Ilhan Omar Apologizes for 'anti-Semitic' Tweet Following Backlash

Democratic Minnesota congresswoman says her 'intention is never to offend' after tweeting that AIPAC was paying American politicians to express support for Israel

Rep. Ilhan Omar walks through the halls of the Capitol Building in Washington, January 16, 2019.
Andrew Harnik,AP

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar issued an apology on Monday evening for tweeting that AIPAC, the powerful lobby group supporting the Israeli government, was paying American politicians to express support for Israel.

"Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes," Omar wrote. "My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize."

Omar, who captioned her apology "Listening and learning, but standing strong," added: "At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It's gone on too long and we must be willing to address it."

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The controversy erupted on Sunday when the Minnesota congresswoman tweeted that support for Israel in the United States was “all about the Benjamins,” referring to Benjamin Franklin, whose image appears on $100 bills.

A growing list of Democratic lawmakers denounced Omar, with condemnations coming from members of Congress and other influential figures in the party.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi released a statement on the issue. “Anti-semitism must be called out, confronted and condemned whenever it is encountered, without exception,” the statement said. It was co-signed by other members of the Democratic House leadership. “Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech, but Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-semitic tropes is deeply offensive.”

In a statement published by Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Nadler wrote, "While of course our nation's leaders are free to debate the relative influence of a particular organization on our country's policy-making process, or the factors that make our system of governance imperfect, there is an expectation of leaders – particularly those with a demonstrated commitment to the cause of justice and equality – that they would be extremely careful not to tread into the waters of anti-Semitism or any other form of prejudice or hate. Rep. Omar failed that test of leadership with these comments."

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey, wrote that “There is absolutely no place for this rhetoric in Congress or anywhere.” He also claimed that Omar “has avoided meeting with me to discuss why anti-Semitic tropes like these are hurtful to so many Americans.” Gottheimer is considered one of the Democratic members of the House who is most closely affiliated with pro-Israeli groups in Washington.

Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat of New York, wrote: “Rep. Omar’s tweet yesterday went too far. To suggest that pro-Israel support 'Is all about the Benjamins,' and her follow up that she is referring to AIPAC, is not only inaccurate but conjures up the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes.”

He added that “My support for Israel is based upon our shared values, our national security interests, and the history of the region.”

Rep. Sean Maloney, also from New York, echoed a similar message, stating that “My support for Israel is based on shared values and U.S. national security, not money.” He added that he was “disappointed” at Omar “tweeting dangerous and hurtful tropes.”

Rep. Dona Shalala, a Democrat from Florida and a former Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bill Clinton administration, also criticized Omar. “There is no place in our country for anti-Semitic comments” she said. “I condemn them whatever the source. To suggest members of Congress are 'bought off' to support Israel is offensive and wrong.”

Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton, whose husband is Jewish, tweeted: "We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism."

Max Rose, a freshman member of Congress from New York and a Jewish combat veteran, was one of the first Democratic politicians to denounce Omar. "Implying that Americans support Israel because of money alone is offensive," he wrote.

Some of those who criticize Omar also went after Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who put up his own tweets attacking the Congresswoman. McCarthy wrote on Twitter, " Anti-Semitic tropes have no place in the halls of Congress. It is dangerous for Democrat leadership to stay silent on this reckless language."

Rep. Maloney responded to McCarthy: “Anti-Semitism doesn't have any place anywhere. But let's keep in mind this is coming from the same guy who cheers on the president for his racist statements, including about Native Americans. Especially this Trail of Tears nonsense. Your words ring hollow.”

Forward journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon, whose tweets asking Omar about anti-Semitism led the Congresswoman to make the accusation towards AIPAC, also criticized McCarthy. “I guess you think we forgot when you accused three Jews of buying an election. Sit down, you damn hypocrite,” she wrote - a reference to McCarthy’s promotion, during the midterm elections, of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jewish billionaires George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer were trying to “buy” the election. 

McCarthy deleted a tweet on the subject, which was shared by thousands of users, after a right-wing extremist sent a bomb to Soros’ house.

J Street published a statement, titled "Weaponization and oversimplification of Israel debate must end." The progressive organzation said that the "war of words" taking place between lawmakers on the subjects of Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian and anti-semitism does not advance the needs of Israelis or Palestinians, nor those of the American Jewish community.

Regarding Omar's tweet that pro-Israel support "Is all about the Benjamins", the group commented: "There is no doubt that money often plays a major role in our political system. At the same time, elected officials must be extremely aware that tropes about Jewish money and political influence have been used for centuries to target and stigmatize our community. Indeed, such tropes featured alarmingly in the campaign ads of Republican candidates during the 2018 election cycle. This kind of rhetoric and imagery has never been the exclusive province of left or right."

The Anti-Defamation League criticised Omar's tweet and called for House leadrship to take immediate action. "At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in the U.S. and abroad, Representative Omar is promoting the ugly, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews have an outsized influence over politics."

In response to Omar's clarification that she was referring to AIPAC's influence on American politics, the ADL's stated, "Strong bipartisan support for Israel is not a result of money or lobbying. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and a strong American ally in a strategically important region... Grassroots advocacy is a critical part of our robust democracy – and AIPAC has every right to work effectively with members of Congress to support the U.S.-Israel relationship."

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations also called for congressional action against Omar. In a statement, they said Omar is not interested in dialogue but rather in "maliciously trafficing" anti-Semitic tropes and that she "can no longer feign ignorance or be given the benefit of the doubt." They encouraged Speaker Pelose to take "concrete action to censure Representative Omar for her offensive comments."