that’s what it was, it was lame and she didn’t mean a word of it, was just not appropriate,” Trump said during a January cabinet meeting.

Trump tweeted again on Wednesday, condemning House Democrats for failing to “take a stand against anti-Semitism in their conference.”

Democrats have pointed out that Trump himself has repeatedly made comments widely interpreted as anti-Semitic. He and his campaign have, on numerous occasions, promoted anti-Semitic memes, including an image of Hillary Clinton with a Jewish star and a pile of money. In 2017, he said some members of a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville were “very fine people.”

Islamophobic attacks

Omar has also been a victim of bigoted attacks recently.

Last Friday, the West Virginia Republican Party displayed a poster linking Omar with the 9/11 terrorist attacks during an event at the statehouse. The poster featured an image of the twin towers in flames with the words “‘Never Forget’ – you said..” above an image of Omar with the words “I am the proof – you have forgotten.”

The state Republican Party said in a statement that it never approved of or saw the poster before it was displayed and that it had it removed after learning of its existence.

Ken Klippenstein‏, a reporter for the left-wing news outlet The Young Turks, reported on Wednesday night the right-wing group, ACT for America, behind the poster has ties to the Trump administration. ACT Director of Government Relations Lisa Piraneo is married to Department of Homeland Security official John Barsa, who previously served as then-DHS Secretary John Kelly’s special assistant. Trump has nominated Barsa to lead USAID’s Latin America Bureau.

Freshmen Reps. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Katie Hill (D-Calif.)

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Freshmen Reps. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Katie Hill (D-Calif.)
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Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Democrats divided

The Democratic response to Omar’s most recent comments have exposed a rift in the Party on issues of race and religion.

While some Democratic lawmakers, including several Jewish members, have pushed Party leadership to formally condemn Omar’s remark, many lawmakers of color and younger members have denounced the criticism as unfair or misplaced.

Democratic leadership proposed putting a House resolution condemning anti-Semitism to a vote.

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday laid into both Democrats and Republicans who’ve condemned Omar, arguing that her treatment is evidence of a double-standard when it comes to how Congress deals with allegations of bigotry.

“Where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?'” the 29-year-old New York progressive tweeted on Tuesday.

Many progressives have also argued that Omar’s critics aim to censor voices that oppose Israeli government policy and US policy in the Middle East.

Several Democratic presidential candidates released statements this week defending Omar.

“We must not … equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, said on Wednesday.

Read more: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez laid into Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership after they condemned Ilhan Omar’s Israel comments

He added, “What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren similarly argued that criticism of Israel shouldn’t be “automatically” branded as anti-Semitic.

Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand took a different tack. While Harris expressed concern that singling out Omar would jeopardize the congresswoman’s safety, Gillibrand called the Republican response to Omar hypocritical given their silence in the face of similar remarks made by their own members.

Some Democrats expressed frustration that debate over Omar’s statements has overshadowed the Party’s legislative agenda.

“We are actually making great progress on gun safety legislation, on democracy reform, on prescription drug reform – and Republicans would like nothing more than for us to be dragged down into daily skirmishes over identity politics at this point,” Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin told The New York Times. “We have to get past all of this, and quickly.”

FILE PHOTO: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington

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FILE PHOTO: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington
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Reuters

A resolution condemning “all forms of hate”

During a contentious closed-door caucus meeting on Wednesday, several members criticized the proposed House resolution. The Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus both pushed back on the measure, and argued the resolution should include a condemnation of Islamophobia, as well.

The backlash convinced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to postpone a vote on the resolution in order to broaden its language.

On Thursday afternoon, the House voted overwhelmingly on a resolution condemning “all forms of hate.” It doesn’t mention Omar by name.

Pelosi also told reporters that she doesn’t believe Omar was motivated by anti-Semitism and that the congresswoman was unaware that she was playing into hurtful stereotypes.

“I feel confident that her words were not based on any anti-Semitic attitude, but that she didn’t have a full appreciation for how they landed on other people,” Pelosi said during a Thursday press conference.

John Haltiwanger contributed to this report.