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Ilhan Omar Apologizes for Statements Condemned as Anti-Semitic

The New York Times logo The New York Times 2/12/2019 SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
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WASHINGTON — Representative Ilhan Omar, who has been battling charges of anti-Semitism for weeks, apologized on Monday for insinuating that American support for Israel is fueled by money from a pro-Israel lobbying group — a comment that drew swift and unqualified condemnation from fellow Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“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,” Ms. Omar, a freshman Democrat from Minnesota and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, said in a statement that she released on Twitter. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.”

She added, “I unequivocally apologize.”

Her comments came after Ms. Pelosi and the entire House Democratic leadership issued a statement condemning her for tweeting on Sunday night that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins, baby,” a reference to hundred-dollar bills.

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“Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share. But Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive,” the five House Democratic leaders said in a joint statement. “We condemn these remarks and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize.”

a group of people looking at a laptop: Democrats have joined Republicans in criticizing Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, for comments that they say are anti-Semitic. © Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times Democrats have joined Republicans in criticizing Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, for comments that they say are anti-Semitic. The altercation was the latest example of Ms. Pelosi stepping in to try to keep her diverse and sometimes unruly caucus in line. She finagled her own election to the speakership, threw some subtle cold water on Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ambitious “Green New Deal” and tamped down aggressive talk of impeaching President Trump. In the coming days, she might again have to step in to pass an immigration and border security deal likely to anger the most liberal wing of the House.

In this case, the leadership statement came as concern crescendoed over Ms. Omar’s twitter comment linking money from the American Israel Political Affairs Committee to political support in Washington for Israel. That raised the anti-Semitic trope of Jewish money holding inordinate power over foreign policy. But it came on top of earlier flash points that pitted Ms. Omar against Israel’s fiercest supporters in Congress, Republican and Democrat.

Last month, in an interview with Yahoo! News, she said when politicians “still uphold” Israel “as a democracy in the Middle East, I almost chuckle.” In 2012, she tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Ms. Omar had been trying to mend fences over those comments when Sunday night’s tweet went viral.

Ms. Omar did not back away from her contention that Aipac has too much power in Washington. “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,” Ms. Omar wrote.

Before the leaders’ statement, other Democrats had broken rank to voice their condemnations. Two House Democrats, Representatives Elaine Luria, a freshman from Virginia, and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, released a letter Monday morning calling on Democratic leaders to speak out against any lawmaker who “uses harmful tropes and stereotypes, levels accusations of dual loyalty, or makes reckless statements like those yesterday.”

“As Jewish Members of Congress, we are deeply alarmed by recent rhetoric from certain members within our Caucus, including just last night, that has disparaged us and called into question our loyalty to our nation. We urge you to join us in calling on each member of our Caucus to unite against anti-Semitism and hateful tropes and stereotypes,” they wrote.

[Read the letter here.]

The two, who addressed the letter to the entire Democratic leadership including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, did not mention Ms. Omar by name. But other Democrats did. Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called it “deeply disappointing and disturbing to hear Representative Ilhan Omar’s (MN) choice of words in her exchange with a journalist yesterday, wherein she appears to traffic in old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money.”

Representative Max Rose of New York, another freshman Democrat, responded directly to Ms. Omar on Twitter, calling her statements “deeply hurtful to Jews.”

Representative Donna E. Shalala, a freshman Democrat from Florida and former Health and Human Services secretary, added, “There is no place in our country for anti-Semitic comments. I condemn them whatever the source. To suggest members of Congress are ‘bought off’ to support Israel is offensive and wrong.”

Chelsea Clinton also weighed in, saying on Twitter that Americans should expect “all public figures not to traffic in anti-Semitism.”

The Twitter exchanges began when Ms. Omar, Democrat of Minnesota and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, responded to a tweet by the journalist Glenn Greenwald. Mr. Greenwald had accused Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, of targeting Ms. Omar and another Democratic freshman, Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who has also been sharply critical of Israel.

That’s when she said, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”

But it did not end there. A Jewish journalist asked whom Ms. Omar was referring to when she suggested that money was driving American Israel policy. “AIPAC!” she replied. Aipac does not contribute to political campaigns, but its large-scale conferences and congressional trips to Israel have long drawn enthusiastic and bipartisan participation.

They have also elicited charges that Aipac has deliberately fed a one-sided view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict into American politics. Ms. Tlaib, a Palestinian American, has been trying to organize her own congressional trip to the West Bank to give lawmakers the Palestinian side of the issue.

And Palestinian rights groups largely stood by Ms. Omar and her criticism of the group.

Aipac responded with a statement that said, “We are proud that we are engaged in the democratic process to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. Our bipartisan efforts are reflective of American values and interests. We will not be deterred in any way by ill-informed and illegitimate attacks on this important work.”

Republican leaders quickly demanded that Ms. Omar be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, just as Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, was stripped of his committee assignments after he made comments sympathetic to white supremacy.

But what distinguished the events of Sunday and Monday from earlier controversies around Ms. Omar was the willingness of Democrats to join in.

Ms. Omar had been trying to distance herself from a 2012 comment on Twitter in which she said Israel had been hypnotizing the world to look past its actions in Gaza. She expressed regret for trafficking in an anti-Semitic trope, which she said was unwitting. And she had reached out to Jewish Democrats to make amends.

But her latest comments made some question the authenticity of her contrition.

“In recent weeks, we have had conversations with multiple members of our Caucus who share our concerns about this rhetoric; we have also raised these concerns with Democratic leadership. We must speak out when any Member — Democrat or Republican — uses harmful tropes and stereotypes, levels accusations of dual loyalty, or makes reckless statements like those yesterday,” Ms. Luria and Mr. Gottheimer wrote.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations urged the Democratic leadership to censure Ms. Omar: “We appreciate the statements made so far by several Democratic Members of Congress repudiating Rep. Omar on this front,” the conservative group said in a statement. “But in the face of an unprecedented rise in anti-Semitism in this country and around the world, we call upon all Members to speak up and be counted among those who explicitly reject anti-Semitism. And we call upon Speaker Pelosi and the Congressional leadership to immediately take concrete action to censure Representative Omar for her offensive statements.”

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