Democrats finally rally behind besieged Muslim congresswoman

29th Mar 2019
Democrats finally rally behind besieged Muslim congresswoman

(Photo: Kristie Boyd/US House Office)

Elham Asaad Buaras

House of Representatives Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, finally backed Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from accusations of anti-Semitism following the uproar against her remarks on the influence of Israel lobby on US lawmakers.

“I feel confident that her words were not based on any anti-Semitic attitude,” said Pelosi on March 7 almost a month after the freshman lawmaker faced a barrage of Islamophobic and racist hate for questioning the uncritical support that many members of Congress give Israel’s increasingly hardline, right-wing Government.

On February 11, Democrat leaders criticised Omar – one of two Muslim congresswomen – for tweets that implied that money spent by pro-Israel lobbying organisations, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was fueling American politicians’ support of Israel.

Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Majority Whip, Jim Clyburn, criticised the tweets, with the Democratic House leadership releasing a statement that called Omar’s tweets anti-Semitic and “deeply offensive.”

Omar issued an apology the next day, stating, “I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes”, however, she insisted she is reaffirming “the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry”.

Omar came under criticism for a second time after she told a progressive town hall meeting on February 27 that critics labelling her an anti-Semite looked to silence a necessary conversation. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

Omar has been subject to a series of Islamophobic hate and death threats. On March 1, the West Virginia Republican Party held ‘WV GOP Day,’ an event to celebrate the Republican Party, at the West Virginia Capitol. An exhibitor displayed a poster at the event falsely connecting Omar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, along with Islamophobic flyers.

Omar pointed to the poster as an example of why she is targeted with violence, also citing white nationalist domestic terrorist Christopher Hasson placing her on his hit list and “Assassinate Ilhan Omar” being written in a Minnesota gas station.

The FBI arrested Hasson, who was allegedly plotting to assassinate various journalists and left-of-centre figures and organisations in the US, including Omar.

According to prosecutors, Hasson is a self-described “longtime White Nationalist [sic]” and a former skinhead who wanted to use violence to “establish a white homeland.” Prosecutors also alleged that Hasson was in contact with an American neo-Nazi leader, stockpiled weapons, and compiled a hit list. Prosecutors allege that Hasson’s plans to commit domestic terrorism were inspired by Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 domestic terrorist attacks.

The House voted on an anti-hate resolution that was originally intended as a rebuke to Omar’s comments. The resolution has been broadened to include denunciations of Islamophobia, white supremacy and other forms of hate after initially addressing only anti-Semitism.

Pelosi said the resolution does not mention Omar, who is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

The row over Omar’s comments has exposed deep divides within the Democratic Party as a growing wing of progressives refuses to unwaveringly support Israel.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with several Democrats who have announced 2020 presidential bids, came to Omar’s defence. Ocasio-Cortez directly questioned what she says are “hurtful” double standards arising from her fellow freshman lawmaker’s case.

Ocasio-Cortez argued the allegations against Omar are “bad-faith arguments” aimed at dividing Democrats and/or stifling criticism of Israel’s human rights record.

“One of the things that is hurtful about the extent to which reprimand is sought of Ilhan is that no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about Latinx + [Latinos] other communities,” she wrote in a series of Twitter posts.

She pointed to one heated exchange in which Republican Congressman Jason Smith shouted “go back to Puerto Rico!” while fellow lawmaker Tony Cardenas waited to speak on the House floor.

“It’s not my position to tell people how to feel, or that their hurt is invalid,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “But incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’”

A collection of Muslim, liberal and Jewish progressives groups have also rallied around Omar demanding that House Democratic leaders condemn not just anti-Semitism, but “all forms of bigotry” as well as threats to members of Congress.

In a statement, Congresswoman Elizabeth Warren said democracy must be able to “combat hateful ideologies,” while also allowing for a policy-focused debate about Middle East policy.

“Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians,” the Massachusetts Senator said. “Threats of violence – like those made against Rep. Omar – are never acceptable.”

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley denounced “all forms of hatred and discrimination, including white supremacy, racism, transphobia, ableism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia.”

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