A week after Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib victory paved the way for the Palestinian-American to become the first Muslim congresswoman, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar is hoping to replicate her achievement by winning the Democratic seat now occupied by Rep. Keith Ellison - and join Tlaib in the House of Representatives. But Omar will first have to secure a win in her state's primary elections Tuesday.
Like Tlaib and Ellison, Omar, a Somali-American has taken considerable heat for past statements critical of Israel; opposition to her candidacy has grown increasingly confrontational as Tuesday's primary approaches. On Saturday night, a campaign event for Omar featuring an appearance by Tlaib at the Minneapolis’s Holy Land Deli was disrupted by a group of her opponents, led by right-wing anti-Muslim blogger, former Project Veritas employee and long-time provocateur Laura Loomer, who shouted questions at the candidates, both of whom did their best to avoid her.
Controversy around Omar’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hit the national spotlight with the unearthing of a tweet from 2012 that followed a military operation by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza after more than 100 projectiles were launched at Israel in one day. The tweet read “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel”
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After a critic on Twitter called her a “Jew hater” for the 2012 tweet, Omar - who describes herself as an “intersectional feminist” in her Twitter profile, responded: “Drawing attention to the apartheid Israeli regime is far from hating Jews. You are a hateful sad man, I pray to Allah you get the help you need and find happiness.”
Omar, like Tlaib, is a state legislator running for Congress in a heavily African-American and very Democratic district, making a primary win a virtual guarantee of victory in November. The seat she is competing for in the fifth district is currently held by Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, who is running to be the state’s attorney general in Minnesota and therefore, not seeking re-election.
And like Tlaib, Omar has been warmly embraced and strongly endorsed by the new star attraction of the Democrat’s progressive Sanders wing - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted, days before the primary, that Omar was a “modern-day hero” and urged supporters to “push her in” to office.
Before coming to the U.S.
Omar and her family fled Somalia when she was a child - she spent much of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya before her family was permitted to immigrate to the U.S. Her personal story, the fact that she is a Muslim woman, who covers her hair with a turban or hijab, together with the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez - has lifted her to national prominence in a crowded field of six candidates.
Rabbi Michael Latz, senior rabbi at Minneapolis’s Shir Tikvah Congregation says the attacks on Omar are less about Middle East politics and more “about racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny” He believes the recent wave of progressive women of color who are winning - or are on the brink of winning elections like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib “completely undermines a racist world view,” triggering backlash.
Latz, who has also defended Ellison against criticism of his past affiliation with the Nation of Islam, praised Omar.
“She is a progressive leader, a coalition builder, and a visionary in the Somali Muslim & Minneapolis communities. We disagree about BDS. But I’ve always found her to be open and responsive and willing to dialogue. If she’s elected as our congresswoman, I’ll work with her to support Iron Dome, the two-state solution, and end the expansion of illegal settlements,” Latz said.
Incidents like Loomer’s ambush on Saturday, he said “are precisely because she’s a Somali Muslim woman. They are blatantly racist . Sure, there (are) legitimate policy differences. But decent people can disagree on policy without devolving into racist attacks and disrupting campaign events.”
Omar’s closest competitors in the congressional race are both liberal women - Minnesota’s first Latina lawmaker, state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, and former State House speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
In addition to Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, Omar has also garnered endorsements from several large unions and powerful Democratic organizations. Her fundraising ability has outpaced that of her rivals.
Her enthusiastic endorsement by the executive director for the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR), which has raised funds on Omar’s behalf contributed to criticism in far right organizations, accuse CAIR of having ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Even mainstream groups like the Anti-Defamation League assert that CAIR’s stated “commitment to ‘justice and mutual understanding’ is undermined by its anti-Israel agenda.”
In addition to attacks on her statements and supporters, Omar’s voting record has also been the target of criticism from right-wing groups and Jewish organizations.
She voted against a law passed last year which banned state vendors from boycotting Israel and required anyone entering a contract with the state to certify they would not discriminate against Israel. Comparing the discussion of anti-Israel boycotts to that of apartheid South Africa, she said that her grandfather used to tell her of how anti-apartheid boycotts “helped the system to go down” and said she didn’t “want to be part of a vote that limits the ability of people to fight towards justice and peace.” At the same time, she praised the way the Jewish community of Minnesota had stood together with Muslims “as brothers and sisters” in fighting President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.
Omar was also one of only four members of the Minnesota House who opposed the passage of a law which toughened punishment for families of girls who underwent female genital mutilation. Omar’s position represented the position of some organizations who contended that increased education was preferable to harsh penalties, and argued that criminalizing the practice would dissuade Muslim immigrant families from seeking medical treatment.