The House Democratic leadership team and key Jewish committee chairmen on Monday joined a chorus of criticism against freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar for tweets suggesting that a pro-Israel lobbying group was buying off members of Congress.
Republicans have been attacking the Minnesota Democrat for several weeks for supporting the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and making comments against the Israeli government. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said he is likely to take action against Omar and another BDS supporter, Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib — the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.
“It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” Omar tweeted Sunday about McCarthy’s threat. In another tweet, she clarified that she believes the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, is paying politicians to be pro-Israel.
It's all about the Benjamins baby 🎶 https://t.co/KatcXJnZLV— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 10, 2019
Omar’s tweets have been widely planned as an “anti-Semitic trope,” with Democratic leaders and committee chairmen joining the onslaught Monday.
“Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive,” the top six Democratic leaders said in a statement. “We condemn these remarks and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments.”
The joint statement from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján, Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries and Caucus Vice Chairwoman Katherine Clark affirmed their support of Israel “based on shared values and strategic interests.
“Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share,” they said, before noting Omar's comments went too far.
“Anti-Semitism must be called out, confronted and condemned whenever it is encountered, without exception,” the Democratic leaders said.
Pelosi added in a tweet that she spoke with Omar and that they “agreed that we must use this moment to move forward as we reject anti-Semitism in all forms.”
Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) February 11, 2019
Republicans to ‘take action’
The Democratic leaders' statement came about 15 minutes after McCarthy, the Republican leader, issued his own statement condemning Omar's most recent comments and the silence from Democratic leaders on “members of the Democrat caucus [who] have increasingly and alarmingly used anti-Semitic language.”
“In the face of that abdication of leadership, Republicans will take action this week to ensure the House speaks out against this hatred and stands with Israel and the Jewish people,” the California Republican said.
A Republican leadership aide said the options for that action are still being discussed but one could be forcing a vote on a resolution from New York Rep. Lee Zeldin that references remarks from Omar and Tlaib and expresses the sense of the House that the body “rejects anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred in the United States and around the world.”
McCarthy could file that as a privileged resolution to trigger a two-day time clock in which the House must hold a vote on it. Democrats could move to table a privileged resolution, however, as a way to prevent a straight up or down vote.
Several Jewish Democratic committee chairmen also weighed in on the Omar controversy.
“Anti-Semitism in any form is unacceptable, and it’s shocking to hear a member of Congress invoke the anti-Semitic trope of ‘Jewish money,’” Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel said in a statement.
Engel’s comment is significant because Omar is a member of his panel. Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney has called for Democratic leaders to remove Omar from the committee, but Engel did not go there in his statement.
“I fully expect that when we disagree on the Foreign Affairs Committee, we will debate policy on the merits and never question members’ motives or resort to personal attacks,” the New York Democrat said. “Criticism of American policy toward any country is fair game, but this must be done on policy grounds.”
Engel reiterated his commitment as chairman to make the case that the United States’ “alliance and friendship with Israel [is] important to our countries’ shared interests, security, and values.”
“This has always been the basis of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and it’s the reason why members on both sides have been strong supporters of that relationship,” he said, effectively disputing Omar’s political contributions theory.
‘Deeply hurtful and offensive’
Four other Jewish committee leaders — Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, Ethics Chairman Ted Deutch, Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey and Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff — also issued statements criticizing Omar’s tweets.
Omar “appears to traffic in old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money,” Nadler said. “Her words are deeply hurtful and offensive, particularly as they build on a previous comment she made about Jews ‘hypnotizing’ the world in support of Israel — another old trope born of hate-filled texts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
The New York Democrat said there’s an expectation that the nation’s leaders “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.”
Nadler also reaffirmed the strong bipartisan support of Israel. He said “the overwhelming majority” of Congress believes in a two-state solution as “the only way to a meaningful, lasting and secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians that recognizes the needs, interests and concerns of both peoples.”
“Recent efforts, from both the left and right, to push away from such a solution only bring us further from the peace that both sides so desperately need,” Nadler said. “It is my hope to see such a solution in my lifetime, and I will continue to endeavor, working with my colleagues from all backgrounds and political ideologies, to make that peace a reality.”
Deutch also condemned Omar’s tweets as personally hurtful, saying, “Trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes is unacceptable and deeply worrisome to the Jewish community.”
“The use of stereotypes and offensive rhetoric by members of Congress, whether anti-Semitic or racist, must come to an end,” the Florida Democrat said. “They should never be a part of any conversation about the policies of Congress. They do not belong in any conversation, period.”
Lowey said,“There is no defense for invoking anti-Semitic tropes.”
“This kind of language is hurtful, damaging, and unacceptable,” the New York Democrat said. “Lawmakers must debate policy differences without prejudice or bigotry. Anti-Semitic tropes are painful for Jewish communities around the world, and such mischaracterizations of our support for Israel are deeply offensive.”
Schiff was the only committee leader to directly call on Omar to apologize, which she eventually did later Monday.
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