Politics & Policy

Democrats Need to Face the Truth about Ilhan Omar

Representative Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) in Minneapolis, October 26, 2018 (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
But they won’t, because the connection between her support for BDS and her anti-Semitism undermines their stated principles.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic-party leadership thought they solved their Ilhan Omar problem one month ago. After the freshman Minnesota congresswoman outraged both Democrats and Republicans with an anti-Semitic tweet about AIPAC buying congressional support with “the Benjamins,” Pelosi acted quickly.

She set up a private meeting with Omar, following which the freshman issued a contrite-sounding apology saying that she had no idea that her comments were anti-Semitic. It sounded very much like her 2012 apology over a tweet accusing Israel of “hypnotizing the world,” but the Democrats accepted it — and , in turn, ignored calls from Republicans to strip her of her House Foreign Affairs Committee seat as the GOP had stripped Steve King’s (R., Iowa) committee assignments.

Conservative critics argued that Omar’s anti-Semitism, like that of her fellow House freshman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan (who had accused supporters of Israel of dual loyalty in a tweet), was not so much a matter of ill-considered comments but a product of a worldview. Democrats responded with a deluge of whataboutism. They seized upon every questionable tweet or comment from Republicans that could somehow be interpreted as offensive to Jews, despite the reliably pro-Israel stance of the Trump administration and the lack of evidence that any top Republican is remotely anti-Semitic.

Why the defensiveness? Democrats are loath to discard someone like Omar, who was one of their top feel-good stories coming out of the midterms. Omar was the first Somali American to be elected to Congress and forced the House to change its rules about female head coverings in order to accommodate her Muslim faith. As a woman of color and an immigrant, Omar embodied everything the Democrats believed was the right response to President Trump.

That’s why Democrats quickly moved on from Omar’s “Benjamins” comment. Indeed, Pelosi posed with Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Jahana Hayes for the cover of this month’s issue of Rolling Stone magazine, which featured “The Women Shaping the Future.” While AOC is the rock star of the class of 2018, Pelosi’s embrace of Omar showed that support for BDS would be no bar to coveted committee assignments in a party where identity politics is the priority.

Yet Omar doubled down on anti-Semitic invective the first chance she got.

At a “Progressive Town Hall” held in Washington last week, she claimed that her “Jewish colleagues” were targeting her and representative Rashida Tlaib because “we are Muslim.” According to Omar, she and Tlaib are both innocent of using anti-Semitic tropes and the victims of religious discrimination by a powerful lobby that uses “Benjamins” to buy off members of Congress, especially Jewish ones:

a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our allies got to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim. . . . It’s almost as if everything we say regardless of what it is we say . . . we get to be labeled something. Because we end up defending that and nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine.

She also tried out the dual-loyalty canard, adding: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

This prompted another bipartisan storm of protest. Far from retreating, Omar doubled down in her response to criticism from Representative Nita Lowey (D., N.Y.), a veteran liberal Jewish Democrat. When Lowey urged her to retract her comments, Omar tweeted, “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on a committee.”

Democrats are responding to this with yet another congressional resolution, which will pointedly define anti-Semitism to include the types of comments made by Omar and Tlaib but decline to mention them by name. Nor is there any sign that Pelosi will kick Omar off of the Foreign Affairs Committee, despite the anger of its pro-Israel chairman Representative Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) and calls from Republicans and some Jewish groups for more than another meaningless apology.

It’s obvious that Omar and Tlaib have taken the measure of their party’s leadership and decided that they have nothing to fear if they continue with their effort to delegitimize supporters of Israel. These controversies are not rooted in a lack of communication. Since their goal is to legitimize both anti-Zionism and a BDS movement whose aim is Israel’s destruction, they aim to shut down criticism they’ve received for their anti-Semitism and falsely link the defense of Israel with anti-Muslim prejudice.

Omar and Tlaib are probably right not to fear Pelosi’s wrath. They know that support is growing on the left for intersectional libels in which every act of Israeli self-defense against terror is termed a war crime and where self-determination for a Jewish majority is labeled apartheid. Indeed, despite the furor over the “Benjamins” libel, as a New York Times feature questioning whether AIPAC “is too powerful” indicated, there is an appreciative audience for attacks on the pro-Israel lobby and its supporters in both the liberal press and the Democrats base. AIPAC’s allegedly limitless power — especially when compared with the power of other political and industry lobbies that operate on Capitol Hill — is more myth than reality, and the group’s actual influence is a function of broad support for Israel and Zionism. But attacks on it remain a good indicator of the persistent appeal of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

At this point, Democrats have a dilemma. If they wish to avoid a creeping Corbynization of their party in which anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism first become tolerated and then accepted, they’ll have to take the kind of action — including taking away Omar’s committee assignments — that can’t be ignored.

But if, due to their fear of offending Omar’s growing legion of fans on the left, they let her off with a slap on the wrist, they will demonstrate that their political narrative in which Trump and the Republicans are depicted as evil while Democrats have clean hands on hate is a partisan fable. If Omar is still in her seat the next time the Foreign Affairs Committee meets, she could be forgiven for thinking that Rolling Stone’s prediction about the future of the Democrats is prescient.

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