The 'antisemitic' actions and consequences of congresswoman Ilhan Omar

What actually happened? Is Omar antisemitic? Why does it seem like everyone — from Donald Trump to your grandma — is freaking out over this? Why is Israel involved?

February 16, 2019 15:23
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar leaves Senate after watching failure of competing proposals to end government s

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar leaves Senate after watching failure of competing proposals to end government shutdown.. (photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)


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An antisemitism scandal surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., erupted this week. There are seemingly 10,000 hot takes and think pieces on the matter.

What actually happened? Is Omar antisemitic? Why does it seem like everyone — from Donald Trump to your grandma — is freaking out over this? Why is Israel involved?

Omar apologized last week after pointing an accusatory finger at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), saying the organization is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel.

Omar made the comment in a tweet on Sunday evening American time sparking immediate backlash, with Twitter users accusing Omar of going down a slippery slope by linking AIPAC with the negative antisemitic stereotype of Jewish people's false obsession with money.

She was posting in response to a tweet by follower Glenn Greenwald, who wrote that "it's stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans."

"It's all about the Benjamins [sic] baby," wrote Omar.

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel said that it is "shocking to hear a Member of Congress invoke the antisemitic trope of 'Jewish money.'"

Instead of clearing the air about the previous antisemitic post, Omar continued with a response: "AIPAC!"

Omar received both mild and serious backlash for her posts.

Comedian Sarah Silverman responded, "I truly don't think she meant it that way at all, but I'm surprised she's earnestly not aware of the people that will absolutely take it that way..."

Other responses were more critical, including that of Chelsea Clinton, who wrote, "We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in antisemitism."

Soon after, Omar responded to Clinton, saying, "Chelsea - I would be happy to talk. We must call out smears from the GOP and their allies. And I believe we can do that without criticizing people for their faith."

Omar sidetracked the conversation, ignoring the direct criticism for her antisemitic remarks. However, Clinton responded positively, agreeing to schedule a meeting and advance away from prejudices, despite Omar not mentioning the antisemitic comments themselves.

Omar’s allegation led to a storm of Twitter comments, with leaders on both the Right and Left condemning her remarks. Even her own Democratic Party issued a statement that called Omar’s statements “deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks.”

Omar has since apologized for her statement. “Antisemitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of antisemitic tropes,” she wrote. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter that she and Omar had spoken and “agreed that we must use this moment to move forward as we reject antisemitism in all forms.”

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted on Tuesday night that Omar should be expelled from Congress or censured over her antisemitic comments.

Omar’s “tweets were a disgrace [and] her apology was inadequate. Antisemitism has no place in the United States Congress, much less the Foreign Affairs Committee,” Pence wrote. “Those who engage in antisemitic tropes should not just be denounced, they should face consequences for their words.”

With his tweet, Pence added his voice to the growing calls for the freshmen Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota to be ousted from Congress.

Earlier in the day, President Donald Trump also condemned her comments.

“Antisemitism has no place in the United States Congress... and I think she should either resign from Congress or she should certainly resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

Trump, like Pence, felt her apology was inadequate.

“What she said is so deep-seated in her heart that her lame apology – and that’s what it was, it was lame, and she didn’t mean a word of it – was just not appropriate,” Trump said.

Omar slammed US President Donald Trump on Twitter Wednesday after he called on her to resign from Congress.

"Hi @realDonaldTrump," she tweeted. "You have trafficked in hate your whole life - against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, immigrants, black people and more. I learned from people impacted by my words. When will you?"

Her tweet to Trump on Wednesday garnered thousands of shares and comments with many applauding her for pushing back against Trump, calling on her to "stay strong," as well as making it clear that "we stand behind you" and calling on Trump resign. Others also responded with #IStandwithIlhan.

Several users used the opportunity to criticize Omar, calling her "antisemitic", and an "embarrassment to Congress."

CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Jonathan Greenblatt contributed to the discussion as well, saying that "words matter."

Omar has since apologized for her statement. “Antisemitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of antisemitic tropes,” she wrote. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”

"Antisemitism is on the rise in the US and abroad," Greenblatt continued. "The use of this tired antisemitic trope about Jews and money is inappropriate and upsetting. As Americans and Jews, we expect our politicians to condemn bigotry, not fuel it," he added.

Jewish leaders in the Twin Cities were worried that Ilhan Omar had repeated an anti-Semitic stereotype. So about half a dozen of the Minnesotans met with her for two hours at a colleague’s home.

That was last year. Omar, at the time a Democratic state representative, had posted a now-infamous tweet in 2012 claiming that Israel had “hypnotized the world.”

The tweet, which Omar wrote in November 2012 during Operation Pillar of Defense, reads: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” The newly minted congresswoman faced a wave of criticism over the tweet, which many called antisemitic.

So, State Sen. Ron Latz hosted an intimate meeting at his home, aiming to explain how a term like “hypnotized” echoed anti-Semitic themes, to prevent future tweets of that nature and to nurture a good relationship with Omar as her career advanced.

During an interview on CNN, seven years later, Omar defended a 2012 tweet in which she said that Israel had “hypnotized the world.”

“Those unfortunate words were the only words I could think about expressing at that moment,” Omar told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour during the interview. “What is really important to me is that people recognize that there is a difference between criticizing a military action by a government that has exercised really oppressive policies, and being offensive or attacking to particular people of faith.”

Amanpour said to Omar that it has become “a rite of passage for politicians in the United States... to pay homage to AIPAC,” the pro-Israel lobbying group, and asked her if Jewish Americans “should be worried” about her views.

“In that tweet and in any other conversation I’ve had, I only talk about the State of Israel,” said Omar, who was sworn in to Congress earlier this month. “And I think it is really important for us to make sure that we are not associating the people with the country and its government.”

Omar said she is not afraid to call out the behavior of other countries, including Arab ones.

“I say the same things if not worse when it comes to the Saudi government,” she said. “I’ve called for boycotts of hajj, and boycotts of Saudi Arabia, because to me it is important when you see oppression taking place – when you see regression – when you see our values being attacked as humans, you must stand up, and it doesn’t matter who the inhabiters of that particular region might be.”

Earlier this week, it was reported that Omar would be headlining an event on February 23 alongside Yousef Abdallah, who has advocated for violence against Jews and expressed antisemitic sentiments on his social media pages.

As media reports surfaced, however, Abdallah’s name was removed from publicity for the event. Then, a spokesman for the congresswoman, Jeremy Slevin, began posting on social media claiming the articles were inaccurate. “Yousef Abdallah will not be speaking or attending the event with Rep. Omar and was never scheduled to do so,” he wrote. “Please correct.”

Hours after The Jerusalem Post reported that US Rep. Ilhan Omar would give the keynote address at an Islamic Relief USA dinner alongside an official from the organization known for his antisemitic comments, the congresswoman’s PR team began pushing back, and the event’s marketing materials and online invitations were changed. 

The Post responded by sending Slevin copies of the original event itinerary from the Eventbrite website, as well as a screenshot of the original flyer that listed the two speakers.

“He [Abdallah] was never confirmed to speak with the congresswoman,” Slevin replied in the name of the event organizers. “He will not even be in town then. The flyer being circulated is inaccurate and the current Eventbrite and flyer that are [now] up reflect the speakers at the event.”

Slevin did not answer the Post’s questions about the timing of the changes, or why Omar’s PR team failed to vet the flyers or the itinerary before their release, despite her high-profile governmental position. However, he “agreed” that the circumstances were strange.

On Monday, the Middle East Forum’s Islamist Watch blog highlighted Abdallah’s forthcoming address, and reported several instances in which he posted or shared stories of incitement. MEF’s report included Abdallah’s sharing a “very beautiful story” about “martyrs” who provide guns to “kill more than 20 Jews” and “fire rockets at Tel Aviv.”

The MEF also found that Abdallah had referred to Jews as “stinking,” and claimed “the Jews set the outside wall of al-Aqsa [Mosque in Jerusalem] on fire.”

Abdallah also “liked” a comment on Facebook that called on God to wreak “revenge on the damned rapists Zionists... Shake the Earth beneath their feet and destroy them as you destroyed the peoples of Ad, Thamud and Lot.”

Islamic Relief has been found to have connections to funding terrorism and Islamic extremists. A Swedish government report named the organization as a front for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Tunisian government has reportedly investigated allegations that the group funded jihadists on the Libyan border, and members of Congress have launched an inquiry into FBI and IRS investigations of Islamic Relief’s activities.

The announcement of Omar’s speaking engagement likely caused even greater uproar because it came just days after she claimed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was paying American politicians to be pro-Israel. Her words hinted at one of the archetypal antisemitic stereotypes which accuses Jews of using money to control the world.

For many American Jews, it feels like you have to choose between what manifestation of antisemitism you fear the most. Is it the newly empowered “alt-right,” rising white supremacy and the increasing number of hate crimes? Or do you fear the growing anti-Israel left, which wants to delegitimize the only Jewish state? Partisan politics makes it feel like American Jews have to choose, when in reality, American Jews can — and do — feel impacted by both. We can be heartbroken over Pittsburgh and frustrated by the leadership of the Women’s March/

And then, there’s the internal politics of being an American Jew, aka the widening split within the liberal American Jewish community regarding Israel, which centers on one question: Is being supportive of Israel still a central tenet of American Jewish identity? Or is being “pro-Israel” — however you choose to define that — becoming a less important part of voting as an American Jew?

If it’s the former, Omar’s comments are deeply upsetting and reinforce the idea that the Democratic Party’s views on Israel are drifting too far left. If it’s the latter (the “Israel isn’t important to me” camp), then Omar is simply representing the progressive view of the pro-Israel movement and being unfairly criticized for it.

Tamar Beeri, Jerusalem Post Staff, Emily Burack/JTA, Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman and Ilanit Chernick contributed to this report.

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