Pelosi left with no good options for how to address Rep. Ilhan Omar’s controversial Israel comments

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

The first time Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said something about the U.S. government’s support for Israel that was perceived by critics as perpetuating an anti-Semitic stereotype, condemnation from her fellow Democrats was hard and swift. She apologized.

Then Omar made another comment about pro-Israel advocates pressing for “allegiance to a foreign country” that some also found offensive. The calls for a strong rebuke of Omar from within and outside the party have Democratic leaders grappling with how to handle it.

Their answer is a formal rebuke in the form of a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism — and in a last minute add, Islamophobia — on which the House plans to vote on Thursday.

But to what end? Does Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) bring up a resolution every time Omar says something about Israel that some think is anti-Semitic? Does she kick Omar off the Foreign Affairs Committee, as some Republicans had called for even before these latest comments?

After all, Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, has continued to question the United States’ foreign policy as it pertains to Israel even after the rebuke. And if criticizing Israel is conflated with criticizing the Jewish population, then Omar is going to continue to give her critics fodder.

It leaves Pelosi, and to a larger extent the Democratic Party, in an untenable position. No matter what, Pelosi risks alienating people within her ranks who either feel that she hasn’t done enough to condemn anti-Semitism or that the party is unfairly singling Omar out for punishment.

Many high-ranking Jewish Democrats in Congress have been extremely critical of Omar’s comments and have put pressure on leadership to take action. But in recent days, the progressive wing of the caucus has risen to Omar’s defense, including her friend Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Ocasio-Cortez has been using her tremendous reach on social media to defend Omar and criticizing what she says is the double standard of not calling for resolutions when lawmakers trade in xenophobic, sexist or racist tropes.

“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 Latinx + other communities,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which saw its ranks grow after last year’s midterms, is raising money for Omar and members who defend her, while encouraging its supporters to sign a petition urging “every congressional Democrat to show public solidarity with Ilhan Omar — not attack her — in the face of anti-Muslim racist attacks.”

The above is a reference to a poster that hung in the West Virginia State Capital over the weekend showing the burning Twin Towers next to a photo of Omar with the caption, “’Never forget,’ you said … I am the proof — you have forgotten.”

There’s also a question of moral purity in the age of President Trump. Democrats have taken a no-nonsense stance when it comes to issues of sexual misconduct, racism and anti-Semitism in an effort to maintain moral high ground against Republicans, who have let many of Trump’s words and actions slide. Trump has jumped all over Omar’s comments as marking a “dark day for Israel.”

An intractable battle over Middle East policy is probably the last thing Pelosi wants dividing her caucus and soaking attention away from her legislative goals. This week, the House will pass Democrats’ signature legislation on overhauling ethics, lobbying, election and voting laws.

But instead of focusing on that, Pelosi is navigating a delicate balance on a very emotional issue while trying to avoid causing further disunity.

2 comments for “Pelosi left with no good options for how to address Rep. Ilhan Omar’s controversial Israel comments

  1. March 7, 2019 at 1:25 pm

    Instead of speaking of “double standards,” let us embrace a single standard that is ethical and compassionate to all. The republicans’ with their far greater expressions of Antisemitism does not excuse Rep. Ilhan Omar’s muted but ever present racial canards against Jews. As a Jew and a Rabbi, I must not have to abandon my support for Israel, the cradle of my ancient civilization, and only support Palestine, to remain a progressive. Moreover, at a time we needed to be unified, we have been divided. I can’t get a straight answer from my Muslim colleagues, if they believe that Israel, who they now openly characterize as a “Terrorist, Genocidal, Apartheid State,” has a right to exist. A C.A.I.R. Representative I’ve known characterizes this basic question as offensive, as if I asked if Nazi Germany had a right to exist. I guess I’ve heard his answer and it hurts. He and his followers don’t believe being present for each other’s narratives is necessary for peace. There is no acknowledgment of over 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab Lands, no acknowledgement of Palestinian terror or past peace offerings scorned. To satisfy my Muslim and “progressive” colleagues, I must exclusively support Palestine and abandon Israel under the charge that Israel is a terrorist state. Bravo! You’ve driven me out into political no man’s Land. I shall embrace it and be a “lonely voice in the wilderness crying out,” if that is the way I must be. I will wait for my political star to rise and not settle for any of this bigotry from the right or the left.

    • Marc Seiden
      March 8, 2019 at 4:04 pm

      Rabbi Praver is thoughtful and helpful, but he errs when he writes this:

      “The republicans’ with their far greater expressions of Antisemitism”

      In a recent Tablet piece, Joel Kotkin addresses this misconception:

      “Deep blue cities and the progressive feeding lots of the academy—strongholds of progressivism—are precisely where support for such anti-Jewish measures as the BDS movement is strongest. Anti-Semitism is particularly rife not in conservative Southern schools but in progressive places like San Francisco State; in that city, the ultimate progressive stronghold, a leftist gay Jewish café owner recently has been subject to repeated protests for being a ‘Zionist gentrifier.’ … Indeed, despite the impression left by some progressive Jews, the largest threat to Jews in America stems not from the isolated and pathetically small lunatic fringe of white supremacists. The most anti-Israel members of Congress, as well as on the local level, come primarily not from the right wing of the GOP but the burgeoning left wing of the Democratic Party. Democratic voters—as well as key constituencies like minorities and millennials—poll consistently less sympathetic to both Jews and Israel than older, generally white Republicans.”

      The rise of Ilhan Omar & co isn’t an aberration within progressivism. It’s a logical and inevitable consequence of it.

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