Rep. Omar apologizes after House Dems condemn her comments as anti-Semitic
WASHINGTON - Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who has faced accusations of anti-Semitism for perpetuating the stereotype that Jews control politics with money, issued an apology Monday afternoon, a mea culpa amid a firestorm of criticism from both parties.
"Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes," Omar said on Twitter. "We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize."
Earlier Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democratic leaders said in a statement that Omar's use of "anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel's supporters is deeply offensive," but added that her critiques of Israel's policies and its treatment of Palestinians are protected by free speech.
Omar, who supports the anti-Israel movement called BDS, for "boycott, divestment and sanctions," has maintained that her condemnation of the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinians does not equate to condemnation of Jewish people. She has also claimed to be the victim of GOP attacks seeking to misrepresent her position on Israel as anti-Semitic.
Democratic leaders issued the intra-party reprimand after three rancorous weeks of emoji-laced Twitter spats where Omar faced multiple accusations of anti-Semitism - the final straw apparently coming Sunday night, after Omar suggested House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., supported Israel only for campaign donations.
In Omar's apology, which she prefaced by saying she's "listening and learning, but standing strong," she reiterated her criticism of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group.
"I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry," she wrote. "It's gone on too long and we must be willing to address it."
Two Jewish House Democrats, alarmed by what they consider anti-Semitic comments from new Muslim colleagues, had urged Pelosi and her top lieutenants to denounce the divisive rhetoric and take action to stop it.
Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Elaine Luria of Virginia gathered signatures on a letter that asked senior Democrats to confront Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a freshman congresswoman from Michigan, by "reiterating our rejection of anti-Semitism and our continued support for the State of Israel."
The letter is the culmination of growing concerns - from within her own party and across the aisle - over Omar's comments about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The letter didn't name Omar or Tlaib, but its intention was clear. In recent weeks, Jewish lawmakers have huddled privately to discuss what they should do about their new colleagues, who openly criticize Israel and have made insensitive comments about Jews and Jewish Americans.
Omar's comments about McCarthy on Sunday seemed to trigger their more formal response.
"It's all about the Benjamins baby," she wrote, an apparent reference to the 1997 Puff Daddy single featuring the Notorious B.I.G., Lil' Kim and The Lox.
Omar was responding to a tweet from Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who argued on Twitter that the GOP's move to equate Omar and Tlaib's criticism of Israel to the embrace of white supremacist rhetoric by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, "is obscene."
An hour later, Omar elaborated, writing that she thinks AIPAC is paying American politicians to take pro-Israel stances.
AIPAC, which is not a political action committee, does not make campaign contributions to politicians, but its individual members can make donations, and the organization spends millions on lobbying efforts for pro-Israel legislation every year. In 2018, AIPAC spent more than $3.5 million lobbying for pro-Israel measures, according to lobbying disclosure filings maintained by the Senate's Office of Public Records. Such legislation includes financial support for Israel and measures that would ban boycotts of Israel, including the BDS movement.
Omar's spokesman responded to a request for comment with a link to the congresswoman's tweeted apology. Tlaib's spokesman has not responded to a request for comment.
Fallout from this latest exchange has been swift and bipartisan.
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Omar's words only serve to fuel bigotry.
Some of the most ardent pro-Israel Democratic members of the House condemned the tweets Monday, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York and Florida Rep. Ted Deutch.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told MSNBC that he hopes the controversy can serve as "a lesson" for Omar.
"She has apologized," he said. "Let's see what happens. Apologies are nice, but actions are better."
Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Omar also serves, said "I fully expect that when we disagree on the Foreign Affairs Committee, we will debate policy on the merits and never question members' motives or resort to personal attacks."
Several Republicans, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., Rep Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and GOP Chairman Ronna McDaniel, have called for Omar's removal from the committee.
McCarthy promised Republicans would also take action against Omar, though he didn't say how.
Omar's comments come on the heels of escalating Republican ire for the positions that she and Tlaib have put forth in Congress, joining a small group of lawmakers willing to challenge the United States' traditional support for Israeli policy.
McCarthy urged Democratic leaders to admonish Omar and Tlaib for their backing of the BDS movement, which is intended to put economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., urged Pelosi to call a vote on an anti-BDS bill the Senate passed last week with bipartisan support.
The American Jewish Committee called Omar's suggestion that AIPAC is paying American politicians for their support "demonstrably false and stunningly anti-Semitic." The organization linked to a 2018 Gallup poll finding that 64 percent of Americans sympathize with the Israelis over Palestinians, saying, "American politicians are pro-Israel because Americans are."
But others have defended Omar and Tlaib, arguing, like Omar, that critics conflate the lawmakers' condemnation of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism. Women's March organizer Sophie Ellman-Golan accused McCarthy of attacking Omar and Tlaib "in the name of 'defending' Jews." She called out McCarthy for tweeting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
Some who agree with Omar's position on Israel argued that she could criticize the Israeli government or the pro-Israel lobbying establishment without using stereotypes that Jews find offensive.
Monday was the second time in three weeks that Omar walked back comments on Israel. Last month, she acknowledged that she "unknowingly" used an anti-Semitic trope after a 2012 tweet surfaced in which she said, "Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel."
Omar had initially said she didn't understand why American Jews would be offended by the statement, which critics argued evoked ugly Nazi conspiracies about Jewish people's power to "hypnotize" the world. She backtracked and apologized after a New York Times columnist explained to her why Jews could find it offensive. And she later expressed regret while on "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah," saying she had to "take a deep breath and understand where people were coming from and what point they were trying to make."
This article was written by Rachael Bade, Reis Thebault, Kristine Phillips and Meagan Flynn, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's John Wagner and Mike DeBonis contributed to this article.