US anti-semitism debate exposes rifts as Dems hold ‘hate’ vote

Ilhan Omar, one of the first female Muslim members of the US Congress, is at the centre of an acrimonious debate about how to address criticism of Israel. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: As a Muslim American congresswoman’s controversial remarks about Israel policy exposed deep fault lines among Democrats, the party aimed Thursday to mop up the mess by voting on a measure condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hate.

After days of soul-searching and febrile recrimination, the Democratic leadership unveiled a House resolution that Speaker Nancy Pelosi said declared the “strongest possible opposition” to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, white supremacy and other bigotry.

The resolution was set for a Thursday afternoon vote.

The decision follows the acrimonious debate over how to reprimand Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar, who sparked a firestorm over repeated criticisms of Israel and a powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington that exerts influence in US politics.

Omar, a former Somali refugee, was assailed by Democrats and Republicans alike for suggesting that supporters of Israel are urging lawmakers to have “allegiance to a foreign country.”

Lawmakers expressed outrage, warning that Omar — the only woman in Congress to wear a Muslim headscarf — was peddling in age-old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews having dual loyalties.

Weeks earlier she drew ire for suggesting Jewish political power comes through their money, and that the Washington lobbying group AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was paying US politicians to support Israel.

The backlash has largely overshadowed what Democrats hoped would be a show of unity and positivity in the opening months of their control of the House.

Hateful expressions

A vote had been expected on a resolution specifically condemning anti-Semitism.

But on Wednesday in a closed-door meeting, some Democrats pushed to include language decrying Islamophobia and other bigotry.

Ultimately it condemns anti-Semitism and discrimination against Muslims and other minorities as “hateful expressions of intolerance” that are contradictory to US values.

The resolution does not mention Omar by name, but some Democrats expressed anger that she could be facing an implicit rebuke, while racist statements by Trump and other Republicans go largely unchallenged.

Three contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination, Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, voiced their disapproval.

“We must not… equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing Netanyahu government in Israel,” said Sanders, who is Jewish.

Pelosi walked a fine line in announcing the resolution, declining to condemn Omar outright.

“I feel confident that her words were not based on any anti-Semitic attitude, but that she didn’t have a full appreciation of how they landed on other people,” the speaker said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel nevertheless slammed Omar for perpetuating “ugly” stereotypes about Jews, saying her dual loyalty charge is anti-Semitic, not anti-Israel.

“She is casting Jewish Americans as the other, suggesting a dual loyalty that calls our devotion to America into question,” he said.

The expansion of the resolution to broadly address hate did not sit well with some lawmakers.

Loyal Americans

“When one of our colleagues invokes the classic … anti-Semitic language that Jews control the world, that Jews care only about money, that Jews cannot be loyal Americans if they also support Israel, this too must be condemned,” Democrat Ted Deutch said in a passionate floor speech.

He also defied anyone to suggest “that Jews like me, who serve in the United States Congress — and whose father earned a Purple Heart fighting the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge — that we are not loyal Americans.”

Trump himself weighed in a day earlier, tweeting it was “shameful” that Democrats wouldn’t take a stronger stand against anti-Semitism.

The other Muslim woman in Congress besides Omar, Rashida Tlaib, clapped back angrily at Trump and pointed to his equivocal remarks after a deadly neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville in 2017.

The Jewish group J Street, a liberal counterweight to the more conservative AIPAC, said it was “dismayed” by some of the disturbing rhetoric used by lawmakers.

But “it is also our view that the far greater threat to the Jewish community — to its security and its values — comes from the surge of ethno-nationalism and racism that forces on the right, including President Trump, have unleashed,” the group said.