More than 100 supporters of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar gathered Wednesday to stand in solidarity with the freshman Democrat and her policy positions on Israel and Palestine amid a rocky first three months in Congress.
"When somebody has our back we need to have their back," Ayaan Dahir, an organizer with the Young Muslim Collective, told the crowd. "She's standing up to powerful people for human rights."
Omar angered fellow Democrats and drew attacks from Republicans after a tweet and later a public comment, both in February, that many prominent Democrats and Jewish leaders criticized for using anti-Semitic tropes. In response, the U.S. House passed a resolution broadly condemning bigotry. Omar, who supported the resolution, has denied holding anti-Semitic views.
Wednesday's gathering outside the Urban League office in north Minneapolis sought to counter that criticism. The rally, which included a potluck, poetry readings and a panel on policy, was hosted by a coalition of local organizations focused on social and racial justice, including several that support Palestinian rights. Omar was not at the meeting and a spokesman said her office was not affiliated with the event.
Organizers said the goal was to demonstrate that, despite headlines, the first-term congresswoman and the issues she supports maintain a strong base in the metro-area congressional district that elected her by a landslide in 2018. They also wanted to put a spotlight on the policies she supports. Demonstrators lined Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis, waving signs voicing support for Omar, Palestine and Venezuela as organizers led chants espousing her right to free speech. Cars honking in solidarity were met with cheers.
"The whole point of it is to support her and defend her right to speak out and to highlight the issues she's been supporting," said Mel Reeves, a local political activist involved in putting on the meeting.
Omar's supporters praised her stances on a range of domestic and foreign issues. Her refusal to recognize Venezuela's interim president and a recent clash with former diplomat Elliott Abrams were hailed as courageous. They also cheered her push to get the Trump administration to continue a program that, if expired, would have led to the deportation of thousands of local Liberians.
The uproar over Omar's widely criticized tweets and comments on Israel and American Jews also took center stage. Several speakers condemned the political influence of groups that they say support Israel to the detriment of Palestinians in the Middle East.
Reeves argued that those speaking out against the congresswoman are seeking to silence criticism of Israel. Omar, they said, is being unfairly targeted because she is a black, Muslim woman. Omar, the first Somali-American woman in Congress, has faced death threats and bigoted personal attacks in wake of the controversy.
Sebrina Haile, a 20-year-old student from Minneapolis, said she wasn't surprised to see Omar come under fire. She came to the rally to show support for Omar speaking out for Palestinians and human rights.
"It was disappointing, but it was expected. She's a female, she's Muslim, she's black," said Haile, who is Muslim.
Many of Omar's most vocal critics within the Jewish community have also fervently condemned Islamophobic attacks against the congresswoman. They say the issue is not about policy but the hurtful and highly charged language Omar has used repeatedly, including long-standing anti-Semitic stereotypes.
The media firestorm surrounding Omar's statements has largely calmed in recent weeks. But the fallout continues to reverberate across her diverse Twin Cities district and the national political landscape.
Large factions of the local Jewish community remain deeply hurt and frustrated by the comments, and there's talk that Omar might face a Democratic primary challenger next year.
Reeves said while organizers weren't thinking about the 2020 election when they planned the meeting, he hoped the strong show of support "might dissuade people" from entering the race.
The political implications go beyond the Fifth District. On Wednesday, the American Action Network, a national Republican advocacy group, launched a digital ad campaign urging Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., to call on Omar to step down from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. While Phillips, who is Jewish, has been highly critical of his fellow freshman's remarks, he has not called for her to resign from her post. Similar ads are running against other congressional Democrats as part of what the group called a "six-figure campaign encouraging members to do the right thing after Omar's repeated anti-Semitic remarks."
A spokesman for Phillips defended the congressman's approach on the issue, saying they "don't comment on political media stunts."
Patrick Condon contributed to this report.
Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049