Why Ilhan Omar Is At The Center Of An Anti-Semitism Scandal — Again

Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images.
House Democrats are expected to vote on a resolution this week condemning anti-Semitism in light of Rep. Ilhan Omar's recent controversial comments about Israel. It's the second time in recent weeks that the freshman congresswoman from Minnesota has been at the center of a scandal over remarks perceived as anti-Semitic.
The calls to condemn Omar follow her comments last week at a progressive town hall held at Busboys and Poets, a Washington D.C. coffee shop and restaurant chain. During the event, Omar said: "I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country."
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The statement was widely condemned by senior Democrats and Jewish groups, who said Omar implied that American Jews have an allegiance to Israel, a foreign government — a longstanding anti-Semitic trope. "Sometimes referred to as the 'dual loyalty' charge, it alleges that Jews should be suspected of being disloyal neighbors or citizens because their true allegiance is to their co-religionists around the world or to a secret and immoral Jewish agenda," Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Monday, in which condemned Omar's remarks. "This anti-Semitic allegation posits that non- Jews should not trust the motives or actions of their Jewish neighbors, who may be engaged in deceitful behavior to accomplish their own goals at the expense of others."
Some of the congresswoman's colleagues have also fired back. "I welcome debate in Congress based on the merits of policy, but it’s unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the U.S.-Israel relationship," Rep. Eliot L. Engel, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement. "We all take the same oath. Worse, Representative Omar’s comments leveled that charge by invoking a vile anti-Semitic slur." Engel stopped short of asking Omar to be removed from the committee, as some House Republicans have done.
Omar's comments rang similar to her remarks about the lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which were also interpreted as anti-Semitic for the implication that Jewish money drives the United States' support for Israel. Omar then apologized for those remarks, saying: "Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes." At the time, the House also voted unanimously on a Republican-led motion against anti-Semitism following the controversy.
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On her most recent remarks, however, Omar has remained firm. “I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks,” Omar wrote on Twitter in response to a rebuke by Rep. Nita Lowey.
The Minnesota Democrat has the support of fellow lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted: "One of the things that is hurtful about the extent to which reprimand is sought of Ilhan is that no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about Latinx + other communities (during the shutdown, a GOP member yelled “Go back to Puerto Rico!” on the floor)." She added: "It’s not my position to tell people how to feel, or that their hurt is invalid. But incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll 'send Obama home to Kenya?'" The New York congresswoman also questioned whether the House leadership plans to call a resolution for all these incidents — and if that's not the case, “I think it’s valid to ask why not.”
The party's internal debate over Omar’s positions, which has played very publicly in past days, comes amid growing criticism of the U.S.'s longstanding and unwavering support for Israel from the left, as well as rising anti-Semitism across the country. Omar's defenders say the pushback she is facing is meant to stifle debate over the U.S.-Israel relationship, while Omar's detractors say that it's not the criticism that is at issue — but the language she's used.
That's also why Republicans have seized on Omar's remarks. Some commentators have gone as far as calling her "the Steve King of the left" in reference to the Iowa Republican who espoused white nationalist and racist views for over 15 years before facing condemnation from his party. (King refuses to apologize for his remarks and plans to run for re-election in 2020.) President Donald Trump — who after the deadly violence Charlottesville, VA first refused to disavow white nationalists and later said neo-Nazis were "very fine people" — was one of the GOP leaders who weighed on the controversy. He tweeted: "Representative Ilhan Omar is again under fire for her terrible comments concerning Israel. Jewish groups have just sent a petition to Speaker Pelosi asking her to remove Omar from Foreign Relations Committee. A dark day for Israel!"
The controversy surrounding Omar comes just days after an Islamophobic sign linking her to the Sept. 11 attacks was posted at an event organized by West Virginia Republicans. The freshman lawmaker is the first Somali-American and one of the two Muslim women ever elected to Congress.
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