Two Jewish House Democrats, alarmed by what they view as anti-Semitic comments from new Muslim colleagues, are urging Speaker Nancy 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 are gathering signatures on a letter asking Pelosi (Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and other senior Democrats to confront freshman Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan by “reiterating our rejection of anti-Semitism and our continued support for the State of Israel.”
“As Jewish Members of Congress, we are deeply alarmed by recent rhetoric from certain members within our Caucus, including just last night, that has disparaged us and called into question our loyalty to our nation,” the letter reads, according to a draft viewed by The Washington Post. “We urge you to join us in calling on each member of our Caucus to unite against anti-Semitism and hateful tropes and stereotypes.”
While the letter does not name Omar and Tlaib, its intention couldn’t be clearer. In fact, Jewish lawmakers in recent weeks 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.
The last straw came Sunday night, when Omar suggested in a tweet that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) only supported Israel for campaign donations.
“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.
It's all about the Benjamins baby 🎶 https://t.co/KatcXJnZLV
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 10, 2019
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 Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) embrace of white supremacist rhetoric “is obscene.”
“In the US, we’re allowed to criticize our own government: certainly foreign governments. The GOP House Leader’s priorities are warped,” he wrote.
When people asked what Omar meant by McCarthy’s motives being “all about the Benjamins,” she tweeted, “AIPAC,” referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group that has spent millions sending lawmakers on visits to the Jewish nation over the years.
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
While comments like these in recent weeks have garnered criticism from Republicans, Democrats are starting to speak out as well, calling the comments offensive. Gottheimer and Luria in their letter, for example, acknowledge attempts to force a conversation on the matter, arguing that “we cannot remain silent.”
“We must speak out when any Member — Democrat or Republican — uses harmful tropes and stereotypes, levels accusations of dual loyalty, or makes reckless statements like those yesterday,” the two wrote. “All Members of Congress should reject anti-Semitism, just as we reject all forms of hatred, bigotry, and intolerance, and must denounce those who deny Israel’s right to exist, including terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.”
This is the second time in as many weeks that Omar has become entangled in a Twitter controversy replete with emoji and snarky clapbacks centered on the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Omar, who supports the anti-Israel movement called BDS, for “boycott, divestment and sanctions,” has persistently fought accusations of anti-Semitism by maintaining 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.
By Monday, several other Democrats had joined the chorus in rebuking Omar for what they say is a tired and ugly anti-Semitic trope: that Jews control politics through money.
“There is no place in our country for anti-Semitic comments. I condemn them whatever the source. To suggest members of Congress are ‘bought off’ to support Israel is offensive and wrong,” Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) tweeted.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) said he’s disappointed in Omar for “again tweeting dangerous and hurtful tropes,” adding that he supports Israel “based on shared values” and national security, not money.
Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) was more restrained in his criticism, telling CNN that people shouldn’t “go too far to make judgments” that Omar’s comments are anti-Semitic. But, he added: “I think sometimes we ought to tamp down a bit of the rhetoric.”
Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who’s also Jewish, wrote in a statement Sunday that Omar’s comments are “deeply hurtful” to Jews, including himself.
“When someone uses hateful and offensive tropes and words against people of any faith, I will not be silent,” he wrote, adding: “Implying that Americans support Israel because of money alone is offensive enough . . . At a time when anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise, our leaders should not be invoking hurtful stereotypes and caricatures of Jewish people to dismiss those who support Israel.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Omar’s words only serve to fuel bigotry.
“Words matter,” he said in a tweet tagging Omar. “Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the US and abroad. The use of this tired anti-Semitic trope about Jews and money is inappropriate and upsetting.”
The American Jewish Committee demanded an apology, calling her 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 the Palestinians, saying, “American politicians are pro-Israel because Americans are.”
“Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way. Sincerely, American Jews,” Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor at the Jewish publication the Forward, wrote back to Omar, a statement that Chelsea Clinton said she seconded.
Why is a Member of Congress launching anti-Semitic slurs on Twitter? Caricaturing support for Israel as purchased by Jewish $$—“about the Benjamins”—is an old slander. Do other Dems agree? Will media ask them? As more Dems support BDS, anti-Semitism becoming far too common. https://t.co/1mmI71tLCg
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) February 11, 2019
To see this at the UN was a fight every day. This CANNOT be tolerated in our own Congress by anyone of either party. In a time of increased anti semitism, we all must be held to account. No excuses. ❤️🇺🇸 #NoSpaceForHate#NoToleranceForAntiSemitism #WhatIsHappeningWithPeople https://t.co/zUaNjp3hHo
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) February 11, 2019
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. On Friday, McCarthy urged Democratic leadership 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. McCarthy suggested their positions on Israel were worse than the recent remarks from King that were denounced as racist.
As Omar pointed out, retweeting an observation by Women’s March organizer Sophie Ellman-Golan, McCarthy has also been accused of anti-Semitism after sharing conspiracy theories on Twitter about Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
“From scapegoating Jews to win an election to scapegoating Jews to attack his Muslim colleagues, [McCarthy] sure loves to invoke the Jewish community to further his right-wing objectives,” Ellman-Golan wrote.
Anti-Semitic tropes have no place in the halls of Congress. It is dangerous for Democrat leadership to stay silent on this reckless language.
— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) February 11, 2019
Others have defended Omar and Tlaib, contending their positions are being “twisted” into anti-Semitism when, in fact, their condemnation is confined to the Israeli government, not Jews generally.
“She’s talking about the influence of Israel and this immediately gets twisted into antisemitism,” one man wrote in comments retweeted by Omar. “Is she also Islamophobic for attacking Saudi’s influence on American politics in exactly the same way?”
“Accurately describing how the Israel lobby works is not anti-semitism,” Ashley Feinberg, a HuffPost reporter, wrote in another tweet that was shared by Omar.
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 that Omar and Tlaib support.
Still, even 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.
“OF COURSE it’s possible to critique AIPAC et al in a non-anti-Semitic way,” Ungar-Sargon wrote. “This ain’t it, chief.”
How, you ask? (1) Be accurate. AIPAC has taken a huge hit in the Trump era. (2) Avoid the conspiracy theories David Duke loves about dark Jewish money and Jewish pupeteers controlling stuff (3) Recall the 80 million evangelicals who are the actual Israel lobby, for whom S1 tolls.
— Batya Ungar-Sargon (@bungarsargon) February 11, 2019
“No, criticism of Israel isn’t anti-semitism, just like criticism of a Muslim majority state isn’t islamophobia, by default,” wrote Hend Amry, a Libyan American writer. “However racist or bigoted tropes can be intentionally or unintentionally triggered in making those critiques and yes that matters—it always matters.”
Omar has found herself responding to anti-Semitism accusations before. 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 then 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.”
Omar made no apologies Sunday night, but she did accept an invitation from Clinton, one of her critics, to talk about anti-Semitism.
👋🏽 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.
I look forward to building an inclusive movement for justice with you. 💪🏽 https://t.co/EGA9NQfBCi
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019