Ocasio-Cortez Defends Ilhan Omar as anti-Semitism Storm Roils Democratic Party

Several Jewish lawmakers and groups denounce the freshman Minnesota congresswoman, but Rep. Ocasio-Cortez notes that 'no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about other communities'

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., walk down the House steps, Jan. 4, 2019
Andrew Harnik,AP

WASHINGTON — Democrats are divided over Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar after her comments regarding Israel and its supporters in the United States sparked a political storm in recent days.

Several Jewish lawmakers have denounced the freshman congresswoman, as have two Jewish groups affiliated with the Democratic Party.

At the same time, the most left-wing elements within the party, including colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have defended her in face of accusations of anti-Semitism.

The House is set to vote Wednesday on a resolution that condemns anti-Semitism following the uproar over Omar's remarks.

Ocasio-Cortez addressed the Omar controversy in several tweets Tuesday morning. “One of the things that is hurtful about the extent to which reprimand is sought of Ilhan is that no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about other communities,” she wrote.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez listening to the testimony of Michael Cohen at a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, February 27, 2019.
\ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

She also addressed Wednesday's planned resolution in the House condemning anti-Semitism: “It’s not my position to tell people how to feel, or that their hurt is invalid," she wrote. "But incidents like these do beg the question: Where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll 'send Obama home to Kenya?'”

Omar has been involved in several anti-Semitism scandals since being elected to Congress last November, most notably when she suggested that members of Congress are paid by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to support Israel. She later apologized for repeating an anti-Semitic trope.

However, critics accused her of doubling down during a talk at a D.C. bookstore last week. “What I’m fearful of — because [Rep. Rashida Tlaib] and I are Muslim — that a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our allies, go to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim,” she said.

Omar told the audience she was "pained” when people accuse her of intolerance. “But it’s almost as if, every single time we say something regardless of what it is we say … we get to be labeled something,” she said. “And that ends the discussion. Because we end up defending that and nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine. So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country."

That comment 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."

Other senior Democrats on Capitol Hill were also quick to come out against Omar’s comments.  

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.” 

She directly addressed Omar on Twitter, writing that “repeated misunderstandings would seem to require dialogue to avoid repetitive harm.”

All three Democrats are considered allies of pro-Israel groups in Washington, and Engel in particular is considered aligned with the agenda of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.

Omar was herself the subject of an Islamophobic attack in West Virginia's state house last week, when a poster on display for a Republican Party event linked the congresswoman to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

President Donald Trump commented about the anti-Semitism controversy on Twitter Monday, writing that Omar was "again under fire for her terrible comments concerning Israel. Jewish groups have just sent a petition to Speaker Pelosi asking her to remove Omar from Foreign Relations Committee. A dark day for Israel!"

The Jewish Democratic Council of America, the leading Jewish organization operating within the party, also denounced Omar’s comments. The organization put out a statement on Tuesday: “While we may disagree with those who do not share our views on Israel, we recognize that criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic. However, allegations that American Jews have dual loyalties, or that the Jewish community exercises untoward financial influence on U.S. policy, are anti-Semitic and must be recognized as such. We would condemn such remarks from any member of Congress, regardless of their political or religious background.”

Meanwhile, Dylan Williams, vice president for government affairs at the left-leaning J Street, wrote Monday: “It’s really amazing how many of the people asserting that you can criticize Israeli policy without being labeled an anti-Semite regularly label those who legitimately criticize Israeli policy as anti-Semites.”

A statement by a Democratic congressman criticizing Omar was used by her supporters to claim that the outrage is actually over support for Israel’s current government. California Rep. Juan Vargas wrote Monday that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.”

Ocasio-Cortez responded by writing: “I'm curious if Rep. Vargas will further explain his stance here that it’s unacceptable to even *question* U.S. foreign policy. I remember a time when it was 'unacceptable' to question the Iraq War.”

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, also addressed Vargas' comment. She tweeted: "Thanks to @RepJuanVargas for sorting this out for us! To review: It’s anti-Semitic for @IlhanMN to suggest she is expected to show unquestioning support for Israel;& It’s 'unacceptable' for her to question US support for Israel. Anyone see the problem here?"

Some Jewish groups have also defended Omar. IfNotNow, for example, addressed a tweet by Republican Rep. Jim Jordan in which he called Jewish billionaire Tom Steyer "$teyer," seemingly repeating an anti-Semitic trope.

"This tweet shows that those peddling the most vicious anti-Semitic tropes are part of the conservative movement," IfNotNow tweeted. "That his comment has not faced the wall-to-wall coverage and condemnation that we saw with Rep. Omar’s tweets reveals the racism and Islamophobia she faces.

"The complete and utter lack of outrage about this also demonstrates that the main red line @IlhanMN crossed was around public criticism of Israel, and that those on the right that attacked her were weaponizing antisemitism to divide the progressive movement," the organization wrote.