Several 2020 candidates went against the conventional rhetoric on Israel to rebuke their colleagues for conflating anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the role the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) plays in U.S. foreign policy. They also condemned threats of violence against Omar, who has received death threats.
Calls to condemn Omar came after her comments last week at a progressive town hall held at Busboys and Poets, a Washington, D.C., bookstore and restaurant. During the event, Omar said: "I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country."
Senior Democrats and Jewish groups argued that Omar implied American Jews have an allegiance to Israel, a foreign government, which is 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, head of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Monday. "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."
The U.S. House voted to pass a resolution condemning bigotry and hate speech on Thursday. The resolution did not specifically name Omar, but was clearly targeted at her. After a long day of debate on Wednesday, Democrats decided on a resolution to condemn "all hate," in an effort to put infighting within the party behind them. "It's going to say that we are against bigotry, we are against prejudice, we’re against hate, against whomever that is directed," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters after a closed-door meeting on Thursday morning, according to Politico.
"I feel confident [Ilhan Omar's] words were not based in an anti-Semitic attitude, but that she didn't have a full appreciation of how they landed on other people where these words have a history and cultural impact that might have been unknown to her," Pelosi said on Thursday.
"I feel confident [Ilhan Omar's] words were not based in an antisemitic attitude, but that she didn't have a full appreciation of how they landed on other people where these words have a history and cultural impact that might have been unknown to her," Pelosi said pic.twitter.com/ak3O895zb6— POLITICO (@politico) March 7, 2019
Several presidential candidates were far less wishy-washy in their statements.
"[L]ike some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk," said Sen. Kamala Harris. "We should be having a sound, respectful discussion about policy. You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country."
"Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "Threats of violence — like those made against Rep. Omar — are never acceptable."
"Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world," said Sen. Bernie Sanders. "We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel."
The debate over Omar's comments is happening amid rising criticism from the left of the U.S.' longstanding, unwavering support for Israel, as well as fear over growing anti-Semitism across the country. The presidential candidates' strong statements come after pressure from the left not only to defend Omar's criticism of Israel, but to deny that she was being anti-Semitic. Progressive lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have spoken out in support of Omar.
Omar's detractors say the problem isn't her criticism of policy, but the language she has used.
She apologized for remarks made last month that critics said implied Jewish money drives the U.S.' support for Israel (the "It's all about the Benjamins, baby" comment), 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." However, she hasn't budged on her most recent comments. "I am told every day 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.
Republicans have seized on Omar's comments despite being the party of Rep. Steve King, who has made a number of openly racist comments and is still running for reelection in 2020, and the party that stands behind Donald Trump, who has said that neo-Nazis can be "very fine people." Omar herself has been the target of Islamophobia: A sign linking Omar to the 9/11 attacks was posted at an event organized by West Virginia Republicans. The freshman lawmaker is the first Somali-American and one of the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, in a statement issued Thursday, suggested that Omar may have used anti-Semitic tropes, but condemned Republicans for inciting violence. "Those with critical views of Israel, such as Congresswoman Omar, should be able to express their views without employing anti-Semitic tropes about money or influence, just as those critical of Congresswoman Omar should not be using Islamophobic language and imagery that incites violence, such as what we saw in West Virginia," she said. "We must also call out the hypocrisy of the Republican Party in this instance."