The Lessons of Ilhan Omar

Ilhan Omar is very talented. Her improbable life story—she’s a Somali-American refugee who became one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress—demonstrates her intelligence, charisma, and tenacity. But there’s one thing with which she clearly has trouble: talking about Israel.

On Sunday, the Minnesota legislator suggested that American officials supported Israel because they were beholden to wealthy Jewish donors via the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” she tweeted. When a journalist asked who was paying politicians to back Israel, she responded: “Aipac!”

It’s not clear how conscious Omar was of the implications of her language. There’s a long history of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories purporting that a minority of Jews use their financial prowess to exert undue influence on government policies. A predictable backlash ensued. The Anti-Defamation League, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and scores of other Democrats castigated Omar’s comments. By Monday afternoon, she apologized.

The lesson for Omar is quite simple. She shouldn’t talk about Israel off the cuff, and certainly not on Twitter. It’s a complicated country, mired in a difficult conflict that tends to provoke emotional reactions on all sides. There are countless rhetorical landmines that are easy to step on. Yes, AIPAC and wealthy Israel-hawk donors like Sheldon Adelson have outsized power in Washington. Yes, it’s legitimate, indeed necessary, to criticize their influence. But there are ways to do that without evoking nasty tropes and stereotypes.

As one of the most prominent new members of Congress (she has 538,000 Twitter followers), Omar has an opportunity that few ever get. Instead of spending her first few weeks on Capitol Hill pushing a progressive agenda, she’s had to defend herself from accusations of anti-Semitism. Before the latest blow-up, she had already had to address a 2014 tweet saying that Israel “hypnotized the world.” What a waste of precious time when you have a real chance to help shape the trajectory of your party’s politics.

Democrats, meanwhile, should realize that the Republican response to this controversy is a bad-faith salvo to divide Democrats—and it won’t be the last. New York Representative Lee Zeldin is now trying to pressure Pelosi to take away Omar’s committee assignments, including on the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that she should resign from Congress.

By and large, the Democratic Party is fairly unified heading into 2020. Perhaps that’s why Republicans pushed, as their very first bill in the 116th Congress, legislation that would criminalize participation in political boycotts of Israel. The legislation is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, J Street, and MoveOn because it suppresses speech rights. But the bill is supported by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other centrist Democrats like Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin. S.1, as the measure is known, has no chance of passing the House. The reason the GOP forced a vote on it was clear. They wanted to generate and expose internal divisions within the Democratic caucus.

Omar, one of only two members of Congress to support the BDS movement, has now given Republicans a gift. Not only can they take advantage of her tweets to distract from their chaotic president. They can use them to try and drive a wedge between Democrats.

It’s far from clear that this will succeed. All but one of the Senate Democrats running or considering running for president—Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar—voted against the anti-BDS Senate bill. Most of the Democratic senators took the easy position that they oppose BDS but won’t advance a measure that infringes on First Amendment protections. Even if Democratic candidates do debate Israel in 2020, these disagreements will pale in comparison to the attention the party pays to major domestic issues.

But that won’t stop the GOP from laying tripwires. While it’s hard to imagine that Israel will be the issue Democrats care most about in 2020, the party should recognize that Republicans would like it to be.

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is the digital editor of the Washington Monthly.