Democrats split on response to Ilhan Omar's latest Israel comments

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By Rebecca Shabad, Garrett Haake, Alex Moe and Kasie Hunt

WASHINGTON — What began as a fresh effort to condemn anti-Semitism in the wake of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s latest controversial comments on Israel policy has evolved into a sprawling debate and expanding resolution exposing deep fault lines in the Democratic caucus.

After the freshman Minnesota Democrat appeared to suggest last week that U.S. supporters of Israel had “allegiance to a foreign country,” House Democratic leaders had planned to craft a simple resolution that would condemn anti-Semitism without identifying her, and to hold a vote on the measure Wednesday.

But sharp divisions within their caucus have not only delayed the vote, but led to increasingly public disagreement over the focus and substance of the measure, with pressure from lawmakers on the left to broaden the scope of the resolution to include Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Wednesday that the House Foreign Affairs Committee has taken charge of crafting the measure, which was originally being written by her staff and the staffs of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla.

Pelosi said Wednesday she had “no idea” whether the House would take action on the resolution by the end of the week after all. She also rejected the notion that if the resolution becomes too broad, addressing demands by members that it take aim at other forms of discrimination as well, it would lose its meaning.

“What’s too broad about fighting hatred wherever it exists?” she said.

Omar sparked a new firestorm one week ago for criticizing what she called “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” again comparing organized political support for Israel to lobbying efforts for “the NRA, or fossil fuel industries or Big Pharma.”

The aftermath of that statement marked the second time since the new Congress began that the House has weighed floor action to respond to her remarks. After Omar suggested on Twitter last month that donations from pro-Israel groups were the driving factor behind lawmaker support for that nation, Republicans forced a vote on an anti-Semitism amendment to an unrelated bill on Yemen.

At that time, after Pelosi and other Democratic leaders demanded that Omar apologize, she did so on Twitter, though she added that she wouldn’t abandon her complaint about the “problematic role of lobbyists in our politics.”

Many Jewish lawmakers and groups such as the Anti-Defamation League said this week that Omar’s latest comments promoted an anti-Semitic trope known as “dual loyalty” which accuses Jews of holding secret allegiance beyond their citizenship.

The remarks led to passionate debate Wednesday at the closed-door weekly House Democratic Caucus meeting, with tensions running high among members as they discussed her comments, according to multiple people who were in the room.

Rep. Deutch, who is Jewish, defended the latest resolution, offering background to his Democratic colleagues as to why the community viewed the charge of dual loyalty as particularly offensive and dangerous. But others pushed back on the need for the latest measure, with Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., questioning why Democrats were taking any action at all.

Pelosi told her caucus that the resolution was not yet finalized.

While an initial draft of the House resolution from Monday didn’t explicitly criticize Omar for her controversial remarks, it was clearly viewed as a rebuke. The draft language said it “acknowledg[ed] the dangerous consequences of perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes” and “reject[ed] anti-Semitism as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.”

Several Jewish lawmakers and committee chairmen — including Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., both among the co-chairs of the newly-relaunched Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism — have called on Omar to retract her latest statement or apologize, with Lowey defending Omar against discriminatory attacks while drawing a comparison between anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish intolerance.

“Gross islamophobic stereotypes – like those about @IlhanMN recently featured on posters in WVA – are offensive and have no place in political discourse,” she tweeted over the weekend, referring to a widely-criticized exhibit in the West Virginia statehouse that attempted to visually link Omar to the bombing of the World Trade Center. “Anti-Semitic tropes that accuse Jews of dual loyalty are equally painful and must also be roundly condemned.”

Omar appeared to reject the comparison. “Our democracy is built on debate, Congresswoman! I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee,” Omar tweeted earlier this week. “The people of the 5th elected me to serve their interest. I am sure we agree on that!”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., made the case Wednesday that another resolution was needed.

“The precipitous rise that we’ve had in anti-Semitism in the last number of years, I mean dramatic, above 50 percent, is outrageous and unacceptable,” she said. “And so the more, the purpose of a resolution like this is to educate people about what anti-Semitism means, [and] how harmful and hurtful it is.”

According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased by 57 percent in 2017, the most recent year for which there are full statistics available, with deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history taking place last fall at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

But other Democrats — including several newly-elected lawmakers — have pushed back this week on the need for a new measure specifically addressing anti-Jewish sentiment. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., co-chair of the Progressive Caucus who attended the event where Omar made her latest hot-button remarks, said Wednesday that any additional resolution along those lines should also include language taking a firm stand against other forms of discrimination, such as Islamophobia.

“Obviously one of our members got linked to 9/11 attacks,” she said, referring to the West Virginia exhibit featuring Omar. “And we have already done an anti-Semitism resolution, and if we need to do another one we certainly can, but we want it to be as inclusive as possible.”