A string of allegedly anti-Semitic public comments from freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar has enraged fellow Democrats and forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top House leaders to take fresh action against one of the early stars of the freshman class.
Lawmakers could vote as soon as Wednesday on a House resolution condemning anti-Semitism prompted by comments Omar, D-Minn., made last week at an event where she suggested that supporters of Israel’s government have an “allegiance to a foreign country.”
The draft resolution “acknowledges the dangerous consequences of perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes” and “rejects anti-Semitism as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.” But it does not specifically rebuke Omar.
Still, chastising her indirectly represents an uncomfortable development for Democrats who have been celebrating Omar, a Somali-American immigrant, as a symbol of an historically diverse House freshman class.
This month, Rolling Stone magazine featured a smiling Omar on the cover alongside Pelosi, D-Calif., and fellow newcomers Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Jahana Hayes, DConn., – an image that was celebrated Saturday in a tweet by Pelosi’s political operation.
But just days prior, Omar had rekindled a firestorm over her criticism of Israel by speaking frankly about the motivations of the nation’s U.S. supporters. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar said at the event, held last Wednesday at a Washington restaurant that frequently hosts left-wing artists and activists.
According to critics, Omar’s comments played into a long-standing attack that Jews cannot be considered loyal citizens of their home countries – and they came after two previous occasions where Omar apologized for making comments with anti-Semitic overtones in the course of criticizing Israeli government policy.
“The idea that certain members of Congress seemingly believe it is acceptable to use historic anti-Semitic tropes accusing Jews of dual loyalty, despite the broad condemnation of the entire House Democratic leadership, is beyond me,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., who has been involved in crafting the resolution. He called Omar’s rhetoric “reminiscent of other hurtful episodes in our history, including when President John Kennedy’s loyalty was called into question simply because he was Irish Catholic.”
Omar apologized in January for a 2012 tweet in which she said Israel had “hypnotized the world” and apologized again last month after suggesting on Twitter that Israel’s supporters were motivated by campaign contributions. That prompted the House to add Republican-offered language to a recent measure on the “importance of combating anti-Semitism.”
But Omar has not apologized for her most recent statements, defending them instead in Twitter postings Sunday.
“I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel,” she wrote. “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 attacks.”
A spokesman for Omar did not reply Monday to a request for comment on the plans for a vote. Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, also declined to comment.
Omar has herself been subject to attacks based on her religion, including the posting of a sign at the West Virginia state capitol linking her to the 9/11 attacks. The sign, at an event hosted by the state Republican Party, juxtaposed an image of the attack on the World Trade Center with a photo of Omar at a congressional hearing – with text calling it “proof you have forgotten.”
The most immediate fallout from Omar’s remarks stand to play out within the Democratic caucus. The latest episode stands to widen the breach between the party’s traditional supporters of Israel, who include Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and liberals who are critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian population within its borders and want Congress to take a more skeptical view of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
That split has helped drive the response to Omar’s latest remarks. A small group of stalwart Democratic Israel allies, including Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, DN.Y., as well as Gottheimer, Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and others, worked through the weekend to craft the resolution and push leaders for its passage.
Engel on Friday called it “unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
“Her comments were outrageous and deeply hurtful, and I ask that she retract them, apologize and commit to making her case on policy issues without resorting to attacks that have no place in the Foreign Affairs Committee or the House of Representatives,” he said.
Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., went so far as to say in a Monday tweet that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable” and called on Omar to apologize.
Adding to the pressure Monday, Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote to Pelosi asking for a congressional resolution rejecting anti-Semitism to “send the unambiguous message that the United States Congress is no place for hate.”
Throughout the past two months, Republicans pressured Democrats to take action against Omar – accusing them of tolerating anti-Semitism in their ranks. Numerous Republicans, including House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming, used social media to slam Pelosi for posing with Omar for Rolling Stone.
“Pretending to condemn @IlhanMN’s anti-semitism while embracing her on this cover & claiming she embodies ‘millions of dreams to women & girls across America’ is disgraceful and immoral,” Cheney said.
GOP lawmakers are pressuring Democrats to take further action by removing Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S.-Israel relations, but two Democrats involved in the drafting of the resolution said that was not under consideration.
“Resolutions are all well and good, but Speaker Pelosi is clearly afraid to stand up to Rep. Omar if she continues to reward her with a plum spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Monday.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Mike DeBonis