By Rachael Bade, Kristine Phillips,
Meagan Flynn and Reis Thebault
Monday February 11, 2019
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) speaks at a news conference on deportation at Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) apologized Monday afternoon for what many saw as anti-Semitic comments perpetuating the tired stereotype that Jews control politics with money.
Omar’s mea culpa came shortly after House Democratic leaders called the first-term representative’s comments “deeply offensive” and urged her to apologize.
In a tweet, the Minnesota congresswoman said “anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on this painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”
In a statement issued Monday, the Democratic leadership said that legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies and its treatment of Palestinians is protected by free speech, but Omar’s use of “anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that she and Omar have spoken and that they’ve agreed “to move forward as we reject anti-Semitism in all forms.”
The statement comes after two Jewish House Democrats, alarmed by what they consider anti-Semitic comments from new Muslim colleagues, urged Pelosi and her top lieutenants to denounce the divisive rhetoric and take action to stop it. On Sunday, Omar, a freshman congresswoman, suggested on Twitter that American politicians are influenced by a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, setting off a firestorm of criticisms from both sides of the aisle.
Reps. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.) and Elaine Luria (Va.) are gathering signatures on a letter asking Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and other senior Democrats to confront Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, also a freshman congresswoman from Michigan, by “reiterating our rejection of anti-Semitism and our continued support for the State of Israel.”
“As Jewish Members of Congress, we are deeply alarmed by recent rhetoric from certain members within our Caucus, including just last night, that has disparaged us and called into question our loyalty to our nation,” the letter reads, according to a draft viewed by The Washington Post. “We urge you to join us in calling on each member of our Caucus to unite against anti-Semitism and hateful tropes and stereotypes.”
Although the letter does not name Omar and Tlaib, its intention couldn’t be clearer. In fact, Jewish lawmakers in recent weeks have huddled privately to discuss what they should do about their new colleagues, who openly criticize Israel and have made insensitive comments about Jews and Jewish Americans.
The last straw came Sunday night, when Omar suggested in a tweet that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) supported Israel only for campaign donations.
“It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote, an apparent reference to the 1997 Puff Daddy single featuring the Notorious B.I.G., Lil’ Kim and The Lox.
Omar was responding to a tweet from Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who argued on Twitter that the GOP’s move to equate Omar and Tlaib’s criticism of Israel to the embrace of white supremacist rhetoric by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) “is obscene.”
“In the US, we're allowed to criticize our own government: certainly foreign governments. The GOP House Leader's priorities are warped,” he wrote.
When people asked what Omar meant by McCarthy’s motives being “all about the Benjamins,” she tweeted, “AIPAC,” referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group that has spent millions sending lawmakers on visits to the Jewish nation over the years.
The fallout continued Monday afternoon with condemnations from powerful House Democrats and a promise from McCarthy that Republicans will take action, though he did not say what that would be. The Anti-Defamation League also urged Pelosi to take action.
In their letter, Gottheimer and Luria acknowledge attempts to force a conversation on the matter, arguing that “we cannot remain silent.”
“We must speak out when any Member — Democrat or Republican — uses harmful tropes and stereotypes, levels accusations of dual loyalty, or makes reckless statements like those yesterday,” the two wrote. “All Members of Congress should reject anti-Semitism, just as we reject all forms of hatred, bigotry, and intolerance, and must denounce those who deny Israel’s right to exist, including terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.”
Some of the most ardent pro-Israel Democratic members of the House condemned the tweets Monday, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (N.Y.) and Florida Rep. Ted Deutch.
Nadler called the tweets “deeply disappointing and disturbing” and said Omar “appears to traffic in old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money.” Lawmakers can debate the influence of any particular group on policymaking, he said, but they must “be extremely careful not to tread into the waters of anti-Semitism or any other form of prejudice or hate."
Deutch, who has emerged as a leading Democratic voice against anti-Semitism, also said the tweets reflected “anti-Semitic tropes.”
“The use of stereotypes and offensive rhetoric by Members of Congress, whether anti-Semitic or racist, must come to an end,” he said. “They should never be a part of any conversation about the policies of Congress. They do not belong in any conversation, period.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Monday that it was “shocking to hear a Member of Congress invoke the anti-Semitic trope of ‘Jewish money.' ” Omar serves on the Foreign Affairs panel. “I fully expect that when we disagree on the Foreign Affairs Committee, we will debate policy on the merits and never question members’ motives or resort to personal attacks,” he said. “Criticism of American policy toward any country is fair game, but this must be done on policy grounds.”
Several Republicans, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), Rep Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and GOP Chairman Ronna McDaniel, have called for Omar’s removal from the committee. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., scoffed at Democrat’s response to Omar’s tweets. “The forthcoming non apology is going to be awesome,” he tweeted.
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Omar’s words only serve to fuel bigotry.
“As the people’s House, the House of Representatives must not tolerate any bigotry against any community in our nation,” Greenblatt said in a statement. “We call on the House leadership to make immediate action, so that the message is clear: anti-Semitism will not be tolerated.”
Omar’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. Her spokesman told Politico on Sunday that the tweets “speak for themselves.” Tlaib’s spokesman also has not responded to a request for comment.
This is the second time in as many weeks that Omar has become entangled in a Twitter controversy replete with emoji and snarky clapbacks centered on the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Omar, who supports the anti-Israel movement called BDS, for “boycott, divestment and sanctions,” has persistently fought accusations of anti-Semitism by maintaining that her condemnation of the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinians does not equate to condemnation of Jewish people. She has also claimed to be the victim of GOP attacks seeking to misrepresent her position on Israel as anti-Semitic.
But several more Democrats have joined the chorus in rebuking Omar.
Reps. Donna Shalala (Fla.) and Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.) said they find offense in the suggestion that members of Congress support Israel because of money. Rep. Max Rose (N.Y.), who is Jewish, wrote in a statement Sunday that Omar’s comments invoke “hurtful stereotypes and caricatures of Jewish people.”
Rep. Daniel Kildee (Mich.) was more restrained in his criticism, telling CNN that people shouldn’t “go too far to make judgments” that Omar’s comments are anti-Semitic. But, he added: “I think sometimes we ought to tamp down a bit of the rhetoric.”
The American Jewish Committee demanded an apology, calling her suggestion that AIPAC is paying American politicians for their support “demonstrably false and stunningly anti-Semitic.” The organization linked to a 2018 Gallup poll finding that 64 percent of Americans sympathize with the Israelis over the Palestinians, saying, “American politicians are pro-Israel because Americans are.”
Others have defended Omar and Tlaib, contending that critics are conflating the congresswomen’s condemnation of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism. Women’s March organizer Sophie Ellman-Golan accused McCarthy of attacking Omar and Tlaib “in the name of ‘defending’ Jews.” She called out McCarthy for tweeting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
Omar’s comments come on the heels of escalating Republican ire for the positions that she and Tlaib have put forth in Congress, joining a small group of lawmakers willing to challenge the United States’ traditional support for Israeli policy.
McCarthy urged Democratic leaders to admonish Omar and Tlaib for their backing of the BDS movement, which is intended to put economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged Pelosi to call a vote on an anti-BDS bill the Senate passed last week with bipartisan support.
AIPAC, which is not a political action committee, does not make campaign contributions to politicians, but its individual members can make donations, and the organization spends millions on lobbying efforts for pro-Israel legislation every year. In 2018, AIPAC spent more than $3.5 million lobbying for pro-Israel measures, according to lobbying disclosure filings maintained by the Senate’s Office of Public Records. Such legislation includes financial support for Israel and measures that would ban boycotts of Israel, including the BDS movement that Omar and Tlaib support.
Still, some who agree with Omar’s position on Israel argued that she could criticize the Israeli government or the pro-Israel lobbying establishment without using stereotypes that Jews find offensive.
J Street, a nonprofit liberal advocacy group, called the entire debacle a “war of words” that “does nothing to advance the true interests and needs of Israelis or Palestinians, nor those of the American Jewish community.” While elected officials need to be aware of harmful Jewish stereotypes, they also should refrain from labeling all criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic, the group said.
Omar has responded to anti-Semitism accusations before. Last month, she acknowledged that she “unknowingly” used an anti-Semitic trope after a 2012 tweet surfaced in which she said, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel."
Omar had initially said she didn’t understand why American Jews would be offended by the statement, which critics argued evoked ugly Nazi conspiracies about Jewish people’s power to “hypnotize” the world. She backtracked and apologized after a New York Times columnist explained to her why Jews could find it offensive. And she later expressed regret while on “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” saying she had to “take a deep breath and understand where people were coming from and what point they were trying to make.”
John Wagner and Mike DeBonis contributed to this article, which has been updated.