The Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar “unequivocally” apologized on Monday for comments that suggested American support for Israel was fueled by political donations from a pro-Israel lobby group – a remark condemned by House Democratic leaders for raising “antisemitic tropes and prejudicial accusations”.
“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,” she said in a statement posted on Twitter. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.”
The response came after members of House leadership, including the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and majority leader, Steny Hoyer, called on Omar to “immediately apologize for these hurtful comments”.
“Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share,” they said in a joint statement. “But Congresswoman Omar’s use of antisemitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive.”
Republicans were already threatening action against Omar and the Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib – the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress – over past comments that have been denounced as antisemitic. The women, both outspoken critics of the Israeli government, have faced charges of antisemitism since arriving in Congress last month.
The controversy began with a tweet on Sunday night, when Omar responded to a journalist who accused the Republican minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, of “attacking free speech” by targeting Omar and Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, for expressing a divergent view on Israel.
“It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” Omar responded, a reference to Benjamin Franklin, whose face is on the $100 bill.
That tweet generated a response from a Jewish journalist who asked Omar who she believed was “paying American politicians to be pro-Israel”. The congresswoman replied: “AIPAC,” referring to influential pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Aipac does not contribute to political campaigns though there is a long tradition of lawmakers from both parties attending its annual conference and congressional trips to Israel.
In her own statement, Omar said: “We have to always be willing to step back and think though criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.
“At the same time,” she added, “I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be Aipac, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”
Another senior Democrat, the House judiciary committee chairman, Jerrold Nadler, called the tweets “deeply disappointing and disturbing” and said Omar had appeared to “traffic in old antisemitic tropes about Jews and money”.
Lawmakers should debate the “relative influence of a particular organization on our country’s policy-making process”, Nadler said, but they must also be “extremely careful not to tread into the waters of antisemitism or any other form of prejudice or hate”.
The House foreign affairs chairman, Eliot Engel, like Nadler a Democrat from New York, said it was “shocking” for a member of Congress to make such a comment. Omar serves on Engel’s committee.
The House intelligence committee chairman, Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California said it was “never acceptable to give voice to, or repeat, antisemitic smears”.
“That goes for Rep Omar, and it also goes for Republicans who have trafficked in antisemitic attacks on George Soros and others,” he said.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) accused Omar of promoting the “ugly antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jews have an outsized influence over politics”.
“These tweets are part of a disturbing pattern of behavior that must end,” said the ADL chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt. “The congresswoman needs to understand that these comments promote dangerous stereotypes and are hurtful to her Jewish constituents and Jewish Americans throughout the country.”
Omar recently apologized for comments on Israel including a tweet in which she said it had “hypnotized the world”. Regretting her “unfortunate word choice”, she said: “What is important to me is that people recognize that there’s a difference between criticizing a military action by a government that has exercised really oppressive policies and being offensive or attack-y to particular people of faith.”
Jewish House Democrats are gathering signatures on a letter, first reported by the Washington Post and seen by the Guardian, that calls on Pelosi, Hoyer and other senior figures to “reiterate our rejection of antisemitism and our continued support for the state of Israel”.
So, on the whole @IlhanMN controversy, I wanted to do this #thread pointing out the absurdity of saying it's off limits to mention money and support for Israel, when the US media (rightly) does mention money, influence-peddling & lobbying when it comes to Saudi Arabia and DC.— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) February 11, 2019
Some progressive activists and writers claim to see a double standard.
“Why is it OK to talk about Saudi lobbies, and Saudis buying Trump, and Saudi-first policies, why is it not Islamophobic to say all of that, but it’s antisemitic when it comes to Israel?” the Intercept columnist Mehdi Hasan wrote in a lengthy Twitter thread.
In a piece for The Forward entitled “No, Ilhan Omar Is Not Anti-Semitic For Calling Out Aipac”, the columnist Peter Feld wrote: “The problem is, all lobbies, by definition, are designed to exert secret control over policy, using money. That’s what they do.”
Omar is part of small but vocal group of lawmakers who are critical of the Israeli government and its policies. Some, including Omar and Tlaib, have endorsed the BDS movement, which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and seeks to put economic pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and to ensure “full equality” for Arab-Palestinian citizens.
Republicans have seized on such division within the opposition party. On Monday J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group, said it was “dismayed and frustrated by the ongoing war of words between lawmakers” and said “overheated, ill-considered and reductive attacks, playing out on social media and in the press, [have] failed to address these issues with the nuance, sensitivity and seriousness that they deserve”.
Referring to controversial instances in the 2016 Republican primary, it added: “Elected officials must be extremely aware that tropes about Jewish money and political influence have been used for centuries to target and stigmatize our community.”
Donald Trump, whose campaign came under fire for instances of alleged antisemitism, has received staunch support from Israel for policies including the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. At home, however, he has faced criticism for refusing to condemn neo-Nazis after a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly.
Earlier this month the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill that would undermine the BDS movement. The measure passed by 77-23. Several Democratic presidential candidates and potential contenders opposed it.