U.S.

House Democrats Finding It Hard to Confront Anti-Semitism

Representative Ilhan Omar (D, Minn.) during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., February 7, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The effort to avoid singling out Ilhan Omar is putting Democrats in knots.

The Democratic party is having a rough time condemning anti-Semitism. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has, on several occasions, made classically anti-Semitic claims about American Jews, and the effort to formally denounce those statements in the House ruined a week in which the Democrats were supposed to talk about their agenda.

The gist of Omar’s complaints is that the perfidious, string-pulling Hebraic hordes control Congress with their shady shekels; Israel has hypnotized the world; and American Jews are guilty of dual loyalty.

The controversies have been compounded by the fact that her apologies suggest she’s not actually apologetic. Omar has claimed that the anti-Semitism charge is an effort to silence her because she wants to talk about the Jewish scheme to “push for allegiance to a foreign country.” In an earlier sorry-not-sorry episode, she apologized for hurting anyone’s feelings, which is not quite the same thing as recanting.

The whole issue of hurt feelings is a red herring — which is precisely why so many Democrats want to focus on feelings rather than on the relevant facts. Indeed, if Omar had better facts on her side, she wouldn’t be in this mess.

For instance, Omar seems to think the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is a political-action committee that funds candidates on behalf of Israel. Inconveniently for Omar, AIPAC isn’t a PAC, doesn’t work for Israel, and doesn’t donate to political campaigns.

More interesting, however, is the Democratic leadership’s fact problem — namely the fact Omar simply isn’t a fan of Jews, or at least Jews who support Israel. It’s fine to be a critic of Israel, by the way. But when you hate the country so much that you can’t explain criticism of Israel without resorting to bigotry, you have a problem. Or rather, the Democratic party does.

Because it’s not just Omar. If Omar had no sympathizers, House speaker Nancy Pelosi would probably have thrown her under the bus already. The younger, fresher, and more radical fringe of the party led by New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t think Omar should be singled out for criticism or censure. In fairness, the primary reason is not that they all share Omar’s hang-up with the Jews. Some are just anti-Israel. Others think it’s unfair that Omar should be criticized when Donald Trump or other Republicans have said bigoted things.

Ocasio-Cortez called efforts to censure Omar “hurtful” because statements by other politicians, most obviously Trump, aren’t similarly condemned. She has something of a point. I certainly wish Republicans did more to condemn many of the things Trump has said. But she seems to have forgotten that Republicans did condemn and punish Iowa representative Steve King recently for his on-brand racist blather.

So while Ocasio-Cortez is right to a point, that point doesn’t take her very far. It’s her party that has established a zero-tolerance-for-bigotry standard. And “whataboutist” arguments are the lowest form of defense. Some Republicans may be hypocrites for not condemning all bigotry equally, but that’s a criticism of Republicans, not a defense of Omar.

The effort to avoid singling out Omar is putting Democrats in knots they will be hard-pressed to untie anytime soon. Pelosi has said Omar wasn’t “intentionally anti-Semitic.”

Asked if Omar’s comment about Jewish dual loyalty was anti-Semitic, Representative Emmanuel Cleaver of Missouri offered this profile in courage: “It may or may not be. I haven’t thought deeply about it.”

South Carolina’s James Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, offered a baffling defense of Omar by talking about — surprise! — her feelings. He says Omar’s experience as a refugee from Somalia who spent time in a Kenyan refugee camp has to be taken into account.

“There are people who tell me, ‘Well, my parents are Holocaust survivors.’ ‘My parents did this.’ It’s more personal with her,” Clyburn told The Hill. “I’ve talked to her, and I can tell you she is living through a lot of pain.”

Leave aside the fact that whatever happened to Omar in Kenya or Somalia, it has nothing to do with Israel or Jews. Are we going to have greater tolerance for bigotry based on a time-since-victimhood score? Slavery was even longer ago than the Holocaust. Does that make racist comments less outrageous than anti-Semitic comments?

On Thursday, Pelosi announced that the House would vote on a resolution condemning all forms of “hate.” It’s a transparent dodge to avoid condemning a specific kind of hate.

It might do the trick to turn the page. But it will almost surely be a temporary respite, because Omar (and others) come to their anti-Semitism honestly, and they’re inclined to be honest about it. So we’ll be here again.

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