Politics & Policy

Ilhan Omar’s Greatest Hits

Rep. Ilhan Omar, (D., Minn.) walks in Washington, D.C., January 16, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/REUTERS)
The Minnesota congresswoman didn’t become controversial and incendiary overnight.

Ilhan Abdullahi Omar is a Somali-American congresswoman representing Minnesota’s fifth congressional district. In a short time, she’s become one of the most quoted and discussed Democratic officials in the country, for all the wrong reasons.

Back in 2012, before she was elected to the state legislature or Congress, Omar tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” (Israeli forces and Palestinians clashed in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip at the time.) This led to years of accusations that Omar’s opposition to Israel had become indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, with many noting that the notion that Jews “hypnotize” people is a longtime anti-Semitic trope. When asked about this in an interview on CNN January 17, Omar responded, “I don’t know how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans.”

Tuesday, she tweeted that she only now realized why her statement could be offensive. “In all sincerity, it was after my CNN interview that I heard from Jewish organizations that my use of the word ‘hypnotize’ and the ugly sentiment it holds was offensive,” she wrote. “It’s now apparent to me that I spent lots of energy putting my 2012 tweet in context and little energy is disavowing the anti-Semitic trope I unknowingly used, which is unfortunate and offensive.”

That Twitter comment would probably have prompted less criticism if it had been a one-time outburst. In May 2018, she contended, again via Twitter, that “drawing attention to the apartheid Israeli regime is far from hating Jews.”

Accusations that Omar isn’t honest about her true opinion on Israel didn’t come out of nowhere. At an event at a synagogue one week before the House Democratic primary in August, she said that the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement was “counteractive” and “stops the dialogue” — comments that many interpreted as opposing the BDS effort. But after she won the primary, she said she had always supported the BDS movement, and had merely expressed “reservations on the effectiveness of the movement in accomplishing a lasting solution.”

National media coverage of Ilhan Omar has emphasized her faith, life story as a Somali immigrant, and decision to be the first to wear a hijab on the House floor. But there are aspects of her short time in public life that are much less flattering.

In July 2018, state representative Omar was almost six months late in filing her state-mandated economic-interest disclosure, and requested an installment plan to pay the $1,100 in penalties for late filing.

In August, when her mentor and her district’s previous congressman, Keith Ellison, faced allegations that he abused a former girlfriend in 2016, Omar said she would not comment, out of concern for the victim: “I will reserve my opinions until I’m certain that she is in a good place to really advocate and speak on her behalf.”

In mid October, she addressed accusations that one of the men she married is actually her brother. In her account, that’s false, and explained that she has not legally divorced her first husband but has religiously married her second.

In 2002, when I was 19 years old, Ahmed Hirsi (whose name before he received citizenship was Ahmed Aden), the father of my children and love of my life, and I, applied for a marriage license, but we never finalized the application and thus were never legally married. In 2008, we decided to end our relationship in our faith tradition after reaching an impasse in our life together. I entered into a relationship with a British citizen, Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, and married him legally in 2009. Our relationship ended in 2011 and we divorced in our faith tradition. After that, he moved home to England. I have yet to legally divorce Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, but am in the process of doing so. Insinuations that Ahmed Nur Said Elmi is my brother are absurd and offensive. Since 2011, I am happy to say that I have reconciled with Ahmed Hirsi, we have married in our faith tradition and are raising our family together.

In November, the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board revealed that it found probable cause regarding possible misuse of campaign funds by Omar and that the board launched another investigation. State representative Steve Drazkowski contended that Omar used campaign funds to pay for a trip to Massachusetts and a trip to Estonia, as well as paying legal fees to her divorce attorney. Minnesota state law requires campaign funds to be used only on expenses that help “a candidate in the performance of state legislative duties.” Drazkowski noted that in 2017, Omar “accepted payments from three Minnesota colleges after making appearances on campuses — which Drazkowski said was a clear violation of Minnesota House rules. So far, Omar has repaid $2,500 of the $2,750 amount she should not have accepted.”

The editorial board of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune — hardly a gang of right-wing ideologues — concluded, “To be sure, the sum of money in question in any one of these accusations is small. But together, the charges suggest a pattern of carelessness and/or self-dealing with legally restricted funds.”

Omar’s comments received somewhat heavier scrutiny from the national press once she arrived in Washington.

On January 3, she tweeted that she was the first refugee elected to Congress. There were at least four other refugees elected to Congress before her. She also said that the current Congress was the first to include a Palestinian American, but Representative Justin Amash of Michigan and former senator John Sununu of New Hampshire are both Palestinian Americans.

On January 14, freshman Republican congressman Dan Crenshaw announced over Twitter, “If Houston’s hardworking federal workers aren’t getting paid, then I shouldn’t be paid either. My pay will be withheld until the government reopens.” Omar replied on Twitter, “1) We aren’t paid until Feb 1st, so no pay to withhold now. 2) Vote to reopen the government like we did & give hardworking Fed employees their paychecks. That’s caring! Stop with the virtue signaling Congressaman [sic], the American people need this to end now, not Feb 1st.” It’s unclear what she meant. While members get their first paychecks on February 1, they begin getting paid starting when they are sworn in January 3. Many members of the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle have either requested that their paychecks be withheld or pledged to donate their pay to charity until the shutdown ends.

In her CNN interview, Omar was asked about a recent tweet about Senator Lindsey Graham that declared, “They got to him, he is compromised.” (While she did not specify who she meant by “they,” from the context it seems clear she’s referring to President Trump and his allies.) Asked about that comment by CNN, Omar answered, “Graham has told us how dangerous this president could be if he was given the opportunity to be in the White House, and all of the sudden he’s made not only a 180-turnaround but a 360-turnaround.” (The congresswoman probably needs a refresher on geometry: If you turn 180 degrees, you have reversed direction; if you make a 360 degree turnaround, you are facing the same direction you were before the turn.)

When CNN anchors asked if she had any evidence to support her claim, she said, “The evidence really is present to us. It’s being presented to us in the way that he is behaving.” Pressed further, she backtracked slightly, saying it “was just an opinion based on what I believe to be visible to me — and I’m pretty sure there are lots of Americans who agree on this.”

Most recently, she weighed in on the controversy surrounding the Covington Catholic students, protesters from the Black Hebrew Israelites religious group, and Native American demonstrator Nathan Phillips. Omar tweeted, “The boys were protesting a woman’s right to choose & yelled ‘it’s not rape if you enjoy it’. . . They were taunting 5 Black men before they surrounded Phillips and led racist chants . . . Sandmann’s family hired a right wing PR firm to write his non-apology.” The comment about rape was not from a Covington Catholic student, the Black Hebrew Israelites had called the students all manner of offensive slurs, and if Omar genuinely believes it’s wrong for a teenager unexpectedly thrust into the public spotlight to hire a public-relations firm, she will presumably denounce the Parkland Teens any day now. Omar later deleted the tweet.

Her 2012 tweet about Israel “hypnotizing the world,” is, as of this writing, still online.

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