Two Jewish House Democrats, alarmed by what they view as anti-Semitic comments from new Muslim colleagues, are urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants to denounce the divisive rhetoric and take action to stop it.
Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Elaine Luria of Virginia are gathering signatures on a letter asking Pelosi (Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and other senior Democrats to confront freshman Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan by “reiterating our rejection of anti-Semitism and our continued support for the State of Israel.”
“As Jewish Members of Congress, we are deeply alarmed by recent rhetoric from certain members within our Caucus, including just last night, that has disparaged us and called into question our loyalty to our nation,” the letter reads, according to a draft viewed by The Washington Post. “We urge you to join us in calling on each member of our Caucus to unite against anti-Semitism and hateful tropes and stereotypes.”
While the letter does not name Omar and Tlaib, its intention couldn’t be clearer. In fact, Jewish lawmakers in recent weeks have huddled privately to discuss what they should do about their new colleagues, who openly criticize Israel and have made insensitive comments about Jews and Jewish Americans.
The last straw came Sunday night, when Omar suggested in a tweet that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., only supported Israel for campaign donations.
“It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote, an apparent reference to the 1997 Puff Daddy single featuring the Notorious B.I.G., Lil’ Kim and The Lox.
Omar was responding to a tweet from Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who argued on Twitter that the GOP’s move to equate Omar and Tlaib’s criticism of Israel to Rep. Steve King’s, R-Iowa, embrace of white supremacist rhetoric “is obscene.”
“In the US, we’re allowed to criticize our own government: certainly foreign governments. The GOP House Leader’s priorities are warped,” he wrote.
When people asked what Omar meant by McCarthy’s motives being “all about the Benjamins,” she tweeted, “AIPAC,” referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group that has spent millions sending lawmakers on visits to the Jewish nation over the years.
While comments like these in recent weeks have garnered criticism from Republicans, Democrats are starting to speak out against what they say is a tired and ugly anti-Semitic trope: That Jews control politics through money. In their letter, Gottheimer and Luria acknowledge attempts to force a conversation on the matter, arguing that “we cannot remain silent.”
“We must speak out when any Member – Democrat or Republican – uses harmful tropes and stereotypes, levels accusations of dual loyalty, or makes reckless statements like those yesterday,” the two wrote. “All Members of Congress should reject anti-Semitism, just as we reject all forms of hatred, bigotry, and intolerance, and must denounce those who deny Israel’s right to exist, including terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.”
Some of the most ardent pro-Israel Democratic members of the House condemned the tweets Monday, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Florida Rep. Ted Deutch.
Nadler called the tweets “deeply disappointing and disturbing” and said Omar “appears to traffic in old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money.” Lawmakers can debate the influence of any particular group on policymaking, he said, but they must “be extremely careful not to tread into the waters of anti-Semitism or any other form of prejudice or hate.”
Deutch, who has emerged as a leading Democratic voice against anti-Semitism, also said the tweets reflected “anti-Semitic tropes.”
“The use of stereotypes and offensive rhetoric by Members of Congress, whether anti-Semitic or racist, must come to an end,” he said. “They should never be a part of any conversation about the policies of Congress. They do not belong in any conversation, period.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., said in a Monday statement it was “shocking to hear a Member of Congress invoke the anti-Semitic trope of ‘Jewish money.” Omar serves on the Foreign Affairs panel. “I fully expect that when we disagree on the Foreign Affairs Committee, we will debate policy on the merits and never question members’ motives or resort to personal attacks,” Engel said. “Criticism of American policy toward any country is fair game, but this must be done on policy grounds.”
Omar’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. Her spokesman told Politico Sunday that the tweets “speak for themselves.” Tlaib’s spokesman also has not responded to a request for comment.
This is the second time in as many weeks that Omar has become entangled in a Twitter controversy replete with emoji and snarky clapbacks centered on the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Omar, who supports the anti-Israel movement called BDS, for “boycott, divestment and sanctions,” has persistently fought accusations of anti-Semitism by maintaining that her condemnation of the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinians does not equate to condemnation of Jewish people. She has also claimed to be the victim of GOP attacks seeking to misrepresent her position on Israel as anti-Semitic.
The onslaught of criticisms continued Monday, as several more Democrats joined the chorus in rebuking Omar.
Reps. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., and Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., said they find offense in the suggestion that members of Congress support Israel because of money. Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., who’s Jewish, wrote in a statement Sunday that Omar’s comments invoke “hurtful stereotypes and caricatures of Jewish people.”
Rep. Daniel Kildee, D-Mich., was more restrained in his criticism, telling CNN that people shouldn’t “go too far to make judgments” that Omar’s comments are anti-Semitic. But, he added: “I think sometimes we ought to tamp down a bit of the rhetoric.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Omar’s words only serve to fuel bigotry.
“Words matter,” he said in a tweet tagging Omar.
The American Jewish Committee demanded an apology, calling her suggestion that AIPAC is paying American politicians for their support “demonstrably false and stunningly anti-Semitic.” The organization linked to a 2018 Gallup poll finding that 64 percent of Americans sympathize with the Israelis over the Palestinians, saying, “American politicians are pro-Israel because Americans are.”
Chelsea Clinton also weighed in, seconding a criticism from Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor at the Jewish publication the Forward.
“Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way. Sincerely, American Jews,” Ungar-Sargon wrote back to Omar on Twitter.
Others have defended Omar and Tlaib, contending that critics are conflating the congresswomen’s condemnation of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism.
“Accurately describing how the Israel lobby works is not anti-semitism,” Ashley Feinberg, a HuffPost reporter, wrote in another tweet that was shared by Omar.
Women’s March organizer Sophie Ellman-Golan accused McCarthy of attacking Omar and Tlaib “in the name of ‘defending’ Jews.” She called out McCarthy for tweeting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
Omar’s comments come on the heels of escalating Republican ire for the positions that she and Tlaib have put forth in Congress, joining a small group of lawmakers willing to challenge the United States’ traditional support for Israeli policy.
Rep Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and GOP Chairman Ronna McDaniel called for her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McDaniel said Pelosi should not have placed Omar on the committee. On Friday, McCarthy urged Democratic leadership to admonish Omar and Tlaib for their backing of the BDS movement, which is intended to put economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Monday urged Pelosi to call a vote on an anti-BDS bill that the Senate passed last week with bipartisan support.
“The U.S. House of Representatives has an opportunity to act in a concrete way to tackle anti-Semitism right now,” Rubio tweeted.
AIPAC, which is not a political action committee, does not make campaign contributions to politicians, but its individual members can make donations, and the organization spends millions on lobbying efforts for pro-Israel legislation every year. In 2018, AIPAC spent more than $3.5 million lobbying for pro-Israel measures, according to lobbying disclosure filings maintained by the Senate’s Office of Public Records. Such legislation includes financial support for Israel and measures that would ban boycotts of Israel, including the BDS movement that Omar and Tlaib support.
Still, even some who agree with Omar’s position on Israel argued that she could criticize the Israeli government or the pro-Israel lobbying establishment without using stereotypes that Jews find offensive.
“OF COURSE it’s possible to critique AIPAC et al in a non-anti-Semitic way,” Ungar-Sargon wrote. “This ain’t it, chief.”
“No, criticism of Israel isn’t anti-semitism, just like criticism of a Muslim majority state isn’t islamophobia, by default,” wrote Hend Amry, a Libyan American writer. “However racist or bigoted tropes can be intentionally or unintentionally triggered in making those critiques and yes that matters – it always matters.”
Omar has found herself responding to anti-Semitism accusations before. Last month, she acknowledged that she “unknowingly” used an anti-Semitic trope after a 2012 tweet surfaced in which she said, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
Omar had initially said she didn’t understand why American Jews would be offended by the statement, which critics argued evoked ugly Nazi conspiracies about Jewish people’s power to “hypnotize” the world. She then backtracked and apologized after a New York Times columnist explained to her why Jews could find it offensive. And she later expressed regret while on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” saying she had to “take a deep breath and understand where people were coming from and what point they were trying to make.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Rachel Bade, Kristine Phillips, Mike DeBonis, Meagan Flynn –