Congressional Democrats showed an unusually unified front in support of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., as she faced attacks from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. As leader of the Republican-controlled House, McCarthy succeeded Thursday in his attempts to strip Omar from her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where she has been a vocal critic of the war-industrial complex and human rights abuses in which the U.S. has been either a primary actor or a sponsor.
On Thursday, the House voted on party lines to remove Omar from the committee by a vote of 218 to 211. Despite congressional Democrats’ unity, members of the party bear part of the blame for validating McCarthy’s broadsides against Omar in the first place.
McCarthy and his colleagues’ attacks on Omar go back to 2019, in her first month in Congress, when he called on Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., then the House speaker, to remove Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee. McCarthy cited the Minnesota representative’s criticisms of Israel’s human rights abuses and her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a Palestinian civil society movement working to build international opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
At the time, Rep. Lee Zeldin, who was most recently New York’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, tweeted that he was disappointed that Omar had also been appointed to a Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and accused her of harboring “anti-Semitic & anti-Israel hate.”
Shortly afterward, Democrats began to affirm the message from Republicans in their public remarks and congressional letters, laying the groundwork that would set the stage for their most recent salvo: McCarthy’s bid to remove Omar from her committee assignments.
Some Democrats, even voting against McCarthy’s motion, reportedly continued to justify his actions and rehash old allegations against Omar. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said the vote was about political revenge but that Omar had “clearly made mistakes” and used “anti-Semitic tropes.”
“When Democrats were in control of the House, they were often attacking her for the same exact thing and throwing her under the bus when Republicans started criticizing her,” said Beth Miller, political director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action. “They have created an environment that shows that they are willing to attack and throw under the bus any member of their own party who calls for Palestinian human rights.”
“They have created an environment that shows that they are willing to attack and throw under the bus any member of their own party who calls for Palestinian human rights.”
Miller, who said she is relieved that Democrats are now supporting Omar, noted that this fight isn’t happening in a vacuum. The progressive Jewish American group put out a statement Wednesday connecting the attacks on Omar to attacks on progressives everywhere.
The GOP, Miller said, is using its power to attack progressives: “And specifically progressive women of color, because they are effective progressives who are speaking out for Palestinian rights.”
The effort to remove Omar based on her criticisms of Israel also comes at a time when Israeli politics are making an unprecedented lurch to the far right and the Jewish state is ramping up its attacks on Palestinians; more than 30 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces so far this year.
“This circus is happening while the Israeli government is escalating an entirely new phase of state violence against Palestinians,” Miller said. “If you actually look at what the Israeli government is doing right now, the mask is off completely.”
We won't stand for white supremacist efforts to use Islamophobia & racism to silence her.
— Congresswoman Cori Bush (@RepCori) February 1, 2023
The Democratic pile-on against Omar came just four years ago.
Just over a month after Omar took office as one of the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress, in February 2019, House Democrats swiftly condemned her for a tweet criticizing the relationship between members of Congress and the pro-Israel lobby flagship, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” Omar wrote. She clarified that she was referring to AIPAC specifically and later apologized for the tweet.
The next day, conservative New Jersey Democrat Rep. Josh Gottheimer and then-Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., wrote a searing letter to House Democratic leadership that did not mention Omar by name but noted their concern about antisemitic rhetoric in “reckless statements like those yesterday.” They called on the caucus to not “remain silent in the face of hateful speech or actions” and to “take swift action” to address the issue “by reiterating our rejection of anti-Semitism and our continued support for the State of Israel.”
In a statement the same day, House Democratic leaders including Pelosi; Majority Leader Steny Hoyer; D-Md.; Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.; Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M.; Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.; and Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark, D-Mass., said, “Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive.”
The next month, after Omar again raised criticism of the pro-Israel lobby in remarks at a coffee shop in Washington, the House took yet another vote to condemn antisemitism along with Islamophobia and racism in general.
While McCarthy, building off Democrats’ attacks, is going after Omar for purported biases, the GOP has long been home to several members who have espoused or defended explicit antisemitism and white nationalism, including Reps. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and former Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. McCarthy’s focus instead has been on Omar.
While McCarthy’s campaign against Omar revolves around antisemitism allegations, Washington insiders said the long-running flap was really about her criticisms of Israel and the power of the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill.
“As I think most people know and just don’t care to say publicly, both parties have an Israel lobby problem,” said one senior congressional Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisal. “They can’t figure out where they actually stand on this issue.” The aide added, “They don’t know how to talk about it.”
“As I think most people know and just don’t care to say publicly, both parties have an Israel lobby problem.”
Upon her arrival, Omar bucked the consensus in Congress and became one of a few members who was willing to issue strong criticisms of human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine — as well as the pro-Israel lobby. “It’s almost like that person who comes into your classroom and tells you everything you’re learning is wrong,” the congressional aide said. “I think that’s how a lot of Democratic members felt when they had to engage with her. They did not know how to deal with a person saying, ‘You know what, the United States is not meeting the moment.’”
In the meantime, Washington was spending its time battling over whether to kick Omar off of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, when Omar herself has directly experienced the impacts of war and U.S. foreign policy, said Miller, of Jewish Voice for Peace Action. That conundrum, she said, is “the perfect example of everything that is broken with the way that Washington, D.C., approaches how we look at foreign policy.”
“We will see in generations what she’s actually done for this place as we find new leaders,” the senior Democratic aide said. “It is without question an old, old problem that Democrats in Congress are late to the party on Israel.”