The Controversy Over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Remarks Is Over. The Argument Over Israel Is Just Starting

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Friday March 8, 2019

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., walks through an underground tunnel at the Capitol on March 6, 2019 as top House Democrats plan to offer a measure that condemns anti-Semitism in the wake of controversial remarks by the freshman congresswoman. J. Scott Applewhite—AP

House Democrats hope to put the final word on a lingering controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments on Israel by approving a broad resolution against hatred of all kinds Thursday afternoon.

But polls and interviews with the Democratic grassroots show that the move may have simply slapped a Band-Aid on a festering wound.

Thursday’s resolution, which overwhelmingly passed 407-23, condemned hatred in multiple forms, including anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, police profiling and white nationalism. The vote, which was scheduled to take place at 3:15 p.m., was delayed so the text could include an expanded list of victims of persecution.

Only one Congressman, Rep. Steve King – who has come under fire for white nationalist sentiments – voted present.

Though not specifically targeted at Omar, the resolution was a clear response to controversial comments she made last week.

Speaking at an event at the Washington bookstore-slash-restaurant Busboys and Poets last month, Omar argued that it is wrong that she can criticize the NRA, the fossil fuel industry or pharmaceutical companies over their lobbying, but faces criticism for making similar remarks about pro-Israel lobbying. “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,” she said.

The remarks drew a swift backlash from both Democrats and Republicans who noted the long and ugly history of accusing Jews and other religious minorities of holding a “dual loyalty” to their country and their religion. But the stickiest part of the debate was the very public criticism from Omar’s Democratic colleagues.

“No member of Congress is asked to swear allegiance to another country,” Rep. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the appropriations committee and one of the most powerful women in the Democratic caucus, wrote on Twitter March 3. “Throughout history, Jews have been accused of dual loyalty, leading to discrimination and violence, which is why these accusations are so hurtful.”

“Dual loyalty?” Rep. Ted Deutch asked in a tweet. “Jews proudly serve our country. I serve in the U.S. House. My father served in the U.S. Army.”

For Democrats, this was the second time in a month they found themselves forced to answer questions about Omar’s controversial comments about Israel. Last month, in a response to a news story about House Republicans threatening to punish her and another lawmaker for being critical of Israel, Omar tweeted a line about $100 bills from a Puff Daddy song: “It’s about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote.

That time, leadership condemned her remarks, and she quickly apologized. But this time, some Democrats wanted to go further. At the beginning of the week, a draft of a resolution began to circulate around Capitol Hill that rebuked anti-Semitism.

Although Omar was not mentioned by name, her colleagues jumped to her defense to intervene. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus went to bat for her, telling leadership that solely singling out anti-Semitism — and by default, Omar, despite the fact that she was not mentioned directly — was putting her in an unfair position. They also argued that, given some of President Donald Trump’s controversial comments, other forms of hatred should be rebuked as well.

But other members, such as Deutch and Rep. Eliot Engel, who chairs the foreign affairs committee, argued that, given the comments and the history attached to the implications, anti-semitism should get its own condemnation.

Ultimately, the final draft of the resolution, introduced by Rep. Jamie Raskin and former CBC Chair Cedric Richmond, appeared to be an effort to placate both sides. While it was broadened to include additional forms of hatred and bigotry, it specifically takes aim at the idea of Jews harboring dual loyalty, arguing that allegations are anti-Semitic “because it suggests that Jewish citizens cannot be patriotic Americans and trusted neighbors, when Jews have loyally served our Nation every day since its founding, whether in public or community life or military service”

But the fact that leadership listened, even as some of the most powerful members of the caucus were pressuring them to do otherwise, signifies the growing power of people like Omar, who are willing to openly challenge the status quo even as they face backlash. And that could very well be because these factions in the caucus have the weight of the grassroots movement behind them.

While support for Israel has traditionally been high among Americans from both political parties, polling has shown that Democrats have grown increasingly sympathetic with Palestinians in recent years. Younger, more liberal voters, and people of color are also less likely to sympathize with Israel.

A 2018 survey from Pew Research Center found that the share of Democrats saying they sympathized more with Israel than with Palestinians declined 11 points since 2001, while the share of Republicans saying they sympathized more with Israel increased 29 percentage points over the same period.

Democrats are now fairly divided. Just 27% of Democratic respondents in the Pew survey said they sympathized more with Israel, while 25% said they sympathized more with Palestinians, 23% said they sympathized with both sides and 25% said they didn’t know. Nearly 80% of Republicans, on the other hand, sympathized more with Israel while just 6% sympathized more with Palestinians.

Liberal Democrats are even less supportive of Israel. Nearly twice as many liberal Democrats say they sympathize more with Palestinians than with Israel (35% vs. 19%), and this has grown more extreme in just the last few years. As recently as 2016, 33% of liberal Democrats sympathized more with Israel, according to Pew.

When it comes to young Americans — who gravitate towards the Democratic Party — those between 18-29 are least likely to sympathize more with Israel. A majority of those over 50 sympathize more with Israel, while just 32% of the younger group says this. Black and Hispanic Americans, a growing portion of the electorate, are also less likely to sympathize with Israel. Fifty-one percent of white people told Pew they sympathized more with Israel, in comparison with 42% of black respondents and 33% of Hispanic respondents.

In the end, the Democrats unanimously supported the resolution; all of the 24 defections came from Republicans. But, given these statistics, its hard to imagine this resolution actually solves the problem at hand.

 

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