Top Democratic leaders in Congress rebuked Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar on Monday for a tweet that implied money drives U.S. politicians’ support for Israel, prompting the freshman Democrat to publicly apologize.
In an extraordinary step, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders condemned a tweet Omar sent Sunday using the song lyric, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” as hurtful and offensive.
The apology came after swift and intense criticism from Jewish members of Congress and local Jewish leaders in the Twin Cities.
“Such rhetoric puts our community in danger, should have no place in our politics, and undermines efforts to achieve Middle East peace,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. He called her tweet a “vile anti-Semitic trope.”
Pelosi and other House leaders said Omar’s use of “anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive.”
Upon landing in Texas for a rally, President Donald Trump said Omar should be ashamed of herself. “I think it was a terrible statement and I don’t think her apology was adequate.” Asked what she should say, he replied: “She knows what to say.”
Omar tweeted an apology Monday afternoon, more than 18 hours after her initial post, saying she is “listening, learning but standing strong.”
“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 wrote. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. That is why I unequivocally apologize.”
The incident has brought fresh scrutiny over how Omar, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, views Israel. In recent weeks, she’s battled a new wave of allegations that she is anti-Semitic, but until Monday mostly by Republicans.
Israel has long been the United States’ most reliable ally in the Middle East, and the two countries maintain deep financial, military and political ties. The U.S. was the first country to recognize Israel as a state in 1948.
Omar has faced sharp criticism over her support for a movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. She also recently apologized for a 2012 tweet saying “Israel has hypnotized the world,” which also drew criticism for using anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Omar, who was not in elected office at the time of that posting, said that she “unknowingly” used “unfortunate” words in the tweet, which was sent after the Israeli military carried out an aerial campaign in Gaza against rocket attacks by Hamas during a period of escalated conflict. She maintains that her comments on Israel’s government do not reflect her views on Jewish people or the faith in general.
More recently in a Yahoo News interview, Omar said “I almost chuckle” when people describe Israel as a democracy, and compared Israel to Iran, a Muslim-majority country facing new economic sanctions from the U.S.
As her latest tweet sparked swift condemnation online Sunday, Omar said that she was referencing the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying organization. While groups and individuals supporting Israel do donate heavily to politicians of both parties, AIPAC does not give directly to campaigns. It does, however, spend millions to lobby Congress.
In her Monday statement, Omar said she stands by the original sentiment that the organization holds too much power in Washington.
“I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry,” she said.
The tweet and subsequent apology triggered a steady stream of statements condemning anti-Semitism from prominent Minnesota politicians.
State Sen. Ron Latz, whose metro-area district overlaps with Omar’s, stood out among the harshest critics.
“She cannot constantly make statements that suggest she was ‘ignorant’ of the anti-Semitic implications of what she says or publishes, as she has been educated by myself and others on numerous occasions,” the St. Louis Park Democrat said on Twitter.
GOP groups, including the National Republican Congressional Committee, called for further action. Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan called on Minnesota Democrats to denounce the remarks and said House leadership should strip the freshman congresswoman of her committee assignments.
“It’s clear that congresswoman Ilhan Omar harbors deep-seated anti-Semitic views,” she said.
The fallout further strained Omar’s relationship with some members of the local Jewish community she represents in the metro’s Fifth Congressional District.
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park said he was inundated with e-mails, texts, calls and Facebook messages from distraught members. “Our community is hurting, [it’s] very, very raw right now,” he said.
Olitzky said use of anti-Semitic tropes, whether intentional or not, “takes our community’s collective conscience back to a time when we were fearing for our lives.” He said that while he appreciated Omar’s apology, he is concerned about the pattern of what he sees as troubling statements.
Beth Gendler, executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women, Minnesota, said she does not believe Omar personally holds anti-Semitic views and that the congresswoman has “done a good job in addressing” some previous tweets. But she added that while her organization has been proud to partner with Omar on advocacy and policy, “we’re also Jews and when that language got used, it hurts us.”
Omar Jamal, an activist in the Twin Cities Somali community who said he supported Omar’s congressional bid, condemned the latest tweets, saying they left members of his community organization shocked, surprised and confused.
“We feel like the new elected Ilhan Omar is somewhat out of touch with how Washington works,” he said. “Yes, the Constitution grants freedom of expression, but I think this kind of behavior will not help her function well to represent her district. We are against this, and we are completely alarmed.”
Torey Van Oot • 612-673-7299