House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the entire Democratic leadership on Monday condemned Rep. Ilhan Omar for suggesting that Israel’s allies in American politics were motivated by money rather than principle, an extraordinary rebuke of a House freshman in the vanguard of the party’s left flank.
The Minnesota congresswoman’s Sunday evening tweet — “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” a reference to $100 bills — drew immediate denunciations from Republicans and fellow Democrats, especially Jewish members of Congress. Within hours, Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the leadership issued a joint statement calling Omar’s “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters” deeply offensive and insisted on an apology.
In response, Omar said her intention was never to offend “my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. . . . This is why I unequivocally apologize.”
The firestorm exposed deep divisions within the Democratic Party over the unquestioned U.S. support of Israel, pitting long-standing Democratic backers of the Jewish state against the party’s newest lawmakers and several 2020 presidential candidates who have spoken out in favor of Palestinian rights.
The episode sparked recriminations inside the party at a moment when Republicans are seeking to use unequivocal support for Israel as a political litmus test. It also comes as Pelosi seeks to keep her caucus united against President Trump and the GOP while hard-left lawmakers try to push the party away from the center on foreign policy, climate change, immigration and other issues.
In a sign of potential clashes, Omar said she would not change her views of the “problematic role of lobbyists in our politics” after the backlash to her tweets. “It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it,” she said.
While some left-wing policies have gotten a sympathetic hearing from Democrats, including many of the party’s 2020 presidential candidates, skepticism toward Israel has proved a much thornier issue. Many Democrats have struggled to reconcile their frustration with the conservative government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one closely allied with Trump and Republicans, with their support for the Jewish homeland.
But for most Democrats on Monday, Omar’s tweets crossed the line by playing into ancient stereotypes about wealthy Jews — forcing action from party leaders who had brushed off earlier accusations of anti-Semitism against Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only two Muslim women in Congress.
“Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share,” Pelosi said in a joint statement with five other House Democratic leaders, adding that Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes was deeply offensive.
Omar wrote that she thinks the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the influential lobbying group, is paying American politicians to take pro-Israel stances.
AIPAC, which is not a political action committee, does not make campaign contributions to politicians, but its individual members can make donations, and the organization spends millions on lobbying efforts for pro-Israel legislation every year.
Moments before the Democratic leaders issued the statement, Pelosi phoned Omar to tell her what it would say, according to a senior Democratic aide not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. Afterward, Pelosi issued a brief statement saying the two “agreed that we must use this moment to move forward as we reject anti-Semitism in all forms.”
About two hours later, Omar issued her apology. The Democratic aide declined to discuss whether Pelosi told Omar to take any particular action.
The furor over anti-Semitism comes at a moment in which Democrats have been riven over matters of race, gender and identity, with many staking out a position of near-zero tolerance for party officials who have been accused of sexual misconduct and racial insensitivity — even decades ago.
Some Jewish groups questioned the kid-glove treatment for Omar and Tlaib as Democrats have issued a flurry of resignation demands for two top state officials in Virginia who admitted to wearing blackface, as well as another who is accused of two sexual assaults.
“Vigilance against anti-Semitism has to be as strong and as solid as the rejection of racism and other forms of discrimination,” said Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. “For those who are going to say we have to be sensitive and uphold diversity, you shouldn’t pick and choose which ethnic and religious groups you’re going to defend against discrimination and which ones you are going to let slide.”
For many Democrats, the notion that they are suddenly on the defensive over anti-Semitism is bewildering, if not infuriating.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last year faced criticism after a tweet accusing Jewish billionaires of trying to “buy” the midterm elections. Republican leaders for years dismissed racially charged statements by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and did not respond after he used a congressional trip last year to meet with members of a far-right Austrian party with historical Nazi ties. Only after King seemed to defend white supremacy last month did they act.
And that, Democrats say, is to say nothing of Trump’s equivocation after the August 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
“If you ask me, if there’s any rhetoric that has to be criticized, it would be that of Donald Trump,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said Friday, before Omar’s latest tweets. “That has emboldened people who now can say out loud any kind of anti-Semitic and racist [remark].”
On Monday, Schakowsky put out a statement repudiating Omar’s tweets — “STOP IT!” she said — while also pointing out McCarthy’s tweet.
Speaking Monday night aboard Air Force One, Trump said Omar “should be ashamed of herself” and that her apology was inadequate.
Asked what she should say, he replied, “She knows what to say.”
It remained to be seen late Monday whether Omar’s apology would quell the furor. A few Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), applauded Pelosi for her public repudiation of anti-Semitism. But other Republicans and some anti-discrimination advocacy groups suggested that the apology might not be enough. McCarthy, in a statement, said the GOP would “take action this week to ensure the House speaks out against this hatred.”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said that Omar should be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a post she sought to defend human rights and advocate on behalf of refugees like herself. Omar fled Somalia in 1991, and she has been vocally critical of Islamic regimes, including Saudi Arabia’s.
The senior Democratic aide said there is no discussion of removing Omar from the panel. And while some Democratic aides discussed holding a House vote on a ceremonial resolution condemning anti-Semitism, there were no plans as of Monday evening to consider one.
Republicans are weighing trying to force the House to consider a resolution by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) rejecting “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred in the United States and around the world.” That resolution, filed before Monday’s uproar, mentions Omar and Tlaib alongside the 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville and last year’s mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Zeldin on Monday commended Pelosi for speaking out but said more needed to be done to admonish Omar. “You can’t just take multiple apologies for multiple acts over the course of time and call it a day,” he said. “This isn’t the NBA, where you get six fouls and then you’re out.”
The anti-Semitism accusations against Omar predate her short political career, which began with a 2016 successful run for a state legislative seat. Before Sunday, her accusers pointed most squarely at a 2012 tweet claiming that “Israel has hypnotized the world” — prompting her to apologize this month. She has also expressed sympathies with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which aims to apply economic pressure to change Israeli policy toward the Palestinian population — a movement that pro-Israel forces say is rooted in anti-Semitism.
Jewish lawmakers in recent weeks have huddled privately to discuss what they should do about their new colleagues, who openly criticize Israel and have made insensitive comments about Jews and Jewish Americans.
But the tweets Sunday night — suggesting that McCarthy supported Israel only for campaign donations — proved the last straw.
Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Elaine Luria (D-Va.) started gathering signatures for a letter asking Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and other senior Democrats to confirm “our rejection of anti-Semitism and our continued support for the State of Israel.”
Although the letter did not name Omar and Tlaib, its intention was clear — citing “recent rhetoric from certain members within our Caucus, including just last night, that has disparaged us and called into question our loyalty to our nation.”
“We must speak out when any member — Democrat or Republican — uses harmful tropes and stereotypes, levels accusations of dual loyalty, or makes reckless statements like those yesterday,” the two wrote. “All members of Congress should reject anti-Semitism, just as we reject all forms of hatred, bigotry, and intolerance, and must denounce those who deny Israel’s right to exist, including terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.”
Meanwhile on Monday, numerous advocacy groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, pressured House Democrats to act against Omar, while some of the most ardent pro-Israel Democratic members of the House condemned the tweets, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.) and Florida Rep. Ted Deutch.
Nadler called the tweets “deeply disappointing and disturbing” and said Omar “appears to traffic in old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money.” Lawmakers can debate the influence of any particular group on policymaking, he said, but they must “be extremely careful not to tread into the waters of anti-Semitism or any other form of prejudice or hate.”