The House passed a broad resolution condemning hate after backlash from a number of factions across the Democratic Party forced changes to a bill that originally focused on anti-Semitism.
The resolution was initially pushed by the Anti-Defamation League and some Jewish members of Congress who were upset with comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., at a progressive town hall last week. Omar, who had already apologized for remarks saying the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC deployed “the benjamins” to influence policy, told her audience she wanted to “talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
A vote was initially planned for Wednesday on a draft resolution that did not mention Omar by name but condemned anti-Semitism. But the vote was delayed after pushback from members, including the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus, who wanted the resolution to condemn all forms of bigotry.
They got their wish, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday morning that resolution would condemn anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy while not naming Omar specifically.
The revised resolution is longer than the draft that was circulated earlier this week and includes a long list of anti-Muslim hate crimes and additional acts of white supremacy. The resolution passed early Thursday evening, with all Democrats voting yes and 23 Republicans voting no over complaints that the bill was too broad. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, voted present.
Pelosi appears eager to put the issue behind her and proceed to consideration of HR-1, the omnibus House bill that addresses voting rights, campaign finance and government reform.
"I thought the resolution should enlarge the issue to anti-Semitism, anti-Islamophobia, anti-white supremacy, and that it should not mention her name, and that's what we're working on,” said Pelosi. “Something that is one resolution addressing these forms of hatred not mentioning her name because it's not about her, it's about these forms of hatred."
Rep. Liz Cheney, the third ranking Republican in the House, denounced the measure.
“Today’s resolution vote was a sham put forward by Democrats to avoid condemning one of their own and denouncing vile anti-Semitism,” Cheney said in a statement following her “no” vote.
Omar, a Muslim and a Somali refugee who wears Islamic dress in public, has been a target of racist attacks since winning election in November, as her supporters have noted. Last Friday, the congresswoman’s picture appeared on a sign linking her to terrorism, posted at a meeting of Republicans in the West Virginia statehouse. She’s been defended by her fellow freshmen, notably women of color including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.
“We need to have an equity in our outrage,” Pressley, who is a member of both the Black Caucus and Progressive Caucus, said Wednesday. “Islamophobia needs to be included in this. We need to denounce all forms of hate. There is not hierarchy of hurt.”
“[Rep. Omar’s] strength inspires me and so many,” wrote Tlaib, the other Muslim woman in Congress, on Twitter Sunday. “She is being targeted just like many civil rights icons before us who spoke out about oppressive policies. As she uplifts my Sity [referring to her grandmother] and other Palestinians in the name of justice and peace, she shows us real courage.”
More senior members of the Democratic caucus also defended Omar, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who is co-chair of the Progressive Caucus.
“I do think we have pushed very hard for this resolution to also include anything around Islamophobia. This is a member of Congress who is being subjected to deeply unfair, in my part, scrutiny around everything she says, at a different level than others,” said Jayapal in an interview Wednesday, adding, “And so, we have been pushing, and we’ve been successful, I think, and I’m grateful to Speaker Pelosi for recognizing that we need to take all of this on.”
“What would be the appropriate level of punishment — a public flogging?” asked Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., after a heated meeting of the Democratic caucus Wednesday afternoon where the resolution was discussed. “We are all responsible for what we say, and there are consequences, whether it is this resolution or something else. But there is a double standard we have to be aware of. The level of condemnation on Ms. Omar has been really intense.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls in the Senate spoke out in support of Omar while condemning bigotry.
“Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is Jewish, in a statement. “We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. Rather, we must develop an even-handed Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace. What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said she was concerned focusing on Omar could put her in danger but added that “you can both support Israel and be loyal to our country. I also believe there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said, “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. Threats of violence ― like those made against Rep. Omar ― are never acceptable.”
Omar also received grassroots support, including from IfNotNow, an organization of young, progressive Jewish Americans who support ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
“This is a victory,” said IfNotNow in a statement following the delay of the vote. “Grassroots pressure from Jews, Muslims and our allies challenged the outrageous double standard being applied to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Leadership to delay the vote on their outrageous anti-Semitism resolution.”
In February, Omar apologized for her comments about how the pro-Israel lobby uses money to advance its issues.
“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,” said Omar, adding, “I unequivocally apologize.”
But she did not retract or apologize for her statement implying that supporters of Israel had “allegiance to a foreign country.”
“Our democracy is built on debate, Congresswoman!” wrote Omar in response to Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee. The people of the 5th elected me to serve their interest. I am sure we agree on that! I have not mischaracterized our relationship with Israel, I have questioned it and that has been clear from my end. I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks.”
“I do not believe that she understood the full weight of the words,” said Pelosi when asked about Omar’s refusal to apologize, adding, “I feel confident that her words were not anti-Semitic but that she didn’t have a full appreciation of how the words landed on other people where these words have a history and a cultural impact that may have been unknown to her.”
Omar’s backers note she did not mention Jews specifically. Historically, Jews, who until 1948 were a religious minority in every country where they lived, have been suspected of disloyalty, and the victims of persecution as a result. Jewish Americans have traditionally been strong supporters of Israel, although today evangelical Christians are much more vocal in their backing. Many progressive Jewish groups have denounced the treatment of Palestinians by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Republicans have attempted to use the resolution as a wedge issue, as President Trump has repeatedly called for Omar to be stripped of her position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and to resign completely from Congress. “It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against anti-Semitism in their conference,” said Trump, whose anti-refugee rhetoric was seen as partial inspiration for a gunman who killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October. “Anti-Semitism has fueled atrocities throughout history, and it’s inconceivable they will not act to condemn it!”
It is unclear if Omar will face any further reprimand for her comments. Rep. Elliot Engel, D-N.Y., was one of the members pushing for the resolution, but he said Tuesday he would not remove the freshman congresswoman from her position on the Foreign Affairs Committee, which he chairs.
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