WASHINGTON – Several Jewish Democratic lawmakers are coming out in defense of Rep. Ilhan Omar, following calls by Republican Congress members to censure her over remarks they claim equated the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban.
The lawmakers’ attempts at bolstering support for Omar comes amid an outpouring of support from progressive lawmakers and organizations, including several Jewish ones, as GOP officials mull what measures to take against her.
Last week, Omar, an outspoken critic of Israel, tweeted a video of an exchange with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in which she affirmed her support for an International Criminal Court investigation into both Israel and Hamas’ actions during the latest round of fighting between the two sides.
“We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. I asked Secretary Blinken where people are supposed to go for justice,” she wrote, echoing earlier criticism of Israel’s conduct during the conflict. The comments have been excoriated by her political opponents, who claim that she is equating the United States and Israel with internationally recognized terror groups – as well as by Hamas itself, for equating its actions to those of Israel.
Several Republican members of Congress have publicly called on Democratic leadership to remove Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and GOP leaders may take action to force a censure vote as well.
Beyond the specific measures targeting Omar, 17 Republicans, led by Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida, introduced a resolution aimed at condemning and censoring Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressly “for defending foreign terrorist organizations and inciting antisemitic attacks across the United States.”
In a series of tweets, Democratic Rep. Andy Levin defended Omar’s original line of questioning to Blinken regarding the International Criminal Court. “[Omar] also called for accountability. She clarified that she was not suggesting the U.S. and Israel are like the Taliban and Hamas – but her questions did not equate them,” Levin wrote, sharing a Haaretz report on leading Israeli intellectuals urging the ICC to not rely on Israeli accounts for war crimes investigations. “Why seize that idea if not to serve other purposes or continue the sick sport of attacking Congresswoman Omar?”
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The Michigan lawmaker added that it was his duty to raise hard questions on accountability for all, including allies such as Israel. “Can we really expect to get to a world of peace and justice for all if we are not willing to hold everyone accountable for war crimes and human rights violations?” Levin continued. “I will continue to join [Omar] in asking these questions and condemn these attacks against her.”
In another tweet, he stated that “legitimate criticism of Israel backed up by respected human rights orgs, is not antisemitic – that’s how we build a just and peaceful world,” adding that “weaponizing antisemitism to attack Muslim and other women of color like Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley must end. Now.”
Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, meanwhile, told Spectrum News that his colleagues “overreacted” to Omar’s remarks. “It’s always fair for a member to criticize the policies of a government or of a governmental leader, I’ve been highly critical of the Israeli government’s policies and former Prime Minister Netanyahu. I don’t think anybody would call me antisemitic,” Yarmuth said. “The fact that you put Hamas in the same sentence with the United States does not necessarily mean that you’re equating the two. That was an unfair assumption that some of my colleagues made.”
When asked why Waltz’s resolution only named Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley, rather than critics such as himself or Reps. Mark Pocan and Betty McCollum, the Kentucky lawmaker said: “Well I’m neither Black, nor female, nor Muslim. I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s right. Congresswoman Omar has as much right to criticize Israel or any other government or any other national leader as any other member of Congress without being singled out.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan took issue with Omar’s original comments, but accepted her clarifications. She called on Congress to take Omar at her word.
“As someone who served with the CIA alongside our troops overseas, and as someone who’s an army wife and the stepmom of a young army officer serving abroad, it pained me to see one of my colleagues making these equivalencies between democracies like the United States and Israel and organizations whose goals often involve terror and mass murder,” she told Haaretz.
“I’ll be the first one to say that the United States and Israel have made mistakes in foreign policy. We have to learn from those mistakes and apply them to the future instead of just sweeping them under the rug. That doesn’t diminish the good that the U.S. or Israel has done and the example that we have and can set for people across the world who dream of living in a democratic system,” the Michigan congresswoman continued.
“I have no problem highlighting U.S. flaws with the goal of pushing us to be better – that’s the essence of the United States. Protests can be very patriotic, but I want it to come from a place of love,” Slotkin adds.
Slotkin notes that while Omar’s remarks “pained me,” they differ from comments she took issue with over the past two years ago. “Right now, when things are so polarized, we should be specific and condemn what we have problems with, but not start lumping big categories of people together – regardless of party,” she says.
Slotkin says that her Jewish colleagues’ statement – in which 12 House Democrats urged Omar to clarify her remarks, combined with public pressure, urged the Minnesota lawmaker to do so. “It’s extremely important for members of Congress – in both parties – to be diligent about the messages they’re putting out.” She notes how she walked by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s press conference clarifying that a mandate to wear face masks was not the same as the Holocaust.
“All members of Congress have a responsibility to realize they are leaders in the public eye, and their words matter. If someone clarifies and apologizes, that should be taken on its merits,” she says. “I wish the original comparisons weren’t made, but we live in a world where people are constantly exploiting themselves and that’s what we’ve seen on both sides of the aisle over the last week.”
Slotkin notes that Omar and Tlaib, as the first two Muslim women in Congress, will always be “figures of interest,” noting “they have a lot of people supporting them and a lot who don’t. They, like anyone else in Congress, should be taken at their word. If there are wrongheaded things that come out of any member of Congress, we should call that out.”
As chairwoman of the subcommittee on intelligence and counterterrorism, Slotkin is particularly concerned with growing rates of antisemitism. “The last meeting I held before COVID in February 2020 was a big meeting on rising antisemitism in Michigan, and sadly the trends have continued to go in the wrong direction – particularly in the last month.”
She adds that the Anti-Defamation League is helping parse through and understand the numbers. “We are at risk, and I’m moving from statements to training the Jewish community and local leaders across the state on how to properly report instances, even things that may seem benign. We’ve been getting briefings from the FBI and it’s a real concern.”
Slotkin hopes that the U.S.-Jewish community understands that while there are many views on Israeli policy, there is a need to organize and strategically plan around rising antisemitism.
Many of the Jewish lawmakers who signed the letter urging Omar to clarify her remarks have said they would not support efforts to censure her or strip her of her committee assignments. Rep. Brad Schneider, who spearheaded both the statement regarding Omar’s alleged equivalencies and the efforts to censure Greene for her statements on masks, said he would no longer introduce a measure to censure the Georgia Republican following her visit to the Holocaust Museum, and amid a potential standoff regarding the potential censure measures.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to strip Omar of her spot on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, though did not threaten to force a vote aimed at censure or removing her from committee. McCarthy's actions are viewed as a stalemate of sorts between motions to take action against Greene and Omar, though he warned that Republicans would remove her from the committee if they retook control of the House in 2022.