Many Republicans have watched in horror over the past few years as President Donald Trump and his most zealous supporters excused or openly embraced antisemitism. As a gay Republican, I’m particularly troubled by this trend – the Venn diagram of antisemites and homophobes is practically a circle.
After Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives, I hoped the country might start to reclaim some of its moral leadership, and that we could finally put a halt to the growing intolerance of people who look or believe differently from ourselves. I was excited to see two Muslim women simultaneously elected to the House, a first in our nation’s history.
I also was pleased to see the House change its rules to respect the religious freedom of one of these women who wished to wear a veil. Her name is Ilhan Omar. She was once a refugee, saved by our country’s generosity and offered more freedom and opportunity than she could enjoy anywhere else in the world. She is the new congresswoman for Minnesota’s 5th District.
But now, less than two months into Democratic Party control, we see a moral failure on the Left to condemn antisemitism unequivocally. Rep. Ilhan Omar is quickly becoming the most visible antisemite in the country, attacking American Jews with sweeping accusations, and revealing a long and miserable pattern of antisemitic speech and behavior.
Could Omar have said worse things about Jews? Yes. Have other leaders like Republican Steve King said terrible things? Absolutely. But that’s not the point. Omar didn’t just criticize Israel or America’s foreign policy – which would be in the bounds of public debate – she has immersed herself in conspiratorial, extreme left-wing, antisemitic content in the same vein as infamous antisemites like Louis Farrakhan.
In 2016, I founded Freedom to Believe to help bridge the growing divide between the Republican Party and the American Muslim community. I have seen firsthand the very real and very ugly Islamophobia on the far Right. It will take decades to heal the wounds that Trump has created – which is a reminder of why we cannot give an inch on antisemitism. We know where it leads.
As a society, we’ve made a firm decision: We do not countenance antisemitic comments or behaviors, whether explicit, merely suggestive, malicious, negligent, or just plain dumb. We only reached this consensus in recent generations, and backsliding so soon is frightening. We don’t know if the foundations are firm yet, and even offhand comments by our elected leaders do major damage.
The same concern is true for the acceptance of gay people. That consensus is far newer – brand new, in fact – and more fragile. We have only recently convinced a majority of society to accept us. I’ve spent much of the last decade persuading Republican lawmakers to support same-sex marriage and non-discrimination measures. I’ve had a front-row seat to the rapid change in public opinion. The brave Republicans who supported us were only a few years behind their Democratic colleagues. In some cases, as with vice president Dick Cheney and Sen. Rob Portman, they were even ahead of the Democrats.
Public opinion can shift quickly. Can either major party be trusted to maintain their moral leadership into the future, even against public pressure? I hope they can, but it’s hard to be sure after watching how Democrats have handled Omar.
THE FIRST problem with the Democrats’ response was that they didn’t have one until their own Jewish colleagues spoke out. It fell largely to Jewish Democrats like Reps. Eliot Engel, Nita Lowey, and Jerry Nadler to defend their community and push for some sort of resolution against Omar. As minorities, American Jews need allies from other faith traditions to stand with and for them when they are attacked. Speaker Nancy Pelosi should have been the first to speak out. Instead she was a straggler.
Suppose a Democrat in Congress makes homophobic remarks. Will party “leaders” wait for an openly gay member like Sean Maloney or David Cicilline to speak out? Maybe Sharice Davids or another brave LGBT representative will have to start a resolution. And if the Omar response is any precedent, other members may then water down the resolution to condemn not just homophobia, but all the various phobias of all groups of people.
Some Democrats, especially some of the “next-generation” freshmen who enjoy pillow-talk with Britain’s most infamous antisemite, Jeremy Corbyn, quickly rushed to Omar’s defense. They have excused Omar’s antisemitic dog whistles, tried to divert attention from what she actually said, and highlighted far-right examples of antisemitism. It’s pure “whataboutism,” and it’s not a defense. To ask “What about?” is the same as to say, “So what?”
Democrats’ first draft of the resolution didn’t even call Omar out by name. Rather, it lightly addressed the comments she made, stating that “accusing Jews of dual loyalty because they support Israel... suggests that Jews cannot be patriotic Americans and trusted neighbors.”
Even this soft, indirect rebuke bothered enough Democrats that the resolution was postponed repeatedly and re-drafted. What they passed is a weak, watered down, decidedly non-woke, “All Lives Matter” fluff piece.
Democrats’ waffling matters. Just months ago, a gunman killed 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh – the deadliest attack on Jews in the US to date. The attacker was particularly obsessed with the synagogue’s support of local refugee resettlement.
Yet Democrats refuse to pass a statement specifically about Jews. They instead want to affirm Muslims and African Americans and Native Americans and Hindus and Sikhs and immigrants and so on and so forth. Far from reprimanding Omar, Democrats condemned hateful expressions from all parts of the political kaleidoscope, “whether from the political right, center, or left.” Rather than name Omar, they targeted the “neo-Confederates, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klansmen” who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.
When Omar speaks, people listen. She has a platform, and her words have consequences – including the possibility of inciting increased violence against Jews. She’s not learning from her mistakes, and at some point we have to assume she doesn’t plan to do so.
Years too late, House Republican leadership finally removed Steve King from his committee assignments. He now faces a serious primary challenge in Iowa. On the other side of the aisle, Omar has not suffered any consequences. She is still on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a primary challenger has not materialized.
Speaker Pelosi ought to remove Omar from any committees and personally recruit and support a primary challenger against her. Democrats returned to power in part because of the Republicans’ moral failings. Now they need to be forceful and unequivocal in denouncing the creeping antisemitism on the Left.
Once they’ve cleaned house and reestablished some credibility, House Democrats should invite their GOP colleagues to join them in taking bipartisan action against this type of hatred for any group. For both major parties, we ought to set a higher bar and help our friends across the aisle do better in defeating our respective fringe elements.
The writer is president of Allegiance Strategies, a DC-based Republican lobbying firm, and the founder of Freedom to Believe, a conservative group working to foster a better understanding of all faiths and cultures.
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