Ilhan Omar’s Fiery Rhetoric: Rookie Mistake or Unredeemable?

Representative Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., attends a press conference in the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C.

Source Mandel Ngan/Getty

Why you should care

This freshman U.S. representative is targeting the status quo in Washington, but her fast words risk alienating her base.

Update: On March 7, 2019, the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, in an implicit rebuke to Omar after she had said pro-Israel activists were pushing “for allegiance to a foreign country.” 

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Ilhan Omar caught the politics bug early. At age 14, just months after moving to Minnesota from her native Somalia, she’d already learned English and began accompanying her grandfather to caucuses as his translator. Omar, a refugee, had grown up hearing about the importance of democracy, and she quickly embraced the American ideals. She gained U.S. citizenship by age 17 and last November became the first woman of color to serve as a U.S. representative from Minnesota, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, alongside Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

That same jump-in-head-first attitude that’s helped the 38-year-old political rookie break barriers has also gotten her entangled in heated political fights, most recently stemming from allegations of anti-Semitism based on fiery Twitter exchanges.

In January, Rep. Kevin McCarthy stripped fellow Republican Rep. Steve King of his committee assignments owing to racist remarks that King made in The New York Times about white nationalism. On Friday, McCarthy challenged Democrats to make similar moves against Omar and Tlaib, drawing an equivalence between their actions and those of King. Both congresswomen have criticized Israel and support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that pressures Israel to withdraw from West Bank settlements.

This move prompted a tweet from journalist Glenn Greenwald questioning the comparison, to which Omar replied that McCarthy’s approach was “all about the Benjamins, baby” — in other words, driven by money. When Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor at Jewish newspaper The Forward, questioned who Omar thinks is “paying American politicians to be pro-Israel” and criticized her “second anti-Semitic trope,” Omar fired back with “AIPAC!” She was referencing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

Omar’s response hit a nerve, alluding as it did to the centuries-old stereotype that Jewish moneymen secretly control governments from behind the scenes. Plus, this wasn’t Omar’s first run-in with anti-Semitic rhetoric on Twitter. In 2012 she wrote, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evildoings of Israel.” Omar said she was discussing the Israeli regime within the context of the Gaza War. In a New York Times op-ed response after the comment resurfaced this year, Bari Weiss wrote, “The conspiracy theory of the Jew as the hypnotic conspirator, the duplicitous manipulator, the sinister puppeteer is one with ancient roots and a bloody history.” 

 

In both instances, Omar has apologized. But this time politicians on both the left and the right criticized her language. “Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic leadership team wrote in a statement. “But Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive.” Connecticut Democratic Rep. Jim Himes highlighted the need to use specific language to ensure that legitimate policy critiques don’t come across as bigoted — a point especially salient as anti-Semitic incidents in America rose by 60 percent in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Others welcomed Omar’s apology, saying right-wing forces level accusations of anti-Semitism to divide the progressive movement. “We know that many of the attacks against her are designed to discredit a new generation of political leaders who are opposed to the Netanyahu government’s racist policies,” wrote IfNotNow, an American Jewish activist group that opposes the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Omar’s misstep comes as the Democratic freshman class has burst onto the political scene with no intention of waiting their turn. They’ve been more than comfortable sparking attention: Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal has been adopted by several 2020 presidential hopefuls, while Tlaib infamously declared of President Donald Trump, “We’re going to go in and impeach the motherf*****.”

The record-breaking number of women in Congress are bringing fresh energy and making waves, whether that means wearing suffragist white at the State of the Union or simply showing America what new faces can look like in the halls of the Capitol. But energy doesn’t necessarily equal effectiveness. A fight broke out over the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution, with Ocasio-Cortez’s office releasing a fact sheet that included a reference to getting rid of “farting cows and airplanes,” which was deleted from her website — but not before sparking a media deluge. And while Omar has at least proved willing to apologize, this stumble has stirred Democratic division over the already contentious topic of Israel.

What’s more, these unforced errors risk alienating those rooting for progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and Omar. They’re moving fast and breaking things in a bid to disrupt the status quo — to rethink how government can work. But breaking things can cause lasting political damage. 

Pelosi may face additional pressure to remove Omar from the Foreign Relations Committee, says KC Johnson, a professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York, who formerly taught at Tel-Aviv University. At the same time, he notes how Omar has a “bright, compelling personal story” — and punishing her could also come at a political cost for a party energized about diversity and new leadership in opposition to Trump.

Omar as a trailblazer embodies much of what excited young progressives in the 2018 election. No doubt, a first-time trek through Washington’s uncharted woods involves some stumbles — but it’s worth considering the value of slowing down.

Nick Fouriezos contributed to this report.

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