Debate Over Antisemitism Charges Exposes Divide in Democratic Party
A debate within the Democratic Party over charges that one of its US House of Representatives lawmakers made antisemitic remarks has exposed an ideological and generational rift in the party, prompting a vote condemning bigotry against minorities.
Some Democrats, including several US senators who are seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, warned party leaders were playing into Republicans’ hands and had stymied legitimate debate over US-Israel policy.
The House, which is controlled by Democrats, will vote Thursday on a broad resolution condemning antisemitism, anti-Muslim discrimination and other forms of bigotry.
The vote comes less than a week after Representative Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, made statements at a Washington event that were denounced by some as antisemitic.
The resolution does not mention Omar by name. But Republicans have seized on Omar’s statements, and the resulting intra-party conflict, as a sign the Democratic Party is fractured.
Many Democrats, in turn, have said House leaders were cowed by a Republican effort to divert attention from bigotry within their own ranks and that Omar is being held to a different standard.
“Unfortunately, I think the Democratic leadership here has made what I think is a pretty serious mistake in caving to this pressure,” said Democratic strategist Peter Daou, who has advised Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.
The disagreement began after Omar, in an appearance at a Washington book store, said she feared statements she and fellow Representative Rashida Tlaib made about foreign policy and the pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) would be viewed as antisemitic because they are Muslim.
“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it’s okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask why is it okay for me to talk about the influence of the NRA (National Rifle Association), of fossil fuel industries or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policies?” Omar said.
Omar’s critics denounced the statement as playing into the antisemitic trope that Jewish Americans are loyal to Israel over the United States. Omar said opposing the policies of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not synonymous with antisemitism.
She previously apologized for February tweets that her critics said suggested Jewish Americans used money to influence pro-Israel US policies.
Representative Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, told reporters on Wednesday that Omar “embodies a vile, hate-filled, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel bigotry.” President Donald Trump on Twitter called the Democratic response “shameful.”
Democrats have been divided over how best to handle the uproar.
Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he welcomes policy debate but that it was “deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including the US-Israel relationship.”
Young, progressive House newcomers like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and several presidential candidates, however, have come to Omar’s defense.
Senator Bernie Sanders said in a statement that “we must not … equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government.” Senator Elizabeth Warren said “branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse.” Senator Kamala Harris said she was concerned about Omar’s safety.
Daou said a political double standard was at play, pointing to a recent tweet from Republican Representative Jim Jordan, what used a dollar sign for a letter in the name of Democratic donor Tom Steyer, who is Jewish.
“Why is it that a white, male Republican can largely get away with the same thing and this massive outcry happened over a Muslim, progressive woman of color? That’s something we have to grapple with,” Daou said.