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Is The Latest Ilhan Omar Episode About Anti-Semitism, Or Israel?

On Thursday afternoon the Democratic Party prepared to vote on a resolution that was proposed in a very different spirit. The statement condemns anti-Semitism — and Islamophobia, and bigotry of all kinds.

Draft language of the resolution published by CBS Thursday morning condemns “anti-Semitism as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States and condemn[s] anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities as contrary to the values of the United States.”

Yet it’s a far cry from the party’s original intention: To condemn recent remarks by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar that many labeled as anti-Semitic.

The first resolution was met with backlash from fellow Democrats, including members of the progressive caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus. Democratic leadership had to first postpone the vote, and then broaden the language so that it didn’t name Omar, or focus exclusively on anti-Semitism.

All of which raised the question: Is this only about anti-Semitism, or is it also about how critical Democrats can be of Israel? Some are seeing the current resolution debacle as a sign that the pro-Israel lobby’s influence in Congress is waning — over one party, anyway.

“This is coming from the center of the party to say, no, were not going to do business the old way,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a moderate pro-Israel lobbying group. “We have definitely entered a new era.”

Nearly 70% of Jews are either “very” or “somewhat” emotionally attached to Israel, according to a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center. Israel has for decades enjoyed broad support in the Democratic party: 70% of Jews are either Democratic or lean Democratic, according to Pew.

Omar’s comments, made last week at a bookstore in Washington, D.C., were said by many to echo a classic Jewish canard that Jews have dual loyalty: to their home country on the one hand, and to Israel on the other. The stereotype that Jews are “more loyal” to Israel than their native country is the most common anti-Semitic trope in the world, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar said.

Omar had previously come under criticism for appearing to echo anti-Semitic tropes that Jews control the world and are driven by money. Omar’s supporters have insisted that she did not knowingly invoke those tropes, and Omar has apologized for the separate instances.

After Omar’s words were reported, a debate erupted on social media between Omar and other lawmakers over the meaning of her words.

“I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee,” Omar tweeted in response to a tweet from Rep. Nita Lowey.

Some Jewish lawmakers welcomed the broadening of the bill, while others derided it as an affront to the seriousness of anti-Semitism. In comments to MSNBC on Thursday, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) voiced support for the resolution. She noted that Democrats “have to deal with the kind of diversity in our caucus.”

“I am not trivializing anti-Semitism or the things that [Omar] said,” Schakowsky said. “But I think this is a learning moment for her, and a learning moment for the caucus for how to get along.”

Representative Ted Deutsch, a Democrat of Florida, was one of the sponsors of the original resolution, which focused more narrowly on Omar and anti-Semitism. On Thursday, he railed against the broadening of the resolution.

“Why are we unable to singularly condemn anti-Semitism?” he said. “Anti-Semitism is worthy of being taken seriously on its own… This shouldn’t be so hard.”

But party leaders backed up Omar on Wednesday and Thursday, saying that the resolution was meant to keep her from speaking her mind about American support for Israel.

“What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong,” Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren in a statement Wednesday night.

Proponents of the modified resolution say it’s still mostly about anti-Semitism despite the changes, and Israel isn’t the issue here.

“Anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s not the only kind of intolerance that we should condemn,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Mark Mellman, a pollster and the head of the Democratic Majority for Israel, agreed, noting that Omar’s comments were about general support of Israel, and not specific Israeli policies or politicians.

“She’s trying to obfuscate the issue by saying that it’s about criticizing Israeli policies,” he said.

Jewish Republicans criticized the Democrats for not responding uniquely to charges that Omar’s rhetoric was anti-Semitic.

“Is the response too muted? Yeah, it’s muted because, at this point, they can’t even get a simple resolution on the floor that condemns anti-Semitism,” Norm Coleman, national chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a former Republican senator, told Jewish Insider. “It shouldn’t be that difficult.”

Jewish Democratic voters might feel that the broader resolution signals that Democrats do not care as deeply about anti-Semitism as they should.

“I think there is concern, and understandable concern” among Jewish Democratic voters, said Mellman.

Ben-Ami said that’s unlikely, and that only a minority of the community is “tribal” in that way.

But while the stated impetus of the resolution was anti-Semitic rhetoric, its critics insisted it was a rebuke-by-proxy over the issue Omar was addressing: American political support for Israel. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Kent.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, told the Los Angeles Times. said this week that he had been learning against the anti-Semitism resolution, since to pass it would accede to pro-Israel forces in politics.

“If it’s limited to anti-Semitism then it makes Congresswoman Omar’s point for her, that it would be a move to pacify AIPAC. Because we wouldn’t do that for anybody else,” he said.

Correction, 3/7/19 — A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Hailie Soifer is an aide to Senator Kamala Harris. She is a former aide to Harris.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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