Showdown Over Omar’s Comments Exposes Sharp Divisions Among Democrats
Representative Ilhan Omar appeared to equate U.S. and Israeli “atrocities” with those of Hamas and the Taliban, prompting outrage at a time when her party needs unity to maintain its slim majority.,
WASHINGTON — Comments from Representative Ilhan Omar seeming to compare Israel and the United States to Hamas and the Taliban touched off an ugly showdown among Democrats on Thursday that pitted House leaders against progressive lawmakers of color, who accused Ms. Omar’s detractors of Islamophobia and “anti-Blackness.”
The day’s back-and-forth ended in a clarification from Ms. Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, and peace overtures from her colleagues. But it exposed sharp divisions at a time when the party needs unity to maintain control of a razor-thin congressional majority.
The latest contretemps began on Monday, when Ms. Omar wrote on Twitter about a virtual exchange she had with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken about the International Criminal Court. During a hearing, Ms. Omar had pressed Mr. Blinken for an investigation of human rights abuses by both Israeli security forces and Hamas. But on Twitter, she appeared to go further, comparing Israel and the United States not only to Hamas, which the State Department considers a terrorist group, but also to the Taliban.
“We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,” she wrote. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”
The analogy prompted outrage from a dozen Jewish Democrats in the House. They issued a statement saying that equating the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban “is as offensive as it is misguided.” In congressional parlance usually intended to elicit an apology, they asked her to “clarify her words.”
“Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice,” they wrote. “The United States and Israel are imperfect and, like all democracies, at times deserving of critique, but false equivalencies give cover to terrorist groups.”
Rather than apologize, Ms. Omar initially fired off a defiant response on Thursday morning.
“It’s shameful for colleagues who call me when they need my support to now put out a statement asking for ‘clarification’ and not just call,” wrote Ms. Omar, one of two Muslim women in the House. “The Islamophobic tropes in this statement are offensive. The constant harassment & silencing from the signers of this letter is unbearable.”
Several of her progressive colleagues came to her defense in statements that suggested that their fellow Democrats were bigoted and racist. Representative Cori Bush, a freshman from Missouri, tweeted: “I’m not surprised when Republicans attack Black women for standing up for human rights. But when it’s Democrats, it’s especially hurtful.” She added, “Enough with the anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.”
Ultimately, Ms. Omar lowered the temperature with a new statement that her comments had been misunderstood. She said she had never made “a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel.”
“I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems,” she added.
House Democratic leaders issued their own statement welcoming Ms. Omar’s clarification, saying that “drawing false equivalencies between democracies like the U.S. and Israel and groups that engage in terrorism like Hamas and the Taliban foments prejudice and undermines progress toward a future of peace and security for all.”
But by then, the episode had already prompted a contentious public feud between a handful of progressive lawmakers — all people of color who have been critical of Israel — and other Democrats, whom they accused of unfairly singling out Ms. Omar because of her religion and skin color.
Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and the House’s only Palestinian American, who has called Israel’s policies “apartheid” and “racist,” defended Ms. Omar.
“I am tired of colleagues (both D+R) demonizing @IlhanMN,” she wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Their obsession with policing her is sick. She has the courage to call out human rights abuses no matter who is responsible. That’s better than colleagues who look away if it serves their politics.”
The flare-up came as Democrats are desperate for cohesion as they try to move forward on infrastructure, tax code changes, universal preschool and expanded access to community college. With Republicans almost uniformly opposed to their agenda, Democrats have threatened to resort to budget rules that allow them to bypass filibusters to push through their priorities. But they can do so only if almost every Democrat remains on board; a public fight with Ms. Omar’s liberal wing could complicate those efforts.
Republicans seized on Ms. Omar’s language, eager to stoke outrage and turn the tables on Democrats after anti-Semitic comments by one of their own members, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whose recent comparisons of the Holocaust to pandemic safety policies drew condemnation from both parties.
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, called Ms. Omar’s comments anti-Semitic, anti-American and “abhorrent.”
“Speaker Pelosi’s continued failure to address the issues in her caucus sends a message to the world that Democrats are tolerant of anti-Semitism and sympathizing with terrorists,” he wrote. “It’s time for the Speaker to act.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California cannot afford an internal rift, even with a small number of progressives. Democratic leaders had to beg Ms. Omar and other members of the progressive clique known as the squad to vote present rather than “no” last month on a $1.9 billion bill to finance Capitol security improvements, to prevent the measure’s defeat after they objected to more funding for the police. Ms. Omar seemed to allude to those pleas in her combative tweet.
Ms. Pelosi will need those votes to pass party-line legislation that gets through the Senate with conservative Democrats such as Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, though measures with significant Republican support, like a China competition bill that passed on Tuesday, could be approved over the left wing’s objections.
Representative Brad Schneider, Democrat of Illinois and one of the lead organizers of the statement objecting to Ms. Omar’s comments, said he hoped to sit down with her to understand what “Islamophobic trope” she had referred to in her statement. He said there was nothing racist in the confrontation, pointing to his efforts to censure Ms. Greene, whose language, he said, was incomparably worse.
“Marjorie Taylor Greene is a white Republican from Georgia. It’s not who she is or where she’s from,” he said. “It’s what she is saying.”
It is not the first time Ms. Omar’s remarks about Israel have generated anger from fellow Democrats. Her Twitter comment in 2019 that support in Washington for Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby” kicked off weeks of fighting that ended in a resolution on the House floor condemning bigotry and anti-Semitism. The comments played into anti-Semitic tropes that have roots in the Middle Ages, when Jews were barred from entering most professions and thus became moneylenders — a task that Christians would not take on because of prohibitions against usury.
Republicans and some Democrats had demanded that Ms. Omar be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but Democratic leaders refused.
Instead, Ms. Omar apologized. “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,” she said in a statement at the time, about an hour after Ms. Pelosi and the entire Democratic leadership publicly chastised her for engaging in “deeply offensive” anti-Semitic tropes.
Ms. Omar’s use of the term “tropes” this week in describing her colleagues’ request for clarification was a defiant echo of that altercation.