Twelve House Democrats sparked a potentially costly intraparty feud on Wednesday by publicly criticizing their colleague Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a longtime target of the right, in a statement that amplified Republican talking points about the Democratic Party and misrepresented Omar’s views.
During a Monday hearing, Omar asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken where he believes victims of human rights abuses worldwide can pursue justice given the Biden administration’s opposition to the International Criminal Court and the failure of national courts to investigate alleged war crimes. She specifically cited two contexts in which she said both U.S. partners and their opponents should be investigated: the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the war in Afghanistan.
“We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,” Omar later tweeted, condemning atrocities by militant groups ― Hamas and the Taliban ― as well as by Washington and the U.S.-backed Israeli and Afghan governments.
That logic guides most international human rights groups ― and, to some degree, the United States’ own government, which under both Democratic and Republican presidents has acknowledged that American forces and their allies have violated rights standards.
In their Wednesday night statement, Reps. Brad Schneider (Ill.), Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), Ted Deutch (Fla.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Elaine Luria (Va.) and six colleagues claimed that Omar’s comment could “give cover to terrorist groups.”
“Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice,” they wrote ― a nod to the years-long GOP effort to portray Omar as an anti-Semite. The group asked Omar for a clarification.
Their criticism elevated the latest right-wing assault on Omar, a Black Muslim American and former refugee who former President Donald Trump and other Republicans have called un-American. Omar’s fellow Democrats stopped short of mentioning her identity, but singling her out only bolsters Republican efforts to demonize her and their entire party.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her five-person leadership team eventually issued a rare joint statement of their own about Omar, warning against drawing “false equivalencies.”
On Thursday morning, Omar’s office told reporters she had reached out to her fellow lawmakers before they issued their statement and they did not return her calls.
“The far right is ginning up hate against Rep. Omar for a technical question about an ongoing investigation. This has already led to an increase in death threats against her and our staff. And now some of her own Democratic colleagues are ginning up the same Islamophobic hate against her,” Omar aide Jeremy Slevin said.
Slevin’s comment highlighted a critical part of the kerfuffle: its origins in conservative commentary.
Before Democrats weighed in, far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) tweeted on Tuesday that Omar was “an honorary member of Hamas” and a “terrorist sympathizer.” (Boebert is sympathetic to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which researchers say is closely linked to anti-Semitism.)
Former Trump campaign aide Jason Meister and disgraced one-time New York Times reporter Judy Miller blasted Omar in a Fox News segment the same day. “Hatred for America and hatred for Israel has really become mainstream in today’s Democratic Party,” Meister claimed.
As with past Republican-led attempts to use Omar to create division among their opponents, the narrative gained steam once a prominent Democrat, Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.), weighed in on Wednesday. “It’s not news that Ilhan Omar would make outrageous and clearly false statements about America and Israel,” Sherman said of his colleague.
Now major GOP figures see an opportunity to force a Democratic civil war.
Citing the Wednesday statement from House Democrats, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said the congresswoman should be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) broadened the offensive on Thursday, claiming that if Pelosi did not “act” against Omar, it would show that “Democrats are tolerant of anti-Semitism and sympathizing with terrorists.” Taking the bait, Pelosi and her deputies issued their statement less than three hours later.
Because of Democrats’ slim majority in the House of Representatives, only a handful would have to vote with Republicans for the chamber to vote to rebuke Omar ― a move GOP leadership is planning for, according to Punchbowl News.
The spiraling controversy has largely ignored two critical points of context.
Probing America’s responsibility for human rights violations ― and accepting its mistakes ― is something lawmakers do regularly as they oversee public officials and the use of taxpayer funds.
Nadler, one of the signatories of the statement targeting Omar, has publicly said, “America committed horrific abuses during the ‘War on Terror,’” and proposed reforms to bar future excesses. And as Omar noted this week in responding to critics on Twitter, former President Donald Trump repeatedly responded to questions about Russia’s rights record by noting where the U.S. had misstepped.
Secondly, the allegations against Omar are inseparable from racist assumptions about her, just as past attempts to cast her as a determined anti-Semite were inseparable from Trump’s comment that she should “go back” to Somalia, the country Omar was forced to flee as a child.
Muslim Americans like Omar consistently face claims that they are un-American or otherwise suspect for making statements similar to those of non-Muslims ― in this case, noting the commonly accepted fact that it is not just enemies of the U.S. that violate human rights.
The danger that puts them in is intense because Islamophobic actions, statements and policies are so common in much of the world, from Trump’s Muslim ban to violence against Muslims like the recent attack in Canada ― creating a general atmosphere of impunity for violence inspired by Islamophobia. For people who hold other marginalized identities like Omar, the risk is even greater.
Lawmakers “have no concept for the danger they put [Omar] in by skipping private conversations & leaping to fueling targeted news cycles around her,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted on Thursday, saying Democrats had engaged in “vilification” and “intentional mischaracterization” of Omar.
Some Democrats want party leaders to see the pattern, check their own possible biases and resist the GOP’s trap.
Thirteen Jewish House Democrats were at a Wednesday meeting where Omar’s comments were discussed, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, but did not sign the statement sent afterward from some of their colleagues.
Omar gave her colleagues the clarification they said they wanted in a second Thursday statement.
“The conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding those [International Criminal Court] cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel,” Omar said. “I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems.”
Pelosi and her team said they “welcome the clarification.” But the party has already helped Republicans make significant headway in engineering a scandal ― and shown it still lacks a new and more effective response to an old GOP game.
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