What did Ilhan Omar say about Israel? Democrat accused of using antisemitic tropes

House Democrats have put forth a resolution seen as a rebuke to Ms Omar's recent statements

Clark Mindock
New York
Thursday 07 March 2019 16:00
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Former refugee Ilhan Omar becomes the first Somali-American state legislator to win US House primary

Democrats are poised to vote on a measure denouncing anti-semitism that is seen as a rebuke to Representative Ilhan Omar, whose comments on the Israel lobby in Washington have embroiled her in controversy and accusations that she has used anti-semitic tropes.

Ms Omar first sparked the controversy a month ago while discussing the pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which she suggested has managed to build support for Israel through its big money lobbying efforts. She recently stirred more controversy during a panel discussion.

Those comments were met with outrage from Republicans and many Democrats, who said that Ms Omar’s claims that pro-Israel sentiment in Washington is influenced by the pro-Israel lobby played into anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish people and money.

Here’s what you need to know.

Ms Omar’s statements on the matter date back to at least 2012

The freshman congresswoman — who is one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress — has created a splash in Washington since joining Congress in January, but the alleged anti-semitic remarks date back to at least 2012, with a tweet when she wrote: “Israel has hypnotised the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

Since taking office, Ms Omar apologised for those words — specifically the notion that Israel and its supporters are somehow tricking the world into supporting it — saying that she did not intend on stirring up anti-semitic sentiments.

“In all sincerity … I heard from Jewish [organisations] that my use of the word “hypnotise” and the ugly sentiment it holds was offensive,” Ms Omar wrote on Twitter in January. “That statement came in the context of the Gaza War. It’s now apparent to me that I spent lots of energy putting my 2012 tweet in context and little energy is disavowing the anti-semitic trope I unknowingly used, which is unfortunate and offensive.”

But, she noted in a later tweet that she believes “it is important to distinguish between criticising a military action by a government and attacking a particular people of faith”, saying that her 2012 tweet was aimed at criticising Israel’s attack on Gaza that year that left over 100 Palestinian civilians dead.

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Her more recent comments first took on the Jewish lobby

It’s “all about the Benjamins”, Ms Omar wrote in February, raising critiques that the Jewish lobby buys off American politicians. She later clarified that she was talking about AIPAC specifically.

She later “unequivocally” apologised, but maintained that she believes that the influence of money in politics and lobbying is a threat to the US.

Ms Omar’s most recent comments came last week during a panel discussion with fellow freshman Representative Rashida Tlaib, a fellow Muslim representative: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she said.

“What I’m fearful of — because 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. “And so to me, it’s something that becomes designed to end the debate because you get in this space of — yes, I know what intolerance looks like and I’m sensitive when someone says, ‘The words you used, Ilhan, are resemblance [sic] of intolerance.’ And I am cautious of that and I feel pained by that.”

She continued: “But it’s almost as if, every single time we say something regardless of what it is we say that is supposed to be about foreign policy or engagement or advocacy about ending oppression or the freeing of every human life and wanting dignity, we get to be labelled something, 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 okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

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Criticism has come from both sides of the aisle — but some progressives have rallied behind her

Early detractors of Ms Omar’s statements included Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, conservative commentators, and has grown to include Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

But she has received some support from progressives like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said: “ ‘Calling out’ is one of the measures of last resort, not 1st or 2nd resort,” she wrote in a recent tweet. “We do it when repeated attempts to ‘call in’ are disrespected or ignored. And I believe that Ilhan, in her statement a few weeks ago, has demonstrated a willingness to listen+work w/impacted communities.”

Ms Tlaib has also supported her colleague, saying she is “being targeted just like many civil rights icons before us who spoke out about oppressive policies.”

What is AIPAC, anyway?

The lobbying group Ms Omar criticised in February — starting off this whole thing — has a long history in Washington, as has pro-Israel sentiment dating back to the formation of Israel as a Jewish state.

AIPAC wields power in a number of ways — notably, its political donations to individual candidates is generally seen as somewhat negligible — and its stated goal is to strengthen ties between the US and Israel.

One major way that it works to achieve that goal is through lobbying, and the group spends a pretty penny on that effort.

In 2018, for instance, AIPAC spent more than $3.5m, representing the vast majority of spending by the Jewish lobby that year, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics. There is some evidence their efforts work, too: The group was staunchly opposed to the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and lobbied heavily on the issue last year. Donald Trump ultimately announced the US withdrawal from that accord last year.

The group also often lobbies heavily for foreign aid to Israel.

AIPAC is also known for funding trips to Israel for members of Congress, including for Mr McCarthy.

What does the House resolution being considered say?

The resolution is expected to pass a floor vote sometime on Wednesday or Thursday, and includes language condemning anti-semitism.

Amid some backlash, language condemning anti-Muslim sentiment was also added.

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