POLITICS
03/06/2019 16:48 EST | Updated 03/06/2019 21:52 EST

2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates Defend Ilhan Omar

Bernie Sanders said he opposes anti-Semitism, but fears that targeting congresswoman Omar is a "way of stifling debate" over Israel and Palestine.

Three leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination defended Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) Wednesday as she faces heat — including from members of her own party — over comments she made about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby on American foreign policy.

The statements, by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), reflect a sharp shift in the debate over her comments in the past day. 

On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faced some unhappy members of her caucus during a House Democratic meeting. Those members took issue with her decision to move forward on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism ― widely seen as a rebuke of Omar. 

By the end of the day, Democratic leaders signaled the resolution may not get a vote at all, or it may be changed to condemn “all hate.”

The party’s progressive base, members like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and outside groups, had also been vocally defending Omar, arguing that she was being targeted because of her status as a black Muslim woman.

Sanders spoke up first Wednesday, with a sharp statement condemning the direction of House Democrats.

Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world. We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. Rather, we must develop an even-handed Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace.

What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong.

Harris came out with a statement shortly afterward, saying she was worried that Omar was being put “at risk” by having the spotlight squarely on her.

We all have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all forms of hatred and bigotry, especially as we see a spike in hate crimes in America. But like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk.”

We should be having a sound, respectful discussion about policy. You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country. I also believe there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism. At the end of the day, we need a two-state solution and a commitment to peace, human rights, and democracy by all leaders in the region ― and a commitment by our country to help achieve that.

Later on Wednesday, Warren also issued a statement saying criticism of Israel should not automatically be treated as anti-Semitic. She didn’t comment at all on what the House was preparing to do but defended Omar from threats of violence she was facing.

We have a moral duty to combat hateful ideologies in our own country and around the world―and that includes both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  In a democracy, we can and should have an open, respectful debate about the Middle East that focuses on policy.  Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Threats of violence ― like those made against Rep. Omar ― are never acceptable.

Sanders, who, if elected, would be the first Jewish president of the United States, was under growing pressure from his most devoted supporters to speak out in Omar’s defense. 

The Vermont senator has a history of criticizing Israeli government policies. During the 2016 Democratic primary, he engaged in a spirited back-and-forth with Hillary Clinton about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories that elicited praise from his progressive base.

The comments from Sanders, Harris and Warren capped a multi-day drama that began Friday following comments by Omar at a progressive event in Washington Thursday night, where she discussed her fears of censure for expressing her concerns about Palestinian human rights.

“It’s almost as if every single time we say something, regardless of what it is we say, that it’s supposed to about foreign policy or engagement, that our advocacy about ending oppression, or the freeing of every human life and wanting dignity, we get to be labeled, and that’s the end of the discussion,” Omar said, adding that advocates end up defending themselves, and “nobody 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 OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she continued. “And I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby ... that is influencing policy.”

Omar’s comments appeared to allude to groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a lobbying group that promotes the interests of the Israeli government. Criticism of the group is widely seen as a taboo subject in Washington.

But her latest suggestion that the pro-Israel lobby was advocating “allegiance to a foreign country,” prompted accusations from American Jewish organizations and leading Jewish members of Congress that she had invoked the anti-Semitic stereotype which describes Jewish people as having a “dual loyalty” ― subordinating their patriotism to their country in favor of Israeli interests.

Omar followed up this criticism saying people indeed do ask her to support Israel and its policies.

Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s spokesman, said in a Friday statement that “she has consistently spoken out about the undue influence of lobbying groups for foreign interests of all kinds and her comments were about just that. To suggest otherwise is an inaccurate reading of her remarks.”

It did not help matters for Omar that she elicited condemnation in February for claiming congressional aversion to criticizing Israel stems from the pro-Israel lobby’s financial influence.

Omar apologized “unequivocally” for her remarks then. 

In response to Omar’s Thursday comments, House Democratic leadership began preparing a resolution that condemned anti-Semitism in all forms, including accusations of dual loyalty, without mentioning Omar’s name.

But the resolution, evidently intended as a rebuke to Omar, encountered stiff pushback from progressive groups and grassroots activists, as well as members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

These detractors denounced the resolution for what they argued was a double standard on anti-Semitism that was being applied strictly to Omar, a black Somali refugee, but not to white, male Republicans who regularly make anti-Semitic and bigoted pronouncements.

Providing ammunition for their argument, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted Sunday that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) was “jump[ing] to Tom $teyer’s conclusion—impeaching our President—before first document request.” The tweet’s use of the dollar sign to describe the influence of Steyer, a billionaire Democratic donor with Jewish roots, struck many critics, including Nadler,  as anti-Semitic.

Progressives also highlighted the threats and intimidation Omar has faced by virtue both of her outspoken views and her identity as a hijab-wearing Muslim. The Republican party of West Virginia created a poster tying Omar to the Sept. 11 attacks that it used at a promotional table in the state legislature on Friday. 

During a House Democratic Caucus meeting on Wednesday, black caucus members reportedly confronted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over the speed with which the resolution had been prepared and the double standard to which Omar was being held. Leadership decided that there would be no vote on a resolution on Wednesday, and agreed to appeals for the resolution to condemn Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry as well.

“The Democratic base is shifting and changing and the leadership is struggling to continue to balance leading the party through that division,” said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “This is a good example of that.”

The share of Democrats who sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians has declined significantly in recent years, dropping from 38 percent in 2001 to 27 percent in 2018, according to a January 2018 Pew Research Center poll.

A younger generation of progressive Jewish activists, associated with left-wing groups like If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace, have also played a public role in the pushback against the criticism of Omar. Their participation helps dispel the perception that progressive critics of the Israeli government are insensitive to Jewish security concerns.

“What we are seeing is the people who claim to be leaders of our Jewish community weaponizing Jewish fear and trauma against other marginalized peoples in order to discredit very valid criticism of Israeli policy,” said Imogen Page, an If Not Now activist from St. Paul, Minnesota, who used to live in Omar’s district. 

Page was pleased to learn that Congress had postponed a vote on the resolution.

“We’re building momentum and Congress is listening,” she said. “We’re being heard.”

This story has been updated with a statement from Elizabeth Warren.

Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.

Photo gallery Scenes From Capitol Hill See Gallery