Ilhan Omar widely criticised over AIPAC comments as Jewish House Democrats seek to condemn their colleague

Freshman Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar is facing backlash for suggesting GOP support for Israel is driven by campaign donations.

Rep. Ilhan Omar. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

By Sohaila Barghash

On Sunday night Omar suggested through her tweet that Republicans support Israel as a result of donations from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a prominent pro-Israel group.

Two Jewish House Democrats, angered by what they called “anti-Semitic comments” from their Muslim colleagues, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi to denounce such comments and take action to prevent it in the future.

As Omar replied to a tweet by journalist Glenn Greenwald that reads, “GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.”

She responded by saying “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” referring to AIPEC.

Omar has openly criticised the Israeli government for its oppressive treatment of Palestinians and announced her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), a non-violent activist campaign that aims to pressure Israel economically and politically over its actions toward Palestinians, including calling for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

On Friday, before the tweets were posted, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy condemned recent comments by Omar and other freshman Democrats who have criticised the Israeli government for mistreating Palestinians.

McCarthy urged Democratic leaders to take action, and said that if they don’t, he may act on his own. He suggested their positions taken by Muslim Congresswoman on Israel were worse than the recent remarks from Steve King of Iowa that were denounced as racist.

Women’s March organizer Sophie Ellman-Golan, suggested that McCarthy has also been accused of anti-Semitism for sharing conspiracy theories on Twitter about Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

She wrote: “From scapegoating Jews to win an election to scapegoating Jews to attack his Muslim colleagues, [McCarthy] sure loves to invoke the Jewish community to further his right-wing objectives”.

New York Democratic Rep. Max Rose tweeted: “When someone uses hateful and offensive tropes and words against people of any faith, I will not be silent. Congresswoman Omar’s statements are deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself.

Implying that Americans support Israel because of money alone is offensive enough. But to go a step further, and retweet someone declaring their pain at her sentiment is simply unacceptable.”

Adding: “At a time when anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise, our leaders should not be invoking hurtful stereotypes and caricatures of Jewish people to dismiss those who support Israel”.

As many Republicans and Democrats criticised Omar’s statement, others have defended her and Tlaib, claiming their positions are being “twisted” into anti-Semitism when in fact, their condemnation is confined to the Israeli government, not Jews in general.

Ashley Feinberg, a HuffPost reporter tweeted that “Accurately describing how the Israel lobby works is not anti-Semitism”.

Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee also said have he seen Omar’s comments, he wouldn’t agree with them, yet wouldn’t “take it as anti-Semitism” and that he doesn’t “believe she would harbor those sorts of views as they’ve been characterized.”

He added: “I would say that she probably objects to the fact that when it comes to issues around foreign policy or comes to issues, specifically to Israel, there are a lot of interests, a lot of folks who make campaign contributions based on a person’s position on Israel… I think we ought to be careful not to construe that in anything other than a concern about the fact that money has undue influence on political decision making.”

Rep. Jim Himes also defended Omar saying: “this is really a good example of the need for all of us to be very, very specific about what it is we are saying so that we don’t come off as being anti-Semitic, as being racist, as being bigoted… It’s perfectly legitimate to criticize Israel or to criticize the pro-Israeli lobby, just please be careful to do it in a way that can’t be interpreted as being anti-Semitic.”

Omar told CNN on Tuesday that “It is really important for us to get a different lens about what peace in that region could look like and the kind of difficult conversations we need to have about allies”.

AIPAC is not a political action committee, and so it does not make campaign contributions to politicians, however, individual members of the organization can make donations, spending millions on lobbying pro-Israel legislation every year.

For instance, according to lobbying disclosure filings conducted by the Senate’s Office of Public Records, in 2018, AIPAC spent more than $3.5 million lobbying for pro-Israel measures.

Those legislations are either in the form of financial support for Israel and or encouraging measures that would ban boycotts of Israel, including the BDS movement that Omar and Tlaib support.

Along with a small group of lawmakers, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are challenging the US’s traditional support for Israel’s policies.

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