'Putting Her Life at Risk': Ilhan Omar Staff Slams AIPAC Over Aggressive Campaign Ads

The pro-Israeli lobby targeted four congresswomen, including Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, drawing criticism from J Street and prompting Tlaib to respond, ‘I am so sick of this shit’

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U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, right, speaking as Rep. Rashida Tlaib listens during a news conference at the Capitol, Washington, in July 2019.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, right, speaking as Rep. Rashida Tlaib listens during a news conference at the Capitol, Washington, in July 2019.Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is facing criticism over its latest ad campaign on Facebook, which targets progressive Democratic congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush.

The text in the paid posts by AIPAC, the most influential pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, read: “Israelis and Palestinians deserve peace, which will only come through engagement and direct talks. Inciting hate by demonizing Israel and spreading vicious, dangerous lies about our democratic ally doesn’t advance the prospects for peace.”

The images of each lawmaker accuse them respectively of lying about Israel – attributing quotes such as “apartheid,” “act[s] of terrorism” and “ethnic cleansing” to them – while putting “stop the lies” and “stop the hate” in bold letters above a link reading “work for peace.”

The left-wing, pro-Israel J Street organization slammed AIPAC for the ads. “After 4 years backing Trump’s far-right policies, AIPAC seems to be declaring war on progressive Democrats with incendiary ads falsely accusing Congresswomen of color of supporting terror & hate,” it tweeted. “This isn’t ‘bipartisan.’ It doesn’t help Israel. It doesn’t speak for American Jews.”

Tlaib tweeted in response, “I am so sick of this shit.” Ocasio-Cortez and Bush, meanwhile, did not comment.

AIPAC took out additional ads targeting Ocasio-Cortez and Omar individually, as well. The ad targeting the New York lawmaker reads: “As Israeli citizens confronted thousands of rocket attacks from Hamas, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was working to undermine Israel’s ability to defend itself by blocking a Biden-approved arms sale to our partner.” The image reads “Tell AOC: don’t reward Hamas.”

The anti-Omar ad reads “Stand WITH America. Stand AGAINST Terrorists.” The image of the post states: “For Ilhan Omar, there is no difference between America and the Taliban. Between Israel and Hamas. Between democracies and terrorists,” adding a link declaring “Tell Rep. Omar: Condemn terrorists, not America.” 

Omar’s communications director, Jeremy Slevin, tweeted that “the language AIPAC uses in paid ads to smear and vilify [Omar] is virtually identical to the language used in death threats she gets. Make no mistake: AIPAC is putting Rep. Omar’s life at risk with repeated Islamophobic attack ads.”

Slevin added that “it shouldn’t have to be stated, but baselessly linking Muslim-Americans to terrorism is *the* textbook example of Islamophobia and is routinely used to silence advocacy for Palestinian human rights.”

An AIPAC spokesperson defended the ad concerning Omar as “completely fair and accurate. It is not a personal attack and highlights her outrageous statement putting the United States and Israel on the same level as the Taliban and Hamas.” 

AIPAC also responded to Slevin directly on Twitter. “Your baseless attack on us can’t deflect from [Omar]’s attack on America and Israel,” it wrote, sharing a screenshot of her tweet that initiated the controversy.

At least 45 Jewish-American figures active in leadership in policy, politics, and advocacy spaces wrote a letter urging AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr and board President Betsy Berns Korn to immediately discontinue the ads and apologize to the congresswomen. 

Among the signatures were figures from organizations such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now, New Israel Fund, MoveOn, IfNotNow, Indivisible and the ACLU. They were not writing on behalf of their respective groups, but aimed to show the wide-ranging degree of concern and frustration they share.

"While we may not all agree with the Congresswomen's views and characterizations on issues related to Israel and Palestine — nor with one another's positions on these subjects — we are united in condemning these ads as not merely misleading, but dangerously so given their potential to incite or inspire bigotry, harassment and violence against the lawmakers they target," read the open letter, which is now public but still gathering signatures.

The letter added: "Displayed and amplified on media platforms that have been used to disseminate other misinformation that has helped radicalize some groups and individuals to the point of committing deadly violence, these vitriolic and divisive ads against women lawmakers of color who have been disproportionately subject to misogynist, racist hatred and threats of lawmakers are particularly reckless."

Omar clarified her remarks on her alleged equating of the groups at the time, saying of the controversy: “On Monday, I asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken about ongoing International Criminal Court investigations. To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding those ICC cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel.”

She added: “I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems.”

She has recently attempted to proactively engage with Jewish colleagues, particularly following the controversy related to her prior comments on the ICC, earning praise from previously critical Democratic lawmakers and Jewish establishment figures.

Omar and AIPAC have been at odds since she took office in 2019. In her first weeks in Washington, she tweeted that support for Israel in the United States was “all about the Benjamins,” adding that she was referring to AIPAC. She subsequently apologized for those remarks, saying “antisemitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of antisemitic tropes.”

She added that she “reaffirm[ed] the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”

AIPAC has since devoted attention to the Minnesota lawmaker, most recently in a contentious ad campaign in May where her face was placed next to Hamas rockets. The ad, which read “When Israel targets Hamas, Rep. Omar calls it ‘an act of terrorism,’” was factually inaccurate. Omar described Israeli airstrikes killing civilians in Gaza, not the targeting of Hamas, as terrorism – and her office decried the ad for “blatantly peddling both anti-Muslim hate speech and disinformation.” 

Democratic leadership condemned the ads at the time, with longtime AIPAC allies House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer calling the ads “deeply cynical and inflammatory” and not advancing “the goal of increasing support for Israel,” respectively.

When asked for comment on the recent slate of AIPAC ads, a senior Hoyer aide said: "Majority Leader Hoyer’s comment from May 19 still stands: 'I disagree with the statements made by the Members, but attacking them in ads does not advance the goal of increasing support for Israel. AIPAC ought to be making the case to the American people not only for Israel’s right to protect the lives of its citizens, but why they have a moral responsibility to do so; and its value as our ally and national security partner.'"

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