Perhaps the most cynical response yet to Ilhan Omar from congressional Republicans came on Monday, when Representative Steve Scalise gave an interview to Fox News suggesting that the Minnesota Democrat is a threat to national security. “Nancy Pelosi has to remove [Omar] from the [House] Foreign Affairs Committee,” he 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 [anti-Semitic] comments … Why would you have her on a committee that important, that sensitive?”
Coming from Scalise — a notoriously inept judge of both national security threats and anti-Semitism — this is remarkable. In 2014, the congressman admitted to having spoken at a 2002 gathering hosted by a white supremacist group called the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, which was founded by David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan — America’s original domestic terrorist organization. Characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “paper tiger” used to promote Duke’s writing, EURO’s website, whitecivilrights.com, nevertheless hosts a wealth of bigoted literature from a range of sources. For example: “The Jewish media and Jews in general will attack us for wanting to restore White America. The Jews are the enemy of the White race, and they are largely responsible for the ‘browning’ of America,” explains one of the site’s contributors, Jeff Davis.
It is worth noting, now that Scalise has taken it upon himself to lecture the public about domestic security and animus against Jews, that his damage-control strategy in 2014 was to claim ignorance about what was going on. “When someone called and asked me to speak, I would go,” he said, after a Louisiana blogger broke the news of his attendance, noting that he only had one staffer in 2002 to arrange such appearances. “If I knew today what they were about, I wouldn’t go.” Yet even if one believes that Scalise was unaware of having attended an event organized by Louisiana’s most famous living white supremacist, his inability to recognize it as such casts doubt on his ability to identify related threats moving forward. Put another way: If Ilhan Omar was truly a bigot and a threat, Scalise — a man who, at best, did not realize he was attending a white supremacist event, and at worst, knew and lied about it — should be among the last people Americans trust as a plausible judge.
But dubious past aside, Scalise is really just participating in the same bad-faith smears that have dogged Omar throughout the past month. The congresswoman has been embroiled in controversy due to her remarks about the Israel lobby, which critics have alleged trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes. On February 11, she apologized for tweeting the phrase, “All about the Benjamins baby,” by way of explaining AIPAC’s sway over U.S. politicians — suggesting that American support for Israel is motivated by money. Israel is not synonymous with Judaism, but the notion that wealthy, duplicitous Jews are manipulating world events illicitly is a bigoted conspiracy theory, and a reasonable interpretation of Omar’s comments. Omar recognized this and said she was sorry. “I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” she said in a statement. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. I unequivocally apologize.”
But whatever goodwill she accrued through this apology evaporated last week. “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 on February 27 at a town hall in Washington D.C., again referring to Israel. To those already put off by her previous remarks, this apparent allusion to the “dual loyalty” charge — another anti-Semitic trope that frames American Jews as having split allegiance between the U.S. and Israel — was confirmation of her nefarious intent. Much of this criticism directed at Omar is fair. Progressives and anti-Zionist Jews have defended her and joined her in condemning the Israeli government’s brutal treatment of Palestinians, even as others have affirmed her stance but condemned her deployment — whether conscious or inadvertent — of anti-Semitic tropes. But Omar’s colleagues in the House of Representatives have largely rallied against her: House Democrats are reportedly considering a vote as early as Wednesday on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, and the “dual loyalty” charge in particular, that is clearly directed at the congresswoman.
Meanwhile, within this same Congress, much of the criticism directed at Omar has been leveled by colleagues on both sides of the aisle who, to quote New York’s Eric Levitz, “routinely say — in prepared remarks, as a matter of principle — that America should continue to abet the race-based oppression of Palestinians.” Such bigotry is deemed acceptable in U.S. politics, even as many of these same colleagues, especially on the right, remain silent regarding the Islamophobia regularly directed at Omar and her fellow Muslims. Republican resistance, to say nothing of outrage, was almost totally absent when President Trump banned immigration from several Muslim-majority countries — an undertaking that abetted his stated goal of imposing a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” And only a smattering of Republicans condemned the appearance at a “GOP Day” celebration in West Virginia, hosted by the state’s Republican Party on Friday, of a poster linking Omar to the September 11 terrorist attacks. “‘Never forget,’ you said … I am the proof — you have forgotten,” the caption read, beneath an image of Omar and the World Trade Center on fire.
None of this means that Omar is above critique, or that the debate over whether she has consciously employed anti-Semitic tropes is not worth having. Nor does it elide the fact that many of her critics are perfectly fine justifying the unjust treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government, and ignoring or openly endorsing Islamophobia, even as they rebuke her. It does mean that credible arbiters of such matters are now at a premium. Indeed, there are plenty of them to be found. And then, there is Steve Scalise.