Representative Ilhan Omar has a lot of opinions about Israel and the Americans who support it. Where most members of Congress see a longstanding alliance, Omar sees a conspiracy.
It’s odd. Here is a Somali-American refugee success story, a woman who embodies the American ideal of citizenship not based on race, creed or religion. And yet, in barely two months in office, the Minnesota Democrat has repeatedly questioned the loyalty of Zionists.
Historically this kind of thing has been associated with the ugly nativist strain of American politics. David Duke famously called the federal government the ZOG, for Zionist-Occupied Government. A similar note was sounded by Pat Buchanan, who once called Congress Israel’s “amen corner.” More recently one finds this sentiment on the left: A few years back, the Center for American Progress parted ways with a few bloggers after they used the term “Israel Firster” to describe pro-Israel members of Congress.
The latest example of Omar’s self-appointed policing of the national interest came over the weekend. In response to a tweet from Representative Nita Lowey of New York, Omar explained that she “should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress.” The implication was that supporters of Israel in Congress were more loyal to the Jewish state than to America. The tweet followed an appearance at a Washington bookstore where she said she just wanted to talk about the influence of Israel on Congress without being called anti-Semitic. That followed a tweet she sent last month suggesting that congressional support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins.”
Sensing a pattern? Omar has already had to apologize twice for her comments about Israel and its lobby. She didn’t know, she said, that saying Israel had hypnotized the world into accepting its war crimes might be offensive to Jews. She didn’t understand, she explained, how vile it is to say that members of Congress vote in favor of Israel because they are paid off. She says she opposes anti-Semitism but will not be silenced when it comes to the Jewish state’s pernicious efforts to shape U.S. foreign policy.
At this point, Omar’s musings should no longer be a surprise. What is surprising is that many Democrats are still demanding an apology. Why do they think a third apology will make a difference?
It won’t. Omar is speaking for a constituency of American progressives who agree with her that Israel and its supporters have warped U.S. foreign policy. At the 2017 convention of the Democratic Socialists of America, delegates chanted: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” after passing a resolution to support the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel. Or consider some of the ugly sentiments expressed by the original organizers of the 2017 Women’s March. Too often, being progressive is synonymous with support for the negation of Israel.
In an era that rewards politicians for taboo-busting controversy, Omar’s pandering is understandable. In this sense, it’s not that different from the kind of venom spewed by President Donald Trump when it comes to immigrants, Latinos and Muslims. Like Mr. Trump, Omar claims she is a victim when she faces criticism, and that her words were willfully misunderstood.
It’s also true that criticism of the pro-Israel lobby is not in and of itself anti-Semitic. But it’s important to remember that this lobby is comprised of American citizens exercising their right to petition Congress. They are no more or less American than a member of Congress from Minneapolis.
Politically speaking, Omar’s main challenge is to her fellow Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sought to promote her as an example of a party that represents America in all its diversity… At the same time, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have denounced Omar’s comments, and House members [were considering voting on a] new resolution to condemn anti-Semitism. It’s unclear whether that resolution will denounce Omar by name, or whether Democrats will strip her of her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as Republicans did when Representative Steve King’s white nationalism finally caught up with him.
This much, however, is clear: Democrats have to do more than demand another apology. If the party wants to make a credible case against a nativist president, it cannot look the other way at the nativism of its own members.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.