Lessons from Ilhan Omar’s Removal from the Foreign Affairs Committee

By | Feb 06, 2023

Jewish politics and power

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1. Ousting Ilhan Omar

Last Thursday, as expected, the House of Representatives voted along party lines to approve the removal of Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Omar, one of two Muslim women in Congress and the only African-born American and former refugee serving in the House, is known for her critical views on Israel and has made several comments on social media that were antisemitic in nature and that drew sharp rebukes from the Jewish community, as well as from her Democratic colleagues.

Her ouster was, first and foremost, a pretty basic political act of revenge.

The Democrats, when they were in power, kicked Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona off committees, and now that Republicans control the House, their first order of business was to do the same to a Democrat. Democrats understood this calculation and were well aware of the fact that there was little they could  do to stop House Speaker Kevin McCarthy from going ahead with the move—they didn’t have the votes, nor did they have the moral ground to argue against using committee assignments as a political punishment, since they’ve done so themselves.

The move opened the door to many claims and concerns: Was Omar targeted because she is a Black woman? (Probably not, since McCarthy also took similar actions against Democratic Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both from California.) Is the Foreign Affairs Committee better off without an authentic voice of an African-born refugee? And on the broader level: Are mutual exclusions of members now an accepted tool in partisan congressional wars? (Yes, of course they are.)

For Jewish Americans, the move brings to surface another set of issues, all relating to that gray area between criticism of Israel and antisemitism.

There’s little doubt that Omar has been a leading voice in the small anti-Israel camp in Congress (though, for the sake of fairness, it should be noted that Omar has been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with pro-Israel Democrat Josh Gottheimer and that just this past week she co-sponsored a congressional resolution “Recognizing Israel as America’s Legitimate and Democratic Ally and Condemning Antisemitism.”)

Is she antisemitic? This is even murkier. In the past she made outrageously anti-Jewish comments, tweeting, in 2012, about how Israel “hypnotized the world,” and getting into a Twitter battle in 2019 in which she claimed that support for Israel in Congress was “all about the Benjamins baby.” She then doubled down and pointed to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC as paying politicians for their support. Omar apologized for her comments while insisting that the U.S. policy toward Israel is biased.

So where does the recent vote in Congress on ousting Omar from the committee fit in? One could claim that Democrats, who all voted against her removal, and Republicans, all but one of whom supported the move, hold different definitions of antisemitism. But that’s simply not true. Congressional Democrats, just like Republicans, tend to use the broadest possible definition of antisemitism and to bundle some forms of anti-Israel views and comments as being expressions of antisemitism, just as Republicans do. When Omar made her offensive “Benjamins” comments, all Democrats voted in favor of a resolution condemning antisemitism (though the resolution did not mention her by name).

The vote last Thursday was further proof that the question isn’t where to draw the line between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. It’s all about politics. And when a political opportunity comes up, each party will use it to gain a point or two. This time it was McCarthy and his team’s chance to score. Next time it might be the Dems. Ousting Omar helped AIPAC and mainstream pro-Israel activists, which is perfectly fine, and it also helped Republicans. But it did nothing to advance the cause of fighting antisemitism in America, or of clarifying the boundaries of legitimate criticism of Israel.

2. Communal Leaders’ Letter on Israel

The growing willingness of American Jews to express their displeasure with policies of the new Israeli government is undeniable.

Over the weekend, protesters, both American Jews and Israeli expats, gathered in several U.S. cities in solidarity with the tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets of Tel Aviv every Saturday night in hopes of blocking the government’s attempt to weaken Israel’s judicial system.

Last week, 169 prominent American Jewish leaders signed a letter expressing a similar sentiment and warning U.S. lawmakers that “it is profoundly irresponsible to conflate charges of antisemitism with criticism of Israeli policies,” a step made necessary by the fact that in many cases this criticism, even when coming from Jews, is dismissed as antisemitic.

This letter and the protests come on the heels of calls already made by Reform and Conservative rabbis and of statements by individual leaders in the Jewish community, all expressing their concern over the future of Israeli democracy, if the reforms proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers become law.

Do these actions make any difference?

The short answer is No. Not many Israelis care about what prominent Jewish American leaders think about them. These letters, comments and protests don’t move votes in Israel and don’t impact Netanyahu’s base of support.

But they do have an aggregative power. The new government is now facing pressure not only from protesters in the streets but also from the business community, which fears that the Israeli economy and credit rating will take a hit. Former generals and security officials are worried about the impact of the erosion of democracy on Israel’s security, and Western foreign governments fear that Israel is slipping away from their shared democratic values. The pressure coming from Jewish Americans (and clearly not from the entire community or even from a majority of Jewish Americans) will not, on its own, make a difference, but it does add to a growing call—in Israel and abroad— demanding that Netanyahu reconsider his proposed judicial reforms.

3. Blinken’s not-so-subtle hints 

And, perhaps more important, it gives the U.S. administration a certain sense of backing when it confronts Israel on these issues.

Which is basically what Secretary of State Antony Blinken did last week during his meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Sticking to carefully chosen diplomatic phrases, Blinken stressed the need for maintaining Israel’s “core democratic principles and institutions” and suggested that Netanyahu choose a path of “building consensus” for his new proposals, instead of ramming them forward with the power of his coalition.

Netanyahu didn’t need Blinken to spell it out. The message was loud and clear: President Biden’s top diplomatic envoy came to Jerusalem, stood next to Netanyahu and expressed in no uncertain terms the U.S. administration’s concerns over the new government’s attacks on Israel’s judicial system and regarding the future of human rights in the country.

Shortly after Blinken left, Netanyahu took off for Paris, where he faced the very same tune from President Emanuel Macron, who warned that if Israel goes down the path of judicial reforms, it risks “disconnecting” from the democratic world.

Blinken is not just another voice in this chorus. The U.S. administration’s position is still seen by Israeli policymakers as critical. But Netanyahu also knows that defying the will of a sitting U.S. president, as he himself did with Barack Obama over the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, isn’t as devastating as most think. He knows that Biden does not wish to escalate tensions with Israel, that the U.S.-Israel relationship is multifaceted and that judicial reform is not a make-or-break issue for Biden.

4. Emhoff’s European tour

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff recently completed his tour of Poland and Germany, which focused on fighting antisemitism and remembering the Holocaust. It was rife with emotion and also sent a clear message that battling antisemitism is a top priority for the Biden administration.

Emhoff, in his role as Biden’s unofficial antisemitism czar, has become the most powerful player for Jewish Americans in the White House. In the coming year, he may be expected to shift modes once again and use this clout to help Biden’s political outreach to Jewish voters.

5. Nikki Haley (and Mike Pompeo) and Jewish voters

Nikki Haley’s expected announcement about joining the GOP presidential race is a political event Jewish voters should care about.

Haley is a rare commodity in the Republican Jewish world: She’s really liked.

In her term as UN ambassador, Haley won over pro-Israel Republicans with her tough stance on anti-Israel bias in the international body and her unabashed support for Israeli actions and policies.

So did Trump, who is running too, but Haley is more palatable for Republican Jews, most of whom never really connected to Trump’s style, to his views and to his disdain for almost every institution in America. Haley could be the bridge that brings Jewish voters to the GOP.

There are other names being thrown around at this very early stage. One of them is former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently published a book about his time in the Trump administration. Pompeo, like Haley, has strong pro-Israel credentials. But he stayed too close to Trump for too long, which may take its toll on his appeal to Jewish voters.

Opening Image:Jeremy Buckingham via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) / Mapeh via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0) / U.S. Embassy Jerusalem via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

One thought on “Lessons from Ilhan Omar’s Removal from the Foreign Affairs Committee

  1. Davida Brown says:

    Omar’s problem, in being a member of Congress, is not her Black-African heritage…no one would hold that against her as a refugee or otherwise. The problem is her religion. As a Muslim of choice, she agrees to take on the anti-Israeli bias that comes with that badge. Though various Muslims may have a different take on anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic ideologies, the religion itself has a “take over mentality” that will not tolerate any other religion over their own…they see fit to fill the world with their ideology. They can “lie” to non-Muslims and it is not wrong in their religious sense of the word. An example that challenges the imagination is their claim to the temple mount as a Muslim holy site. They make claims of Mohammad, that he was in Jerusalem, therefore they built that magnificent structure, that no one truly wants to tear down, and now, through Israel’s generosity, they control it. There is not one iota of historical evidence that he was ever there. They are not satisfied with sharing the land or the temple mount; they want it all. At the heart of the matter is the ageless conflict of Isaac and Ishmael. Christian Arabs have, for the most part, dealt with that issue. Muslim Arabs, by exporting their religion to regions of the world (such as Africa) impart that same anti-Israel spirit to all they recruit. The spirit of Islam is epidemic.

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