Democrats' Troubling Silence on Omar's Anti-Semitism

Democrats' Troubling Silence on Omar's Anti-Semitism
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Democrats' Troubling Silence on Omar's Anti-Semitism
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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When a member of Congress makes bigoted comments, political leaders have a moral duty to condemn them. A special obligation falls on those who lead the member’s party. They should speak out in blunt, clear language and say why the comments are unacceptable. They need to “name and shame,” and demand a forthright apology. No mealy-mouth press release saying “if anyone is offended ...” If the violation is egregious or repeated, the punishment should be commensurate.

House Democrats now face that test after Rep. Ilhan Omar’s repeated slurs against Jews. So far, they have failed.

Omar represents a Minnesota district heavily populated by fellow Somali immigrants. It has been characterized by illiberal politics and political representatives who defend it. Omar’s predecessor in Congress was Keith Ellison, whose close ties to Louis Farrakhan raised similar questions of anti-Semitism. He, too, escaped condemnation from his party, probably because he made few statements as raw and offensive as Omar’s, and partly because he claimed to have severed ties to Farrakhan.

The Nation of Islam leader, who has repeatedly called Jews “Satanic” and worse, was delighted by Omar’s offensive language and embraced her immediately. As she faced mounting calls to apologize, Farrakhan told her, “Sweetheart, don’t do that. ... You have nothing to apologize for.” We expect that from Farrakhan. From the national Democratic Party, we expect better.

The Republicans have faced their own problems with offensive speech. When President Trump said there were “good people on both sides” at the white-nationalist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Va., Republican leaders joined Democrats in naming and shaming him. When Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) had kind words for white nationalism, Republicans swiftly denounced him, named him in a condemnatory House resolution, and stripped him of all committee assignments. That’s exactly what they should have done. That’s exactly what Democrats should do here.

Omar’s basic claims are that:

--American Jews are not fully loyal to their country because, as she said, they “have allegiance to a foreign country,” and

--The real reason America supports Israel is Jewish money: “It is all about the Benjamins baby,” as Omar tweeted.

In fact, polls show Americans have very positive views toward Israel, ranking it among the 10 countries they most favor, above many longtime allies. Congressional support for strong U.S.-Israeli ties is ultimately grounded in that public approval, and those ties’ strongest proponents include millions of Evangelical Christians.

Omar’s slurs echo centuries of anti-Semitic hatred—hatreds that drove so many to flee Europe for the bright promise of America. Why, then, does today’s Democratic Party have such trouble recognizing these ancient tropes and condemning such noxious language?

Part of the answer lies in Omar’s vocal support from newly elected Democrats on the far left. They represent the party’s energy and much of its base. Among them, support for Israel has slipped markedly; outright antagonism has risen.

This shift is ominous for Israel because it is turning the bilateral relationship into a divisive partisan issue. These differences were painfully apparent in Benjamin Netanyahu’s treatment by successive presidents. President Obama openly quarreled with the Israeli leader. President Trump has warmly embraced him. Bibi’s embrace of Trump in his re-election campaign has deepened the partisan divide in the U.S.

The left’s antipathy to Israel has long been obvious on college campuses. Now, it is being voiced in Congress, and not just by Rep. Omar. She is strongly supported by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and now by the House Democratic whip, James Clyburn of South Carolina. Clyburn, the chamber's highest-ranking African-American, says Omar's experience is "more personal" than Jews whose parents survived the Holocaust. He will not permit any resolution to single her out. Many of their Democratic colleagues have remained silent, refusing to condemn Omar directly.

When Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior leaders spoke to their caucus about this, some members pushed back -- hard. They refused to support any resolution that condemned Omar by name, so that idea was dropped. They didn’t want to condemn anti-Semitism without adding the full panoply of other groups that also face bigotry. Wednesday’s caucus meeting reportedly became so hostile that Pelosi walked out. She must be worried now that her grip on the speaker’s gavel could be endangered. All this over what should be a straightforward issue: condemning a representative’s hate speech against Jews.

Of course, there are good reasons to condemn all types of hate speech, whether it is directed against Muslims, Catholics, Evangelicals, gays, lesbians, or other individuals and groups. But the issue arose now because of Omar’s derogatory comments about Jews. If Congress wants to say “all hate speech is bad,” then draft a separate resolution. Do not water down one that should specifically address Rep. Ilhan Omar and her hateful comments, which allege American Jews have dual loyalties and wield secretive, malign influence, thanks to their wealth.

If Pelosi cannot get her own caucus to support such straightforward language, let her number two, Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) draft it and then permit a floor vote. We also need to hear from each Democratic presidential candidate. Do they support a strong resolution that specifically rejects Omar’s rhetoric?

It is a sad sign for America’s democracy that condemning anti-Semitism and its purveyors could divide a party and jeopardize its congressional leader. But that, alas, is the message Democrats send with their feckless silence over Ilhan Omar.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at

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