July 1, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in Newsweek.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has a Jewish problem.
Despite her repeated denials and the rush to circle the wagons from some left-wing Jews, there's an unmistakable pattern. The latest iteration came earlier this week, when Omar was asked by CNN's Jake Tapper about her past statements. "Do you understand why some of your fellow House Democrats, especially Jews, find that language antisemitic?" Tapper asked.
"I've welcomed, you know, anytime my colleagues have asked to have a conversation, to learn from them, for them to learn from me," Rep. Omar replied. "I think it's really important for these members to realize that they haven't been partners in justice. They haven't been, you know, equally engaging in seeking justice around the world."
Some of the statements Tapper was alluding to came just three weeks ago, when Omar put the U.S., Israel, Hamas, and the Taliban in the same boat. It prompted 12 Jewish members of Congress, all from her party (presumably her missing "partners in justice"), to condemn her comments, calling them "offensive" and "misguided."
That, in turn, triggered a response from Omar's spokesman, Jeremy Slevin: "As usual, the far right is ginning up hate against Rep. Omar," he tweeted. The "far right" in this case were Representatives Jake Auchincloss, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Josh Gottheimer, Elaine Luria, Kathy Manning, Jerry Nadler, Dean Phillips, Brad Schneider, Kim Schrier, Brad Sherman, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. All are liberal Democrats who have made the pursuit of justice central to their political biographies.
Of course, Omar's record of trafficking in incendiary, antisemitic comments—about Israel, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and American supporters of Israel—goes back nearly a decade. Each time, more or less the same pattern follows the initial outburst: First, she (or someone on her behalf) insists she was misunderstood or her comments taken out of context, though those comments, whether in the form of tweets, interviews, or statements, are all a matter of public record.
Then, rather than debate the merits of the issue, she and her defenders resort to belittling anyone who would question her as a "right-winger," "racist," "misogynist," or "Islamophobe." In other words, she undermines any possible merit to the criticism by rendering the critic totally out of bounds.
Next, she offers vague assurances that she really wants to listen, learn, and grow from any possible incidents, offering those who want to move on as swiftly as possible the hope that perhaps this won't happen again—until, of course, it does.
Finally, she uses her life story as the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes justice, accountability, and human dignity, as if no one else in Congress could possibly have a comparable right to address and adjudicate those noble themes.
These steps all followed yet again after her interview with Tapper. After accusing critics of "demonizing voices for justice," Omar did her classic non-apology walk back, discovering the Jewish penchant for pursuing justice in a long tweet thread on Wednesday.
By now, the pattern is too clear to ignore. Ultimately, of course, the future of Omar is up to the voters in Minnesota's 5th congressional district. They have elected her twice, in 2018 and 2020. But in the meantime, she poses a challenge for her party. Despite the criticism, Omar clearly thinks that, together with a handful of ideological bedfellows in Congress, she can continue to be a thorn in the side of Democratic Party leadership, believing presumably the future belongs to them.
And it's clear that she may not be entirely wrong.
Even after her infamous antisemitic tweets in her first term, an effort on the House floor to condemn her by name ended up failing, replaced by language so generalized and anodyne that even she could vote for it. That was followed by an endorsement for re-election by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, despite a primary challenge in Omar's district, and a donation to her campaign war chest.
Meanwhile, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican elected to the House in 2020, was quickly—and appropriately—stripped of her committee assignments when it became clear she was a consumer and distributor of bizarre conspiracy theories, including one linking Jews and space lasers.
Omar, though, remains on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where she today carries the title of Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights.
It's high time to address Rep. Omar's pattern of offensive commentary. Her party also needs to address Omar's selective outrage when it comes to her repeated assertions of moral authority. When the House of Representatives overwhelmingly adopted a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, which resulted in the systematic murder of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey a century ago, Omar opted out by voting "present." In other words, she was unwilling to acknowledge one of the greatest human tragedies of the 20th century.
Why? Well, it seems, she has a soft spot for Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which also may explain why she refused to join the vast majority of her congressional colleagues in condemning the Turkish leader's consistently egregious human rights violations.
And she's not exactly been outspoken, to say the least, when it comes to the decade-long tragedy in Syria, in which hundreds of thousands have been slain and millions exiled, or in Iran, where dissidents, gays, religious minorities, and feminists have been dealt with harshly on a daily basis.
But there's one final irony to the Omar story. While she rails against those Jews in Congress as failing to be "partners in justice," it's actually Jews, both past and present, who have been among the most vocal and consistent supporters of some of the issues she claims top her list.
In fact, but for a Jewish House member from New York named Emanuel Celler, people like Omar and her family might not have even been admitted to the United States. As Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Celler spent literally decades seeking to overturn America's exclusionary and racist immigration policy. The Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965, supported by organizations like American Jewish Committee, did just that.
Had it not passed, it would have been possible that a refugee family from Somalia or anywhere else in Africa might not have been given a new start in America, much less the life-changing chance to be elected a member of Congress only 23 years after her arrival in this country.
There should be clear-cut consequences for any member of Congress, of either party, responsible for a growing list of unambiguously bigoted comments. In the case of Congresswoman Omar, will there be?
David Harris is CEO of American Jewish Committee. AJC is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan organization.