Four weeks ago, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) publicly apologized for the language she used to criticize the Israel lobby, and promised that she would listen and learn. The curve, it seems, is quite steep: Omar is again facing backlash this week for the very same thing, exasperating even Democrats who are supportive of her viewpoints.
In front of a D.C. audience last Wednesday, Omar addressed last month’s controversy and said that the tactic of labeling critics of Israel as “anti-Semitic”—particularly Muslim ones like her—is designed to end substantive debate about U.S. policy toward the Jewish state. (Omar pointed out that she has received death threats and been targeted with violent graffiti messages in recent weeks.)
“That ends the discussion because we end up defending that, and nobody gets to have broader debate about what happens with Palestine,” said Omar. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) called the comments “a vile slur” and said that members of the committee, of which Omar is one, should meet higher standards of discourse.
A spokesman for Omar said the congresswoman “has consistently spoken out about the undue influence of lobbying groups for foreign interests of all kinds and her comments were about just that. To suggest otherwise is an inaccurate reading of her remarks.”
This comes after her remarks in February when the Minnesota Democrat suggested via a tweet that “benjamins” from the Israel lobby motivated American lawmakers to unwaveringly support the Jewish state. After her fellow Democrats raised criticism—pointing out that such language has been historically used by anti-Semites to antagonize Jews—a contrite Omar apologized.
Now, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi moves to bring a symbolic resolution to the House floor, expected on Thursday, that condemns Omar’s remarks—without naming her specifically—some Democrats are seeing their well of patience with the freshman lawmaker run low.
Several House Democratic aides, who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said that members and staff alike were frustrated that Omar would stoke controversy on this issue so soon after the last one.
“Nobody wants to deal with this,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “For the second time in two months, we’re diverting the floor of the U.S. House to address an issue directly because of her.”
Last month, the House voted unanimously on a symbolic resolution condemning anti-Semitism, which was pushed by Republicans in the wake of Omar’s first round of comments about the Israel lobby.
The latest resolution condemns anti-Semitism in various forms, including “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” (Democratic leaders said the final language remains in flux but it may also condemn prejudice against Muslims, Catholics, and other religious groups.)
Omar’s remarks have also had some unintended consequences for the very issue she claims needs more awareness.
Rep. Betty McCollum, a fellow Minnesota Democrat who has been one of the most vocal critics of Israel in Congress, was set to reintroduce a bill next week that aims to tie U.S. aid to the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinian children. Her office said Tuesday that McCollum will postpone the introduction of that bill, citing a current political environment that is not receptive to pushing for Palestinian rights.
Frustration with the current situation, however, is not only directed at Omar. Some progressives are not pleased that party leadership is moving to address a particular member’s comments, if indirectly, on the House floor. In fact, the Congressional Progressive Caucus fought to exclude a mention of Omar by name in the resolution.
Congressional Republicans have eagerly sought to make Omar into a politically toxic pariah for Democrats, who counter that the GOP has no standing to raise a fuss about anti-Semitic tropes, when such tropes were a real part of their messaging strategy in the 2018 midterm election.
In recent days, Omar has responded to this latest controversy on Twitter by retweeting sympathetic messages and responding to her critics. In response to criticism from Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the powerful chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Omar said, “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee… I have not mischaracterized our relationship with Israel, I have questioned it and that has been clear from my end.”
Beyond progressive advocacy groups who have stuck by the congresswoman and organized to defend her on social media, Omar’s allies in the “squad” of freshman progressive lawmakers have been most vocal in rallying to her. But some did so by questioning Pelosi’s move to reprimand Omar on the House floor. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) sent out a series of tweets on Tuesday saying that Omar has “demonstrated a willingness to listen+work w/ impacted communities.”
“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,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez.
When Omar was under the microscope last month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) privately reached out to the Minnesota Democrat to express his support for her, The Daily Beast reported. Sanders’ office did not say whether the senator had done so again, and he has made no public comments about Omar’s latest remarks.