When John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, his candidacy was questioned because he was a Roman Catholic. Some wondered if Kennedy would be able to serve our nation independently, or if he would somehow have a dual loyalty: one to the United States and the other to the Vatican.
Almost 60 years later, we are now having a similar conversation. This time it’s about Jews and Israel thanks to the outspoken views of freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
Omar has been rebuked for a recent series of anti-Semitic comments. Last month on Twitter, she propagated negative Jewish stereotypes and was pressured to apologize by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
At the time, some questioned if Omar’s apology, also delivered via Twitter, was sincere. Omar tried to mend fences publicly and privately with members of the Jewish community, including Jewish members of Congress.
Just as things seemed to simmer a bit, Omar found herself back in the spotlight for anti-Semitic statements made at a town hall. This time she asserted that those who support Israel “push for an allegiance to a foreign country.” Translation: One can’t support Israel and concurrently represent American interests in Congress.
Omar’s town hall performance was the final straw for a number of Jewish Democrats in Congress, including New Yorkers Eliot Engel, Jerald Nadler and Nita Lowey. These House members demanded yet another apology from Omar which she refused to give, prompting House leadership to draft a resolution aimed at rebuking Omar’s anti-Semitic comments.
For a moment it seemed as if House Democrats were going to hold Rep. Omar to the same standards as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who was reprimanded on the floor by name for his unacceptable remarks about white nationalism.
But, as the hours passed, cracks within the House Democratic conference started to appear.
Reports of tense caucus meetings highlighted the differences of opinion amongst House Democrats, especially from the freshman class. Hoping to buy some time, and soften postures, introduction of the resolution was delayed.
The resolution was not going to explicitly name Omar, but rather broadly denounce anti-Semitism. Then, the resolution was modified to include rebuke of anti-Muslim sentiments as well, with a possibility of widening the content to condemn all bigotry and racism writ large.
Support for Israel has never been a Democratic or Republican policy – it has always been an accepted American policy. It seems to me that House leadership, along with many veteran Democratic members, want to reaffirm the caucus’ traditional support of Israel.
However, newer and more progressive members appear to be pushing back on taking official action against Omar. The House Democrats need to move past this controversy and refocus on the important work of the American people. In order to do so, leadership must make some decisive moves, and fast.
In my opinion, Speaker Pelosi should remove Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She should then place a resolution on the floor that condemns anti-Semitic remarks and calls Rep. Omar out by name, just as was done in the case of Republican Steve King. But, Pelosi decided to take a different approach. Instead, she elected to proceed with a 7-page resolution condemning hate and bigotry against a wide range of minority groups.
As a former legislative leader at the state level, I know how hard it can be to try to keep a caucus united. I think this generic resolution was an attempt by House Leadership to keep the peace within the divided Democratic family while also trying to concurrently acknowledge the real issue that gave rise to this resolution in the first place.
The impetus was a slew of anti-Semitic comments made by Rep. Omar dating all the way back to 2012. These kinds of remarks have emerged as a pattern for Omar, just as bigoted comments have been identified as a pattern for Rep. Steve King spanning almost two decades in his public career. There is no place for intolerance and hateful speech about any group. Anyone conducting themselves in this manner should be held to the same standards, no matter what party they are in or which party controls Congress. Omar and King should have received the same public rebuke, but they didn’t. And, that opens up Democrats to the criticism that they have a double standard when it comes to holding their own members accountable.
It’s one thing to pass a resolution generically condemning hatred, bigotry and racism. Clearly, that’s always a good thing. But, I feel this was the wrong way to introduce these important matters into the legislative debate, especially right now. Democrats just reclaimed the House majority with the most diverse class in the history of our country. If the resolution voted on this week was one of the first to be voted on in January, it would have sent a more poignant message This resolution, passed in January, would have set the tone that there is a new kind of leadership at the helm of the House: one that will not stand for intolerance in any form. But, that’s not what happened. Instead, the power of each individual condemnation was obfuscated by being part of a laundry list.
Democratic leadership was put in an almost no-win situation thanks to the Omar controversy. Yes, it would have been risky for Speaker Pelosi to put a resolution on the floor that could have put members in a position to cast a vote that could be used against them later. But, I think it would have been worth the risk because no one should get a pass when it comes to such a fundamental principle. And that includes President Trump. Some Democratic members have said that it is unfair to condemn Omar because they feel more needs to be done on the record to rebuke some of President Trump’s remarks on race, gender and religion.
If these members feel that strongly, they should go ahead and draft a resolution on that. Some did use their floor speeches on this resolution as an opportunity to condemn President Trump. But, throwing Trump in the mix almost as an afterthought undermines the argument that Trump’s conduct is exceptionally egregious. By the same token, this everything but the kitchen sink resolution also diminishes the power of its condemnation of anti-Semitism. Denouncing anti-Jewish rhetoric deserves its own stand-alone resolution. Congress should not equivocate in denouncing anti-Semitic comments from amongst their own ranks.
Just as I am offended by these anti-Semitic remarks, I would be equally appalled if any member of Congress made Islamophobic comments, and would expect the same punishment for that unacceptable behavior. That, too, would deserve a separate resolution explicitly condemning whomever engaged in such deplorable conduct.
Democrats have always prided themselves on combating intolerance. We must not discriminate on whom we hold to account. Let’s hope everyone has learned from this mess.