The House Democrats’ “Rebuke” of Rep. Ilhan Omar Is a Fraud for Many Reasons, Including Its Wild Distortion of Her Comments

No matter one's views on Israel, the House Democrats' efforts to punish debate should be treated with the scorn and opposition it deserves.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., listen to the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer listen to the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 30, 2018.

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP
GOP Congressman Steve King has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for sixteen years, yet Democrats – who controlled the House for four of those years and now control it again – never formally rebuked or condemned him until last month (they did so at the same time that Republicans removed him from his Committee assignments due to a long history of white supremacist remarks).

By extremely stark contrast, Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar – the first black Muslim woman ever elected to the Congress – has served in the House for a little more than two months, and House Democratic leaders have already formally condemned her once and are preparing to so again, this time even more harshly and officially, on Wednesday.

On February 11, the House Democratic leadership, responding to statements made by Omar about large donors and AIPAC driving pro-Israel policies, issued a joint statement condemning Omar for what they called her “use of anti-Semitic tropes,” adding that her “prejudicial accusations about Israel’s defenders” are “deeply offensive.” They then demanded: “We condemn these remarks and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments.”

Omar then issued a statement of her own in which she “unequivocally apologized” for unintentionally invoking “anti-Semitic tropes,” but made crystal clear that “the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics” – whether it be AIPAC, as well as the NRA or the fossil fuel industry – was one she would continue to aggressively address and combat.

The Congresswoman quickly made good on her promise to continue speaking out about AIPAC’s toxic influence, the destructive and immoral support given to Israel by the U.S., and the subordination of Americans’ Constitutional rights and the country’s national interests to that foreign nation.

Speaking last Wednesday in Washington at a town hall meeting with several other progressive House members, Congresswoman Omar was asked about the use of the “anti-semitism” label to shut down debate over Israel. In reply, she said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

That remark created a new outburst of anti-Semitism accusations against Omar, initially provoked by New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, whose column carried the most sensationalistic and misleading headline possible: “Ilhan Omar Accuses Israel Hawks of ‘Allegiance to a Foreign Country.'”

That, in turn, led numerous AIPAC-supporting Democratic House members to again denounce her for anti-Semitism, leading to this exchange with a Democratic House colleague who had accused her of “prejudice” and “bigotry”:

From there, members of Congress in both parties who have devoted their career to dutifully supporting the AIPAC agenda began once again ganging up to denounce Omar, accuse her of anti-Semitism, and demand apologies and denunciations. Right-wing charlatans such as Ben Shapiro – who have built lucrative careers pretending to be advocates of free discourse and who reflexively mock complaints of racism and bigotry as overly-sensitive snowflake fragility – fueled the fire because, this time, it was their own group that they perceived was being criticized.

The culmination of all of this was the meek, subservient and highly predictable announcement by Democratic House leaders that they once again intend to formally “rebuke” Omar, this time in the form of a House resolution. “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Democrats will take floor action Wednesday in response to controversial remarks by Rep. Ilhan Omar about Israel, the second such rebuke of the freshman Democrat from party leaders in recent weeks,” Politico reported.

There are so many points to be made about this episode, each of which could justify its own entire article. It is, for instance, beyond dispute that what Omar is saying is true given that the very first bill passed by the U.S. Senate this year was one that allowed punishment for American citizens who boycott Israel, while U.S. citizens in 26 states are formally punished for boycotting this foreign nation, as we reported last month in the case of a Texas elementary speech pathologist who lost her job for refusing to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel (to keep her job with Texas, she’s allowed to boycott any other nation or even an American state: just not this one favored foreign nation).

Thus far, the two federal courts to rule on such laws have struck them down as unconstitutional violations of the free speech rights of American citizens on behalf of Israel.

How can anyone possibly pretend that it’s invalid or offensive to observe, as Congresswoman Omar did, that some in America demand allegiance to a foreign nation when American citizens are allowed to boycott American states but are punished for boycotting this one specific foreign nation?

Then there’s the fact that so many prominent American Jews have themselves explicitly and proudly acknowledged that their political activism in the U.S. is shaped by a devotion to Israel. Indeed, the leading billionaire funder of both the Democratic Party and the Clintons, Haim Saban, has previously described himself this way to the New York Times: “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”

Hillary Clinton’s key political consultant for her 2008 presidential run, Hank Sheinkopf, who is Jewish, said this to the New York Sun in 2007 when asked why Democratic presidential candidates who were otherwise anti-war were so hawkish when it came to Iran: “New York is the ATM for American politicians. Large amounts of money come from the Jewish community. If you’re running for president and you want dollars from that group, you need to show that you’re interested in the issue that matters most to them.”

That AIPAC – along with the NRA, Wall Street and Silicon Valley – is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, and works to ensure that members of Congress act favorably toward Israel, is so obviously true that no person in good faith could dispute it. A film about the Israel lobby produced by Al Jazeera but subsequently self-censored was leaked to Electronic Intifada and it contains multiple scenes of AIPAC and other pro-Israel activists boasting of how they use money and lobbying power to force Congress to serve Israeli interests.

None of this is remotely controversial to anyone who knows how Washington works – which includes, first and foremost, all the cowards in the House about to formally denounce Omar, yet again, for the crime of telling this truth.

Indeed, countless prominent Jewish writers, including supporters of Israel, have long said exactly what Omar is accused of having said: that the key goal of the Israel Lobby is to indue, cajole and force U.S. politicians to maintain loyalty to this foreign country. Long-time Israel supporter and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote in 2011 something far more extreme than anything Congresswoman Omar has ever said: a standing ovation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the U.S. Congress, Friedman wrote, was “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Friedman mocked Mitt Romney’s views on Israel by writing: “America’s role is to just applaud whatever Israel does, serve as its A.T.M. and shut up. We have no interests of our own. ”

Indeed, the New York Times itself, in news reports, has often described members of U.S. Congress as acting with what the Paper of Record calls “allegiance to Israel”:

Let’s repeat what the New York Times said in its news article from 2015: “allegiance to Israel has long had nearly unanimous support in Congress.” And let’s repeat what the top funder of the Democratic Party and the Clintons, the billionaire Haim Saban, said: “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”

Now: why have House Democrats never denounced any of those prominent people – including key funders of their own party and the New York Times – for saying things on this topic far more extreme than Omar has? One can’t help suspect that it is somehow easier and more tempting to denounce a black Somali immigrant in a hijab who is the first black Muslim woman elected to Congress for her comments on Israel than it is any of those other people, even though their comments went way beyond anything she said on the topic.

But the most important point regarding the House Democrats’ resolution to “rebuke” Omar is this: the resolution includes a long list of comments which it denounces as anti-Semitic – many, if not most, of which are indeed anti-Semitic – which Ilhan Omar never said or even implied. That’s the fraud at the heart of what Democrats are doing: they’re purporting to denounce Omar by enacting a resolution that condemns a series of comments about Jews that she never uttered. Here are the key examples of anti-Semitism which the Democrats’ resolution denounces:

Congresswoman Omar never said anything like this. Unlike Haim Saban, Tom Friedman, and various AIPAC lobbyists, she never accused Jews of having allegiance to Israel. She never remotely insinuated that Jews are not or cannot be patriotic Americans. She never blamed Jews for anything, let alone “justif[ied] the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology.”

Indeed, it’s grotesque to associate Omar with comments of this sort. In fact, the irony here is glaring: what is actually bigoted, the real bigots, are those who are exploiting Omar’s status as a black Muslim and Somali immigrant to link her to a series of anti-Semitic sentiments that she has never expressed, and that have nothing whatsoever to do with the critiques she’s voiced about US/Israel policy since entering Congress.

All of this is being accomplished by a deceitful sleight of hand that conflates The Israeli Government and its American supporters (the group that Omar has actually criticized) with Jews (a group that Omar has never criticized). Again, the irony here is glaring: what’s actually anti-Semitic is to conflate the Israel Government and those who support it with Jews: that’s something being done by Democratic House leaders, not by Congresswoman Omar.

“Supporters of Israel” is not synonymous with “Jews.” It’s actually offensive to suggest that’s the case, but that’s the premise of the Democrats’ House resolution, those denouncing Congresswoman Omar and those distorting her comments.

Indeed, huge numbers of Israel’s most vehement and devoted critics – including advocates of the movement to boycott Israel – are themselves Jews. That’s why so many prominent Jews have spoken out in support of Congresswoman Omar.

Meanwhile, Israel supporters, in the U.S. and around the world, are far more often non-Jews than Jews. Many are evangelicals, who support Israel due to religious dogma: because they believe God wants Israel united in the hands of Jews before Jesus returns to earth and sends all non-Christians (including Jews) to hell and allows Christians to reign supreme on earth. Some are just militarists who value Israel’s cooperation with U.S. imperialism. Who do you think was responsible for the law in Texas barring anyone from working for the state if they support a boycott of Israel?

And then there’s the international Far Right movements – from Eastern Europe to Brazil – who are almost entirely non-Jewish yet are fanatical Israel supporters due to shared animus for Muslims and admiration for Israel’s authoritarian and militaristic mindset. Extremist support for Israel is a major prong of the Far Right Bolsonaro movement in Brazil, because of the evangelical fanatics, authoritarians, and anti-Muslim militarists which compose that coalition. A huge part of support for the Israeli Government has nothing to do with Jews but rather ideology, militarism, and evangelical dogma.

So it is completely dishonest – in fact, defamatory and offensive – to suggest that Congresswoman Omar was speaking of Jews when she denounced those who are supporters of Israel and who demand that she and other U.S. lawmakers prioritize this foreign nation above the interests of their own constituents. Many, if not most, of those who are doing that are not Jewish at all. That’s what makes the Democrats’ proposed resolution “rebuking” her so deceitful: without naming her, therefore depriving her of the opportunity to defend herself, it implicitly attributes to her a series of highly incendiary comments about Jews that she never remotely made.

In fact, if one were to apply the warped reasoning of the House Democrats’ resolution to its logical conclusions, then one would have to also condemn Congresswoman Omar for also being anti-Muslim. That’s because she has repeatedly voiced very similar criticisms of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, specifically complaining that Saudi money has corrupted Washington and caused policy makers to be beholden to the Saudi monarchy – comments which, strikingly, nobody purported to find offensive:

Why weren’t these anti-Saudi comments offensive, including the ones pointing out that Saudi money influences Washington? Because everyone understands that Omar’s criticisms of the government of Saudi Arabia and her observation that Saudi money influences pro-Saudi policies does not in any way reflect animus toward Muslims. Everyone is capable of understanding the distinction between “the Saudi governments and its supporters” and “Muslims.” It should not be any more difficult to understand the distinction between “the Israeli governments and its supporters” (which Omar criticized) and “Jews” (who she did not criticize, even implicitly).

But that recognition, as unassailably logical as it is, assumes that the denunciation of Congresswoman Omar is grounded in good faith. It’s grounded in everything but that. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Democratic Congressman Juan Vargas of California who, when denouncing Congresswoman Omar, made abundantly clear what her real offense was: namely, the crime of questioning the policy of U.S. support for Israel. As he so revealingly put it:

That is exactly the Washington rule that Congresswoman Omar violated: “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” And that’s exactly the rule that the House Democratic leadership is enforcing, just as AIPAC demanded, by acting so quickly to denounce one of their own members yet again.

The time to put a stop to this repressive punishment for even questioning U.S. policy toward Israel has long passed. AIPAC representatives are already threatening to remove Omar – along with Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Alexander Ocasio-Cortez – from Congress for the crime of criticizing Israel, something they’ve succeeded doing in the past. One response many have embraced in the face of AIPAC’s threats and the Democrats’ cowardice is to donate money to Omar’s campaign fund, as a way of denying AIPAC and its supporters the power to punish those who dare to criticize Israel and U.S. support for that foreign country.

But whatever else is true, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the House Democratic leadership are defaming Omar by implicitly attributing to her comments that she never made, all with the goal of deterring and punishing anyone who dares to debate these policies. No matter one’s views on Israel, such behavior should be treated with the opposition and scorn it deserves.

Join The Conversation