Democrats split over resolution condemning anti-Semitism aimed at newcomer Ilhan Omar

Rozina Sabur
Ilhan Omar has refused to back down over her comments - AP

A furious row over anti-Semitism erupted in the Democratic Party on Wednesday as its leadership attempted to pass a resolution seen as condemning language used by one of its own members.

Senior Democrats wanted a statement to be adopted by the House of Representatives condemning "the dangerous consequences of perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes".

The resolution was viewed as a direct rebuke of Ilhan Omar, a newly elected Democrat congresswoman who had compared support for Israel to "allegiance to a foreign country".

However there was a heated backlash from fellow Democrats who said Ms Omar, who is on the Left of the party, was being unfairly singled out by the leadership.

The dispute has echoes of the dispute over anti-Semitism raging in the Labour Party in Britain, which has seen MPs split on the severity of the problem and how to tackle it under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Ms Omar, who has already been once rebuked by Democratic leadership over her comments on Israel in the two months she has been in office, triggered this new row with a tweet: "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 comments sparked suggestions Ms Omar was exploiting anti-Semitic tropes, but Ms Omar has not backed down.

In the last few days the Minnesota congresswoman’s allies have spoken out in her support, highlighting that she has also been the target of threats and bigotry.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected to Congress in November along with Ms Omar, suggested that her colleague was being treated unfairly.

"No one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about Latinx + other communities," the representative for New York Democrat said in a tweet.

During a party meeting Wednesday a number of Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, reportedly challenged the decision to pass a resolution.

The members argued that the move will single out Ms Omar for a rebuke over her comments, while comments from Republicans go unchallenged by the chamber.

"We need to have equity in our outrage... [including] the occupant of this White House who is seeding every form of hate, emboldening it with racist rhetoric and policies," congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, an ally of Ms Omar, told the Washington Post after the meeting. "That is who we all need to be focused on, and this is a distraction."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said there may not be a vote this week on any resolution. "We’re discussing what is the best way to address it," he said.

Republicans have seized on the controversy, hoping to exploit divisions within the Democratic party and calling for Ms Omar to be removed from the Foreign Relations Committee.

In a tweet of his own, Donald Trump, the US president, called Ms Omar’s remarks "a dark day for Israel".

Ms Omar, a Somali-American, said that she is raising legitimate questions about influence in Washington and she worries that anything she says about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians can be construed as anti-Semitic.

"Being opposed to (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic," she tweeted on Sunday. "I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same."

It is at least the third time Ms Omar has forced older pro-Israel Democrats in senior positions into awkward territory over US-Israeli policy.

The controversy has presented a challenge for the Democratic leadership, torn between a need to admonish Ms Omar and appear in control of the newly elected progressive wing that is less willing to toe the party line.

Democrats in Congress remain largely supportive of Israel, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who often attends the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, coming up later this month.

An outpouring of support for Ms Omar prompted the party’s leaders to consider broadening the measure, to include a history of bigotry against Muslims and black people as well as Jews, to avoid dissent.