Ilhan Omar Again Sets Off a Fight Among Democrats

  • Politics
  • Ilhan Omar Again Sets Off a Fight Among Democrats

WASHINGTON — Representative Ilhan Omar is again at odds with her Democratic colleagues over Israel, but this time, she has brought her own country into the mix.

The latest contretemps began on Monday, when Ms. Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, wrote on Twitter about a virtual exchange she had with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. In the actual exchange, Ms. Omar pressed for an investigation of human rights abuses both by Israeli security forces and by Hamas. But on Twitter, she seemed to compare Israel and the United States not only to Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the State Department, but also to the Taliban.

“We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,” she wrote. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”

The analogy prompted outrage from a dozen Jewish Democrats in the House. They issued a statement saying that equating the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban “is as offensive as it is misguided,” and, in congressional parlance usually meant to elicit an apology, they asked her to “clarify her words.”

“Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice,” they wrote. “The United States and Israel are imperfect and, like all democracies, at times deserving of critique, but false equivalencies give cover to terrorist groups.”

Rather than apologize, Ms. Omar fired off a defiant response on Thursday morning.

“It’s shameful for colleagues who call me when they need my support to now put out a statement asking for ‘clarification’ and not just call,” wrote Ms. Omar, one of two Muslim women in the House, accusing her detractors of bigotry. “The Islamophobic tropes in this statement are offensive. The constant harassment & silencing from the signers of this letter is unbearable.”

A House Democratic aide familiar with the back-and-forth said Ms. Omar’s anger stemmed from her treatment by the dozen colleagues who publicly upbraided her. She had heard that they were going to publicly call for a clarification of her remarks and reached out to some of them several times on Wednesday. They did not respond before their public chastisement, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and the House’s only Palestinian American, who has called Israel’s policies “apartheid” and “racist,” defended Ms. Omar.

“I am tired of colleagues (both D+R) demonizing @IlhanMN,” she wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Their obsession with policing her is sick. She has the courage to call out human rights abuses no matter who is responsible. That’s better than colleagues who look away if it serves their politics.”

The flare-up comes as Democrats are desperate for unity as they try to move forward with razor-thin majorities on infrastructure, tax code changes, universal preschool and expanded access to community college. Threats to push such bills through Congress over Republican opposition using budget rules that bypass filibusters are only real if every Democrat is on board, and a public fight with Ms. Omar’s liberal wing could complicate the effort.

Republicans, eager to stoke outrage and portray Democrats as anti-Israel, jump on Ms. Omar’s language, especially after anti-Semitic comments by one of their own members, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whose recent comparisons of the Holocaust to pandemic safety policies drew condemnation from her own leaders.

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, called Ms. Omar’s comments anti-Semitic, anti-American and “abhorrent.”

“Speaker Pelosi’s continued failure to address the issues in her caucus sends a message to the world that Democrats are tolerant of anti-Semitism and sympathizing with terrorists. It’s time for the Speaker to act,” he wrote.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California cannot afford a rift, even with a small number of progressive Democrats. Democratic leaders had to beg Ms. Omar and fellow members of the liberal clique known as “the squad” to vote present rather than “no” last month on a $1.9 billion bill to finance Capitol security improvements, to prevent the measure’s defeat after they objected to more funding for the police. Ms. Omar seemed to allude to those pleas in her combative tweet.

Ms. Pelosi will need those votes to pass party-line legislation that gets through the Senate with conservative Democrats such as Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, though measures with significant Republican support, like a China competition bill that passed on Tuesday, could be approved over the left wing’s objections.

It is not the first time Ms. Omar’s remarks about Israel have generated anger from fellow Democrats. In 2019, her Twitter comment that support in Washington for Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby” kicked off weeks of fighting that ended in a resolution on the House floor condemning bigotry and anti-Semitism. The comments played into anti-Semitic tropes that have their roots in the Middle Ages, when Jews were barred from entering most professions and thus became moneylenders — a task that Christians would not take on because of prohibitions against usury.

Republicans — and some Democrats — demanded that she be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but Democratic leaders refused.

Instead, Ms. Omar apologized. “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,” Ms. Omar said in a statement then, about an hour after Ms. Pelosi and the entire Democratic leadership publicly chastised her for engaging in “deeply offensive” anti-Semitic tropes.

Ms. Omar’s use of the term “tropes” this week in describing her colleagues’ request for clarification was a defiant echo of that earlier altercation.

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