Democrats’ Ilhan Omar defence weakened by party’s own attacks over Israel

Chris McGreal

The Guardian  /  February 5, 2023

 Party’s criticism of Omar’s Israel position has greased the path for Republicans to oust her from the foreign affairs committee

The resolution that set in motion the removal of the only African immigrant, Muslim and former resident of a refugee camp on the congressional committee overseeing US foreign policy paid scant attention to Ilhan Omar’s views on anything but a single issue: Israel.

“Omar has attempted to undermine the relationship between the United States and Israel,” said the author of the resolution, Republican congressman Max Miller. “She has disqualified herself from serving on the foreign affairs committee.”

The Democratic leadership accused Republicans of a vendetta. Omar said she was targeted as a Muslim immigrant who “needs to be silenced”, and that “when you push power, power pushes back”.

But Democratic attempts to defend the Minnesota congresswoman were undercut by the party’s own record of attacking Omar over her statements about Israel almost from the day she was sworn in four years ago, greasing the path for Republicans to vote her off the foreign affairs committee on Thursday.

Several Jewish American organizations came out in support of Omar, including Jewish Voice for Peace Action, a group lobbying for a change in US policy on Israel.

“These attacks on Representative Omar are about her identity as a Black Muslim progressive woman. But this cannot be removed from the fact that she wants to hold the Israeli government accountable and speak out for Palestinian human rights,” said its political director, Beth Miller.

Miller said that while she welcomed the support of the Democratic leadership for Omar in Thursday’s vote, it was hamstrung by its own criticisms of her.

“Since she got to office she has been vocally opposed to Israeli occupation and speaking out for Palestinian human rights. And time and time again members of her own party have attacked her for it,” she said.

“The actions of the Democratic leadership, and the failure to not just defend her, but sometimes jump on attacks against her, has helped foster an environment that allowed this to happen.”

Max Miller’s resolution to remove Omar repeatedly cited Democratic criticisms of her statements on Israel and allegations of antisemitism.

“Congresswoman Omar clearly cannot be an objective decision-maker on the foreign affairs committee given her biases against Israel and against the Jewish people,” he said when introducing the resolution.

Omar has apologized for the wording of some of her statements while sticking by her points, including criticism of the influence of groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and pro-Israel money on US politics.

Several liberal Jewish American groups, including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and the New Israel Fund, said that none of Omar’s policies or statements merited her removal from the committee. They added that accusations against her by the Republican speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, seem “especially exploitative in light of the rampant promotion of antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories by him and his top deputies amid a surge in dangerous right-wing antisemitism”.

The groups noted that McCarthy himself had deleted a tweet accusing Jewish billionaires of trying to “buy” an election.

But while Republican leaders may not really care about antisemitism, they are serious about defending Israeli governments from criticism. Many Democrats support them in that.

Miller said the criticisms of Omar were less about the language she used than trying to silence her.

“These attempts to smear and attack her, to police her language, are all part of attempt to silence and threaten anyone who trying to speak out against the Israeli government,” she said.

As Omar’s record on the foreign affairs committee shows, she rarely drew public criticism from fellow Democrats even for strident criticisms of US foreign policy in other parts of the world, including accusations that it undermined democracy and helped to fuel terrorism.

At a hearing on the erosion of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020, the Democratic chair at the time, Karen Bass, spoke of the US as “the global champion for democracy”. Omar, on the other hand, asked about the US counter-terrorism training of security forces responsible for massacres in Cameroon and of coup leaders in Mali.

“This trend of supporting militarized brutality in the name of counterterrorism is widespread in the continent. I have mentioned Cameroon and Mali, but I could easily mention Somalia, Mozambique, Kenya, or a number of other countries in the continent,” Omar said.

At a hearing on US-Africa relations a year earlier, Omar agreed with a witness from the conservative Heritage Foundation that Saudi Arabian promotion of Wahhabism in Africa “has contributed to the rise of jihadist thinking and terrorist recruitment on the continent”.

Then Omar asked: “Is it fair to say that our unwavering support for the Saudi government has been counterproductive to our security goals in Africa?”.

Omar also used the hearing to challenge claims by the US Africa Command, responsible for American military operations on the continent, that its escalating use of drone strikes in her homeland, Somalia, had not resulted in civilian casualties.

None of this brought the attention or orchestrated backlash prompted by her views on Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians.

The Republican chair of the foreign affairs committee, Michael McCaul, made plain that his concern lay with Omar positions on this one issue.

“It’s just that her worldview of Israel is so diametrically opposed to the committee’s. I don’t mind having differences of opinion, but this goes beyond that,” he said.

Some of the most furious and, according to Omar’s supporters, unreasoned criticism came over a single tweet following a foreign affairs committee meeting in June 2021.

Omar asked the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, about Washington’s opposition to international criminal court (ICC) investigations in Israel and the occupied Palestine territories, and Afghanistan shortly before it fell to the Taliban.

The ICC reached a preliminary conclusion that both Israel and Palestinian armed groups have both committed war crimes that include the unjustified killing of civilians and Israel’s illegal construction of sprawling settlements in the occupied territories. In Afghanistan, the ICC is investigating actions by the Taliban, the former Afghan government’s forces, the US military and the CIA.

Omar made it clear in her questions to Blinken that she agreed with the expansive nature of the court’s investigation and that she was not singling out one side in either conflict.

“I would emphasize that in Israel and Palestine this includes crimes committed by the Israeli security forces and Hamas. In Afghanistan it includes crimes committed by the Afghan national government and the Taliban,” she told him.

“So in both of these cases, if domestic courts can’t or won’t pursue justice – and we oppose the ICC – where do we think the victims of these supposed crimes can go for justice? And what justice mechanisms do you support for them?”

The question was typical of the global perspective Omar brought to the foreign affairs committee, shaped by her early life amidst armed conflict in Somalia and in a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya. At its core was Omar’s persistent scrutiny of whether the US lives up to its self-assessment as a force for good in the world when, in this case, it shields itself and its friends from accountability.

Blinken made no objection to the framing of the question, and lamented the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians. He said there was no need for ICC investigations because existing national courts in Israel and the US were sufficient to ensure accountability, a claim disputed by human rights organizations that have documented unprosecuted war crimes and crimes against humanity by both countries.

The storm broke when Omar tweeted Blinken’s testimony with the comment: “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. I asked [Blinken] where people are supposed to go for justice.”

Republicans came out of the gate claiming that single tweet was evidence of everything that was wrong with Omar.

They said it exposed her hostility to Israel and America, and her antisemitism. They accused her of drawing “moral equivalence” between democratic governments and suicide bombers. Few cared that while Omar’s framing of her tweet may have been impolitic, it was not the congresswoman who linked Israel and Hamas, or the Taliban and the US military, but the ICC in its investigations.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton resorted to what is widely regarded as a classic racist taunt to Omar to go back to where she came from: “[She] was a refugee from Somalia and America welcomed her. If she really believes America is a hateful country on par with the Taliban and Hamas, she’s welcome to leave.”

It did not take long for Democrats to pile in as well. Fellow party members in Congress issued a statement claiming that Omar’s “false equivalencies give cover to terrorist groups”.

The Democrats urged Omar “to clarify her words”. The congresswoman responded by condemning the “constant harassment and silencing” from fellow Democrats.

A few Democrats did come to her defence, including Representative Cori Bush.

“I’m not surprised when Republicans attack Black women for standing up for human rights. But when it’s Democrats, it’s especially hurtful,” she said.

Omar was forced into a retreat after the then Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, joined the fray to condemn “false equivalencies”, saying they foment prejudice and undermine progress toward peace.

Omar issued a statement “clarifying” that she was not making moral comparisons and was “in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries”.

But by then, the debate and news coverage had shifted from scrutiny of why the US was protecting Israel and itself, and by extension Hamas and the Taliban, from war crimes investigations to a debate about Omar’s motives.

And the Republicans had another arrow in their quiver when the time came to move against her.

Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem