Why outrage over Ilhan Omar's Israel comments is in bad faith

Mar 13, 2019 at 1:00 am
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. Phil Pasquini / Shutterstock.com

If ever a story was situated perfectly at the intersection of 2020 politics and the perpetual outrage machine of cable news, this was it. Naturally, it sucked up all of the media's oxygen, fueling a fire stoked on allegations of anti-Semitism and doused with gasoline by a racist president desperate to show that the other guys are the real racists.

I refer, of course, to the saga surrounding U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, a Somali immigrant and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Omar is an avowed critic of the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians, and an equally avowed critic of the notion that criticizing that government is inherently anti-Semitic. But in doing so — and particularly while focusing on pro-Israeli money in American politics — she's said ill-advised things that echoed anti-Semitic tropes and vile stereotypes, intentionally or not. Most recent was her suggestion that American supporters of Israel are pushing for "allegiance to a foreign country."

If you're inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, this dual-loyalty smear could be seen as more thoughtless than insidious when read in context. But most politicians — Republicans and many Democrats — weren't willing to do that.

Omar was at a Q&A on Feb. 27, riffing on why she drew such condemnation for criticizing pro-Israeli groups but not when she bashed the NRA or Big Pharma. This followed widespread denunciations for a tweet in which she said that lawmakers' support for Israel was "all about the Benjamins, baby" — which prompted a 424–0 vote last month for a Republican House resolution condemning anti-Semitism. She didn't help matters when she later tweeted at a Democratic colleague that she "should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress."

No sooner had Omar uttered her dual-allegiance remarks than Republicans — who for decades welcomed white supremacist Steve King into their ranks before finally rebuking him — demanded that Democrats denounce her, including Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who took a Holocaust denier to the State of the Union, and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who falsely accused George Soros of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Scalise, who once boasted that he was like Ku Klux Klan leader "David Duke without the baggage," suggested she be denied access to intelligence briefings.

It's possible some of this outrage isn't entirely in good faith.

There were, however, a number of House Dems genuinely unnerved by Omar's comments, and Democratic leaders wanted to put the mess behind them. So they began crafting a second resolution to condemn anti-Semitism. But they were met with a backlash from the young progressives now animating the party's base, who argued that Omar was being unfairly targeted. The media found a shopworn Dems-in-disarray narrative, and Republicans saw an opportunity to paint their opponents as unwilling to call out bigotry.

As she always does, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi found a way out, a compromise resolution denouncing all "expressions of hateful intolerance" along with white supremacy, anti-Semitism, dual-loyalty slanders, and Islamophobia — including bigotry against "African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and other people of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and others."

It passed 407–23, with Democrats (including Omar) in favor and only Republicans (including Gohmert) opposed. (Steve King voted "present.") The Democrats moved on the HR 1, a sweeping election-reform and anti-corruption bill designed to make it easier for people to vote and to require dark money groups to be transparent about their campaign spending. (Or, as Senate leader Mitch McConnell calls it, a "power grab.") Republicans, though, have remained fixated on Ilhan Omar.

On Sunday, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming accused Democrats of "enabling anti-Semitism," which is quite the thing to say, considering her party has two Jewish members of Congress and Democrats have 34, including quasi-Dem Bernie Sanders, who, incidentally, is a leading candidate for the party's presidential nomination.

As is his wont, President Donald Trump cranked the rhetoric to 11. At a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser Friday night, Trump told donors, "The Democrats hate Jewish people." The day before, he called Democrats the "anti-Jewish party." This is an actual talking point, apparently.

Trump isn't the GOP's best messenger here, of course. He's the same man who said the neo-Nazis marching on Charlottesville in 2017 contained "some very fine people," who told the Jewish Republican Coalition in 2015, "You're not going to support me because I don't want your money," and whose Department of Health and Human Services just granted a waiver allowing South Carolina's foster care program to discriminate against Jewish (and LGBTQ) families.

But, as with all things Trump, intellectual congruity isn't the point. The point — and what Trump does so well — is an endless barrage of bullshit and distraction, such that it's impossible to separate the meaningful from the inane, such that Trump's myriad scandals and screw-ups can be countered with dismissive whataboutism.

When Omar's comments surfaced, Trump was coming off another godawful week, with the bungled North Korea summit, Michael Cohen's damning testimony, and the looming Senate rebuke of his fake border emergency. They proved useful. The president won't want to move on. He wants to keep Omar in the news, to make her an avatar of run-amok leftism and a creeping Islamist threat so as to rile and enrage his base, in the same way Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez symbolizes the coming socialist nightmare.

This is how he plays the game. It's dirty pool, sure. But it's effective.

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