ilhan omar

Democrats’ Split Over Ilhan Omar’s Israel Comments: What You Need to Know

Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Photo: J Scott Applewhite/AP

Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar has been at the center of Washington, D.C., controversy for weeks. The Democratic Party is hoping to put it to rest Thursday with a vote on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, of which the freshman lawmaker has been accused, and other forms of hate.

Omar’s remarks and the Democratic party’s response to them has been the first problem for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi since the beginning of the new Congress. Some Democrats want to bring the hammer down on Omar. Others have come to her defense. Here’s what’s going on.

What did the Congresswoman say?

Two things. She first caused controversy in February with a tweet that said support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins,” referencing a 22-year-old Puff Daddy song and, according to critics, suggesting that the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC is buying off American politicians. She later deleted the tweet and issued an apology.

Just as that controversy was dying down, another began. Speaking on a panel with fellow Muslim Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, Omar, who’s also been criticized for a 2012 tweet about Israel, complained that claims of anti-Semitism are often used to shut down legitimate critiques of Israel. Then she said: “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.” This was problem, as New York’s Eric Levitz explained:

Omar’s intentions were ambiguous; it is not clear exactly whom she meant by “people,” or what she meant by “allegiance.” But one premise of anti-Semitic ideology in the U.S. is that American Jews’ primary loyalty is to Israel, not America (and that, since Jews illicitly control the political system, the federal government has adopted the same treasonous allegiance). By suggesting that it is not “okay” for American Zionists to “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar evinced insensitivity about this trope.

Who was upset?

Democrats and Republicans. Omar’s comments on AIPAC drew criticism from both sides of the aisle, with House Democratic leadership calling on her to apologize and President Trump calling on her to resign.

Her comment on dual “allegiance” also drew criticism from both parties. Democratic representative Eliot Engel accused Omar of using a “vile anti-Semitic slur,” and Republican representative Steve Scalise suggested that she poses a national security threat. “Nancy Pelosi has to remove [Omar] from the [House] Foreign Affairs Committee,” Scalise said. “She is literally getting intelligence briefings on foreign policy of the United States, including our relationship with Israel, as she makes these kind of comments … Why would you have her on a committee that important, that sensitive?”

Omar’s choice of the word “allegiance” was key here, as Jonathan Chait explained:

To believe in a strong American alliance with Israel (or Canada, or the United Kingdom, or any other country) is not the same thing as giving one’s allegiance to that country. Omar is directly invoking the hoary myth of dual loyalty, in which the Americanness of Jews is inherently suspect, and their political participation must be contingent upon proving their patriotism.

Who’s on her side?

A closed-door meeting among Democrats Wednesday “turned into a gripe session” about the party’s treatment of Omar, the Times reports. Progressive lawmakers, particularly those of color, came to Omar’s defense.

Massachusetts representative Ayanna Pressley argued that Omar was being unfairly singled out. She told reporters that Democrats need to “have equity in our outrage.” She added: “The occupant of this White House who is seeding every form of hate, emboldening it with racist rhetoric and policies, that is who we all need to be focused on, and this is a distraction.”

Others defended Omar by saying that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. “Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world,” Senator Bernie Sanders said in a statement. “We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel.”

What about the resolution?

The idea for a resolution condemning anti-Semitism reportedly came from Engel and fellow New York Democrat Nita Lowey, both of whom are Jewish. They brought the proposal to Democratic leadership and by Tuesday, a version was circulating through the House, the Times reports.

Omar’s allies, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, agitated for the inclusion of other forms of hate, include Islamophobia, in the resolution. Others took issue with a woman of color being singled out while so many white man regularly spew hate in Washington. Meanwhile, some senior Jewish lawmakers were reportedly upset that the resolution didn’t go further and call out Omar by name.

A vote on the resolution, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, was postponed after the contentious meeting among Democrats. By Thursday morning, leadership had decided to hold the vote and revised the resolution to include more than a condemnation of anti-Semitism. Pelosi told reports at a press conference that the resolution will call out anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and white supremacy. “It’s not about her,” Pelosi said, “it’s about these forms of hatred.”

Democrats’ Split Over Ilhan Omar’s Israel Comments