Breaking Down Ilhan Omar’s Israel Controversy

Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Rep. Ilhan Omar. Photo: REX/Shutterstock

In what has quickly become the biggest controversy of her short congressional tenure, Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar has faced relentless outcry from Democrats and Republicans alike for criticizing pro-Israel lobbyists’ influence in American politics. While many across the moderate political spectrum have accused Omar of being anti-Semitic, pro-Palestinian and leftist activists and groups have argued that Omar’s criticism of Israel has been unjustly conflated with anti-Semitism. On Tuesday afternoon, the backlash culminated in a call to resign from the president himself.

Below, here’s everything to know about the controversy surrounding the progressive freshman congresswoman.

How did the controversy begin?

It all started on Twitter, when Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted that Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had threatened to take action against Omar and Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib — the first two Muslim-American women to serve in Congress — for criticizing Israel. Omar responded by quoting the tweet and writing, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”

But the conversation didn’t turn into a full-blown controversy until Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon jumped in; in response to Omar’s tweet, she condemned the congresswoman for tweeting an “anti-Semitic trope” about Jewish people and money, and called on Omar to name who’s “paying American politicians to be pro-Israel.” Omar responded, “AIPAC!,” which stands for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

And then, in what would become the last tweet in the conversation, Ungar-Sargon responded, “Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way. Sincerely, American Jews.”

Quickly: What is the U.S.’s relationship to AIPAC?

As Noah Kulwin writes in Jewish Currents, AIPAC is “widely seen as the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group.” While AIPAC insists it is nonpartisan, its agenda has increasingly come to align with the GOP’s: In December 2017, AIPAC commended Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and also praised Trump in November 2018 for “[reimposing] the remainder of U.S. sanctions on Iran lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal.”

Though AIPAC does not give money directly to politicians, it organizes fundraisers and other similar events for candidates through unofficial groups outside of the official AIPAC umbrella. But that’s not all. For example, Sludge reports that if an AIPAC member wants exclusive benefits, they must give money to specific congress member’s campaigns.

How have people responded to Omar’s tweets?

Over the past two days, Omar has faced widespread criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, who have called on her to apologize for her remarks.

Even the House Democratic leaders called on Omar to apologize over her “use of anti-Semitic tropes” in a statement released Monday afternoon.

The backlash to Omar’s remarks was relatively predictable. While the U.S. has treated Israel as an ally since its founding, in recent decades, it has become more reflexively deferential to Israel. Therefore, rising progressives like Omar and Tlaib, who have unabashedly condemned the Israeli government’s human-rights abuses against Palestinians, have pushed Democrats to reconsider their stance.

Has Omar responded to the criticism?

On Monday afternoon, after talking to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Omar issued an apology on Twitter.

“Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” Omar tweeted. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”

She did not, however, walk back on her criticism of lobbyists in her tweet, writing, “I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”

“It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it,” her tweet concluded.

How did that go over?

Many of Omar’s defenders were upset that the congresswoman had to apologize for her remarks; still, the response to her apology was overwhelmingly positive.

Has Trump weighed in?

On Tuesday afternoon, one day after he called Omar’s apology “lame,” Trump told reporters in a Cabinet meeting that “anti-Semitism has no place in the United States Congress,” and that Omar should thus either resign from Congress or the Foreign Affairs Committee — a stance that vice-president Pence later echoed.

This, in turn, ignited outrage over Trump’s hypocrisy toward anti-Semitism. Some pointed to Trump’s refusal to condemn Iowa representative Steve King, who has a long history of making blatantly racist remarks; others argued that Omar wouldn’t have been the target of this much coordinated outrage were she not a black Muslim woman.

On Tuesday evening, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal formally denounced Trump’s call for Omar to resign in a statement, calling his effort a “cynical” attempt to “intimidate diverse voices.”

“President Trump’s remarks calling for Representative Ilhan Omar’s resignation are disgraceful and, unfortunately, unsurprising,” their statement reads. “As a candidate and now as president, Donald Trump has consistently and unapologetically trafficked in white nationalism, Islamophobia, sexism, and racism. Let us not forget that this president referred to violent neo-Nazis as ‘very fine people.’”

And on Wednesday afternoon, Omar finally responded in a tweet to Trump.

“You have trafficked in hate your whole life — against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, immigrants, black people and more,” she wrote. “I learned from people impacted by my words. When will you?”

Everything to Know About Ilhan Omar’s Israel Controversy