Democrats on defensive as members face anti-Semitism accusations over tweets

    In this Feb. 5, 2019, photo, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, joined at right by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., listens to President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    President Donald Trump called for Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., to resign or at least step down from the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday over tweets widely denounced as anti-Semitic, but Omar and fellow freshman Muslim woman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., continue to defend themselves as Republicans and some Democrats take aim at them over current and past statements about Israel.

    “What she said is so deep-seated in her heart that her lame apology -- and that's what it was; it was lame, and she didn’t mean a word of it -- was just not appropriate,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting. “I think she should resign from Congress, frankly. But at a minimum, she shouldn’t be on committees, and certainly that committee.”

    Some Democrats reject ongoing GOP criticisms of the lawmakers as bad-faith attempts to exploit internal divisions over Israel, but others have repeatedly reprimanded the women over language that is at best careless and at worst deeply offensive.

    The latest controversy began Friday when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., claimed Omar and Tlaib’s statements about Israel were “unacceptable in this country” and Democrats should “take action” against them, as he recently did against Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, for his racist rhetoric.

    “It's stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans,” journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted in response to a Haaretz article about McCarthy’s threats.

    Omar retweeted Greenwald’s comment, suggesting McCarthy’s defense of Israel is “all about the Benjamins baby.” Questioned about who she thinks is paying politicians to take pro-Israel stances, she replied “AIPAC!”

    The tweets sparked an immediate bipartisan backlash.

    "When someone uses hateful and offensive tropes and words against people of any faith, I will not be silent," Democratic freshman Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y. tweeted. "Congresswoman Omar's statements are deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself. Implying that Americans support Israel because of money alone is offensive enough. But go a step further, and retweet someone declaring their pain at her sentiment is truly unacceptable."

    He and others raised concerns about the global rise of anti-Semitism and warned of the dangers posed by Omar’s language.

    “As Americans and Jews, we expect our politicians to condemn bigotry, not to fuel it. Words matter. At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in the U.S. and abroad, Rep. Omar is promoting the ugly, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews have an outsized influence over politics,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement Monday.

    Many on social media defended Omar, arguing AIPAC does spend millions on lobbying Congress and actively encourages members to make campaign contributions. They also questioned McCarthy and Trump’s standing to accuse others of anti-Semitism or bigotry.

    McCarthy was criticized last fall for a now-deleted tweet accusing three Jewish billionaires of trying to buy the midterm election, and Trump once tweeted an image of a Star of David over piles of money to accuse an opponent of corruption. Trump also defended some of the attendees at a 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville as “very fine people.”

    “If you denounce Ilhan Omar but support Donald Trump, you don’t really oppose bigotry. You don’t even really oppose anti-Semitism. What you oppose is criticism of Israel. That’s the real reason Republicans are so much more outraged by Omar’s tweets than by Trump’s,” Peter Beinart wrote in a column for The Forward Tuesday.

    Appearing on CNN Sunday, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., accused McCarthy of “throwing stones from his own glass house” and distinguished Omar from Rep. King, who was only disciplined last month after Republicans ignored years of inflammatory statements.

    “Omar is a freshman. She’s new here, she’s young,” Connolly said. “I think she has learned a painful lesson that the words you use through whatever medium can be painful and can be hurtful and will have consequences. So hopefully moving forward, this is a valuable lesson she has learned and she’ll seek counsel and be far more careful about how she expresses herself.”

    Allegations of Republican hypocrisy aside, Omar’s tweet clearly did not sit well with members of her own party. House Democratic leadership took the unusual step Monday of issuing a joint statement rebuking one of their own members for using “anti-Semitic tropes.”

    "Legitimate criticism of Israel's policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share," the statement from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and others said. "But Congresswoman Omar's use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel's supporters is deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments."

    Hours later, Omar tweeted an apology, saying, “Listening and learning, but standing strong.”

    “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,” she 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."

    She also renewed her criticism of AIPAC in somewhat softer language, adding, "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.”

    Many Democrats viewed her contrition as sufficient, but some Republicans did not.

    "Her apology comes across as, you know, sorry not sorry from Demi Lovato. I don't take it as a real, sincere apology," said Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., who has authored a resolution condemning anti-Semitism that calls out Omar and Tlaib by name, on Fox News.

    Weeks earlier, Omar faced questions over a 2012 tweet in which she claimed Israel had “hypnotized” the world. She insisted that tweet did not intentionally reference anti-Semitic stereotypes and that she was specifically referring to airstrikes Israel had launched against Gaza at the time.

    In a recent interview with Yahoo News, Omar said “I almost chuckle” at the notion that Israel is a democracy because of its treatment of non-Jewish citizens. She has also raised questions by expressing support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement after stating during her campaign that it is “not helpful” for the peace process.

    “Unfortunately, making insensitive statements toward the Jewish community is not new for Rep. Omar,” Greenblatt, of the ADL, said Monday. “These tweets are part of a disturbing pattern of behavior that must end. The Congresswoman needs to understand that these comments promote dangerous stereotypes and are hurtful to her Jewish constituents and Jewish-Americans throughout the country.”

    Rep. Tlaib fell under similar scrutiny last month for a tweet alleging Republican senators pushing an anti-BDS bill during a partial government shutdown “forget which country they represent.” She was accused of referencing a historic anti-Semitic dual-loyalty smear.

    “The hardest part of serving in Congress as a WOC & as a ‘first’ is how people hear you differently,” Tlaib tweeted Monday. “No matter how much we take on the hate & stay true to who we are through our experiences, our voices are shushed and reduced. We aren't perfect, but neither is this institution.”

    Tlaib has repeatedly faced questions over relationships with people who have made more overtly anti-Semitic comments, including an activist who once equated Zionism with Nazism. On Tuesday, Fox News reported she wrote a 2006 column for the Nation of Islam’s Final Call, which also published leader Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic commentary.

    “It is unfair to be held responsible for the statements of others, especially when my actions — including votes as a Michigan legislator and leading the Take On Hate campaign — make clear that I oppose all forms of hate and condemn those who dehumanize others,” Tlaib said in a statement to The New York Times earlier this month.

    Capri Cafaro, a former Ohio state senator and executive in residence at American University’s School of Public Affairs, said Omar’s apology is unlikely to quiet the controversy surrounding her. Republicans will continue to draw parallels to Rep. King and press for further action.

    “There is an expectation that Rep. Omar be treated the same,” she said. “Until and unless she is removed from committees, I don’t think this is the last we’ll be hearing of this.”

    Republicans have increasingly attempted to tie Democrats to anti-Semitism in recent months, and Cafaro suggested Democrats need to push back on that characterization more aggressively, even if it means isolating some voices within the party.

    “I think most mainstream Democrats stand with Israel. It’s going to be important to reaffirm that in a very deliberate and public way,” she said.

    While the Democratic Party has expanded its base by appealing to younger voters and Muslims who are more open to criticism of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, Cafaro doubts denouncing Omar or Tlaib would carry much political cost the long run.

    “Just because you are critical of someone’s anti-Semitic statements doesn’t mean you’re not willing to have a broader policy conversation,” she said.

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