Is the unseating of Ilhan Omar a Pyrrhic victory? - opinion

Going after Omar will not erase or conceal the Republicans’ antisemitism problem. It starts at the very top of their party. 

 REP. ILHAN Omar arrives before President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to Congress, on Tuesday night.  (photo credit: Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters)
REP. ILHAN Omar arrives before President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to Congress, on Tuesday night.
(photo credit: Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters)

Whether Rep. Ilhan Omar is an antisemite or just anti-Israel (there is a difference) really had little or nothing to do with what Republicans insist was their justification for booting her off the House Foreign Affairs Committee. If it had been, they would have had to remove several of their own from other panels as well.

It was really about revenge, as well as politically expedient Islam bashing. Revenge for Democrats revoking committee assignments in the previous congress of two right-wing antisemites for reasons unrelated to their attitudes toward Jews.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) declared that Omar, a Somali-born, three-term Democrat from Minnesota, was being punished for her strident criticism of Israel and antisemitic remarks. He vowed revenge, and he took it last week in a straight party-line vote. 

But if he were honest about retribution for antisemitism, he could find lots of targets in his own caucus. Starting with himself for his own tweets accusing three Jewish billionaires of trying to “BUY this election” in 2018 for Democrats. His number three in the House GOP leadership, Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, accused the same trio of having “bought” Congress. And number four, Elise Stefanik of New York, promoted the antisemitic and racist “great replacement theory.”

Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who cast the lone vote against a 2022 resolution condemning antisemitism, has what AIPAC called “one of the worst records” regarding Israel. And there’s compulsive fraudster George Santos of New York, who lied about being Jewish and that his grandparents died in the Holocaust. 

The pair – Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar – whose eviction McCarthy was avenging, are among the most notorious violators. They lost their committee assignments in the last Congress by bipartisan votes after having posted threats of violence against speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Omar, however, has not threatened violence against anyone, and in fact, has been given a security detail in response to the many threats against her life.

Greene, who has tweeted “Joe Biden is Hitler,” is a QAnon conspiracy theorist with a long history of antisemitic, anti-Muslim, white supremacist attacks, which should raise serious questions about McCarthy’s judgment in putting her on the Homeland Security Committee. She is the brain who said Jewish space lasers caused California wildfires. She is also a self-proclaimed Christian nationalist who has denounced “Zionist supremacists” for “schem[ing] to promote immigration and miscegenation, with the deliberate aim of breeding us out of existence in our own homelands.”

Six of Gosar’s own siblings have said he is an antisemite and a white supremacist who doesn’t belong in Congress. He has defended Nick Fuentes, a leading white supremacist and neo-Nazi, and has spoken at his rallies, as has Greene.

GOING AFTER Omar will not erase or conceal the Republicans’ antisemitism problem. It starts at the very top of their party. 

Donald Trump has repeatedly accused American Jews of disloyalty. One of his major grievances (and there are multitudes) is that Jews were disloyal and ungrateful for not voting for him despite all he claims he has done for Israel. Shortly after he hosted a dinner for Hitler admirers Kanye West and Fuentes at his golf resort, he declared American Jews “no longer love Israel.” 

He said The New York Times is run by “Jewish people” but it “hates Israel.” He has vigorously courted white supremacists and militias like Proud Boys that are rife with antisemitism.

Important distinction

There are several other important distinctions to be made between Omar’s case and those of Greene and Gosar. The Republicans are white Christians. She is a non-white Muslim.

When called out on her attacks, Omar said, “I unequivocally apologize” and joined a resolution denouncing antisemitism and Islamophobia. The tropes stopped. No apologies from McCarthy and his fellow travelers have been forthcoming. 

The vote to remove the Republicans was bipartisan, the anti-Omar vote was right along party lines.

The Republican ostensibly leading the eviction was a freshman and former Trump aide Max Miller of Cleveland, who was not even in Congress when the alleged offensives took place. So why put him out front? Because he is Jewish. There are only two Jewish Republicans in the entire 118th Congress, which should tell you a lot about what Jews and Republicans think of each other.

Republicans apparently felt Omar was the ideal target to show Jewish supporters (read: donors) that they love Israel more than the Democrats. They had the full backing of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The only Muslim on the Foreign Affairs committee was a threat to national security who should not have access to classified documents and briefings, they moaned.

AIPAC spent tens of thousands in the last election to defeat Omar in the primary and the general elections, and when that failed its Political Action Committee took out ads on social media calling for her to lose her committee seat.

The lobby may feel it has won this battle, but it has lost something much bigger. 

It spent millions helping elect anti-democracy election deniers and insurrection-backing candidates, and it stood by while gun-toting extremist Rep. Lauren Boebert won by a few hundred votes over a moderate Jewish opponent. 

And it targeted a Jewish congressman, whose father and uncle served in Congress as leading supporters of Israel, because he was too liberal, including supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The lobby was already in big trouble with Democrats and mainstream American Jewry, and after this episode, it looks even more like Republican/Likud partisans. Not a single Democrat, including no Jewish Democrats, sided with AIPAC in this battle. This is more evidence why its plunge into the partisan world of PACs, endorsements and contributions is proving a big mistake.

Tom Dine, the group’s former executive director, said it violated a cardinal rule for a legislative lobby: “never interfere in inside, non-legislative matters like leadership fights or revenge battles.”

Omar emerged as a winner as her colleagues rallied around her; they and the public are likely to pay more attention to what she says in the future even if she doesn’t have a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Support for Israel is strong enough to tolerate a dissenter like Omar, and like Massie and several others in both parties, even if they raise some inconvenient truths.

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, a consultant, a lobbyist and a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.