Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Defend Ilhan Omar Against anti-Semitism Claims

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris express their support for the Minnesota congresswoman after controversial 'allegiance' statement

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., sits with fellow Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee in Washington, March 6, 2019.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., sits with fellow Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee in Washington, March 6, 2019.Credit: AP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON — Three Democratic presidential contenders defended freshman Congresswoman Rep. Ilhan Omar on Wednesday, following the controversy surrounding her recent comments about Israel.

Omar was denounced by Republicans and some Democrats for saying supporters of Israel in the United States demand "allegiance to a foreign country" — a statement that Jewish organizations and politicians viewed as anti-Semitic, or at the very least echoing an anti-Semitic trope.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 17Credit: Haaretz

The scandal around her words has erupted into an internal battle within the Democratic Party. After senior Democratic members of the House of Representatives denounced her in recent days, Omar received support Wednesday from senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of the more left-wing candidates in the upcoming Democratic primaries.

"Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world," said Sanders. "We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. Rather, we must develop an even-handed Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace."

He continued, "What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong."

>> Read more: Ilhan Omar and the Democrats' dilemma: Punish anti-Semitism, or appease it, Corbyn style | OpinionWhy the Ilhan Omar anti-Semitism controversy isn't going away anytime soon | Analysis

Warren said in her statement: "We have a moral duty to combat hateful ideologies in our own country and around the world ― and that includes both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. In a democracy, we can and should have an open, respectful debate about the Middle East that focuses on policy. Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Threats of violence ― like those made against Rep. Omar ― are never acceptable."

California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is also a leading presidential contender, also released a statement. "We all have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all forms of hatred and bigotry, especially as we see a spike in hate crimes in America. But like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk," she stated.

"We should be having a sound, respectful discussion about policy," Harris continued. "You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country. I also believe there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism. At the end of the day, we need a two-state solution and a commitment to peace, human rights and democracy by all leaders in the region ― and a commitment by our country to help achieve that."

The Democrats were scheduled to table a resolution on anti-Semitism on Wednesday, but it was postponed when lawmakers reportedly differed over the contents of the resolution, some wanting to widen it to include other forms of hate.

President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday, "It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against Anti-Semitism in their conference. Anti-Semitism has fueled atrocities throughout history and it’s inconceivable they will not act to condemn it!"

Other senior Democrats on Capitol Hill were quick to come out against Omar’s statements last week.

Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (of which Omar is a member), called her comments “vile anti-Semitic slurs.” He added that “I welcome debate in Congress based on the merits of policy, but it’s unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Florida Rep. Debbie Wassermann Schultz, a former head of the Democratic National Committee, also commented, saying that “misunderstandings over anti-Semitic, hurtful comments continue, as does hateful Islamaphobic rhetoric. Dialogue leads to understanding.”

Omar's comments led to a spat on Twitter with fellow Democratic Congresswoman Nita Lowey, the chairwoman of the Appropriations committee, who said: “Lawmakers must be able to debate without prejudice or bigotry. I am saddened that Rep. Omar continues to mischaracterize support for Israel. I urge her to retract this statement and engage in further dialogue with the Jewish community on why these comments are so hurtful.”

Omar responded: "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."

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