By JONATHAN S. TOBIN
(February 2, 2023 / JNS) Seen only in the context of the struggle between America’s two major political parties, the House of Representatives’ vote to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the Foreign Relations Committee is not a historic turning point. It is merely the latest evidence that the once largely polite battles between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have escalated into a full-blown culture war.
But while it is possible to frame House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s making good on his pledge to oust Omar from her seat on Foreign Relations, as well as to evict Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) from the House Intelligence Committee, as simply a matter of revenge for the Democrats’ moves against GOP members in the last Congress, it is actually a deeply significant moment in the history of both American Jewry and the struggle against antisemitism.
The Omar problem dates to early 2019, when the then-freshman member was put under scrutiny for her comments about Israel’s “hypnotizing the world.” She was already a supporter of the BDS movement that targets Israelis and Jews. But she angered people on both sides of the aisle when she issued her famous tweets alleging that Jews are bribing members of Congress to support Israel, claiming it was “all about the Benjamins.”
This classic use of an antisemitic stereotype about Jews and money was too much even for many liberals, who had heretofore defended her and fellow “Squad” member and BDS advocate Rep. Rashida Tlaib against criticism from the pro-Israel community. Omar’s tropes sparked an effort to censure her—a move that initially even had the support of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Disingenuously pleading ignorance about antisemitism, Omar issued what she termed an “unequivocal apology.” But it actually reinforced her attacks on the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. She was primarily focused on reminding the public that, as a black woman and an immigrant who was subjected to discrimination—and, from an intersectional point of view, was a victim of white privilege—she could not reasonably be accused of prejudice.
That was enough to rally the powerful Congressional Black Caucus and many progressives to her cause. Within days, Pelosi backed down on plans to censure her, consenting to a vote on a watered-down resolution that condemned all forms of prejudice. It was the moral equivalent of saying “all lives matter,” instead of “black lives matter,” something most Democrats consider a form of racism.
Since then, Omar has continued making offensive statements, among them ones falsely comparing the U.S. and Israeli militaries to terrorists. She also joined other progressives in making vile attacks on the Jewish state and its right to self-defense on the floor of the House, while Hamas was shooting thousands of rockets and missiles at Israeli civilians in May 2021.
But far from becoming a pariah, Omar has been treated as a rock star by Democrats and their pop-culture cheerleaders, feted on late-night comedy shows and featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine alongside a cowed Pelosi.
Ironically, while Democrats were standing by Omar, then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the GOP seized the high ground by stripping one of their own members—Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)—of his committee assignments for statements indicating sympathy for white supremacists.
Emboldened by the events of Jan. 6, 2021, Pelosi decided to make an example of recently elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) for a host of controversial and bizarre statements by removing her from all committee assignments. In November of that year, Democrats censured and booted Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) from committees due to a Japanese anime cartoon onto which he had superimposed his face and that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) In the video, his character is seen slaying AOC’s.
Both moves were essentially unprecedented. Never before had one party used its majority status to punish a member from the rival caucus by taking away committee assignments. They were also part of the same spirit in which Pelosi refused to allow Republicans to name their own members to the committee investigating Jan. 6, something equally unprecedented.
Now that Republicans are back in power, some payback was expected. McCarthy was determined to punish Schiff for his brazen lies about former President Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, and Swalwell, whose dalliance with a Chinese spy should have made him ineligible for service on anything to do with intelligence.
Democrats responded by accusing McCarthy of hypocrisy, since he put Greene and Gosar back on committees. He claims that his actions against Schiff, Swalwell and Omar are nothing like the Democrats’ behavior, since he only removed them from specific committees, rather than banning them from all committee service.
Moreover, some Democrat Jews claiming to be pro-Israel stalwarts—such as Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.)—have criticized Omar, but stuck with their party’s objection to her removal. They explained their stand by expressing opposition to “cancel culture.”
There’s a reasonable argument to be made that those elected to House seats—even the likes of freshman fraudster Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), whom McCarthy has not allowed to serve on committees, or antisemites like Omar and Tlaib—should be allowed to represent their constituents by sitting on committees. But Democrats who enthusiastically canceled Greene for her statements (for which she has also apologized with the same disingenuousness as Omar) and Gosar for what he claimed was satire rather than a death threat, are in no position to make that argument.
Still, the rationale for keeping someone who opposes Israel’s existence off the Foreign Relations Committee should have been compelling for members of both parties.
Even more shocking and just as discreditable was the statement of support for Omar issued by liberal and leftist Jewish groups, among them the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Peace Now and J Street. Not only did they rally around her, but they falsely accused McCarthy of antisemitism, due to his criticism of leftist billionaire George Soros, whose controversial stands and donations make him fair game for political brickbats.
Just as it was in 2019, when the House should have first acted against Omar, the issue shouldn’t be a matter of partisan contention. Those who spread antisemitic smears about Jews and Israel, and who are open supporters of a BDS movement that seeks to eliminate the one Jewish state on the planet, are not merely engaging in discourse on which reasonable people can agree to disagree.
Pro-Israel Democrats could have taken a stand against her and Tlaib. But, intimidated by the rise of the intersectional movement that has seized control of the left-wing base of the Democratic Party, and fearing that they will be branded as racists if they speak out, they have refused to ostracize them.
In doing so, they have essentially legitimized Omar’s views. Her anti-Zionist and antisemitic ideas are now routinely published in the pages of liberal mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post. And the ranks of the “Squad” have vastly expanded in the last two election cycles, with even more sympathizers among those who identify as progressive Democrats.
Republicans have their outliers, like Greene and others. They routinely make outrageous and often indefensible statements, although Democrats are equally guilty of the promiscuous use of inappropriate Holocaust analogies.
But they are not guilty of seeking to normalize antisemitism by masquerading as mere “critics” of Israel. And, unlike Omar, they lack the influence that comes with being part of a movement that already dominates academia and much of the media with its toxic myths about white privilege and lies about Israel’s being an “apartheid” state.
Republicans have been accused of making Israel a partisan issue. The GOP has pointed to its lockstep support for the Jewish state, and to the way Democrats are now divided on it with so much of their base embracing the myth—rooted in critical race theory teachings—that Israel is a “white” colonialist oppressor of people of color.
Hyper-partisanship is now so deeply entrenched in American political culture that many liberal Jews aren’t likely to be persuaded to be angrier at House Democrats for defending Omar than they are at Republicans for their ideology or support for Trump, who—though deeply flawed—was still the most pro-Israel president in history.
In giving Omar a pass for antisemitism, Democrats have crossed a line that no party or its supporters can transgress without being rightly accused of enabling Jew-hatred. By rallying around her, either out of party loyalty or hypocritical opposition to cancel culture that they never apply to embattled conservatives, is to make antisemitism a partisan issue. This is a historic development that may make it impossible to ever put the genie of intersectional hate for Jews back in the bottle. It’s also an unforgivable betrayal of their Jewish voters and the principles of tolerance that they claim to uphold.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.