The firestorm on Capitol Hill over controversial comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar – that have been widely criticized as anti-Semitic – is spreading to the 2020 campaign trail, with several high-profile Democratic presidential contenders defending the freshman congresswoman from Minnesota.
Omar, a Somali-American and one of two Muslim women in Congress, re-ignited the flames last week when she once again suggested that groups supportive of Israel were pushing members of Congress to have "allegiance to a foreign country."
Critics on both sides of the aisle said the remarks fed the stereotype that American Jews have “dual loyalties" to the United States and Israel. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faced an uproar inside the caucus when leadership drafted a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, and has since offered a measure that more broadly condemns all forms of bigotry.
The fight exposed deep divisions in the party. But on the 2020 campaign trail, the heavyweights came to Omar's side. Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who’s making his second straight bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a statement that “anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world."
But Sanders, who was raised Jewish, defended Omar, arguing that “we must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. Rather, we must develop an even-handed Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace.”
“What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate," the senator added. “That's wrong.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who like Sanders is running a progressive and populist campaign for the White House, also slammed anti-Semitism but defended Omar.
"We have a moral duty to combat hateful ideologies in our own country and around the world--and that includes both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. In a democracy, we can and should have an open, respectful debate about the Middle East that focuses on policy,” the Democratic presidential candidate wrote in a statement obtained by Fox News.
“Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians,” she added.
Many Democrats, while strong supporters of Israel, have concerns with the country’s long-time prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his government’s treatment of Palestinians. The conservative leader enjoys a close relationship with Republican President Trump.
Highlighting a new FBI investigation into a possible assassination threat against Omar, Warren added that “threats of violence -- like those made against Rep. Omar -- are never acceptable."
There was a similar response from Sen. Kamala Harris of California, another leading contender for the Democratic nomination, who called out all instances of bigotry and worried about possible violence directed at Omar.
She urged in a statement obtained by Fox News that "we all have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all forms of hatred and bigotry, especially as we see a spike in hate crimes in America.”
“You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country,” she added. “I also believe there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism. At the end of the day, we need a two-state solution and a commitment to peace, human rights, and democracy by all leaders in the region -- and a commitment by our country to help achieve that."
Harris spotlighted that “like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., was more critical of Omar in response to the controversy, while also accusing the GOP of "hypocrisy."
She said in a statement to Fox News: "Speech that fuels hate and prejudice has no place in public discourse, whether it's directed at Jews, Muslims, African Americans or other Americans. Those with critical views of Israel, such as Congresswoman Omar, should be able to express their views without employing anti-Semitic tropes about money or influence, just as those critical of Congresswoman Omar should not be using Islamophobic language and imagery that incites violence, such as what we saw in West Virginia.
"We must also call out the hypocrisy of the Republican Party in this instance. Many Republicans have taken offense to Congresswoman Omar's remarks and condemned her in the harshest terms, but said little or nothing when President Trump defended white supremacists at Charlottesville or when Leader McCarthy promoted a conspiracy about Jewish donors buying elections."
Fox News reached out to the presidential campaigns of Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland for comment, but has not yet received a response.
Last month, Omar was criticized for suggesting in tweets that the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee was effectively buying off American politicians, saying it’s “all about the Benjamins baby.”
She later apologized after demands from Pelosi.