The Slatest

The Uproar Over Ilhan Omar’s Israel Tweets Is a Sign of Things to Come

Ilhan Omar smiling.
Rep. Ilhan Omar at the State of the Union address at the Capitol on Feb. 5.
Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Rep. Ilhan Omar set off a fierce controversy Sunday by injecting a classic Puff Daddy aphorism into a debate over Israel’s influence in Washington. This particular outrage cycle may be short-lived, but the underlying intra-Democratic divide it exposed is likely to persist through the presidential primary and beyond.

Here’s what started it:

The Minnesota Democrat was responding to a tweet from journalist Glenn Greenwald criticizing House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for promising to take “action” against Omar and fellow freshman member Rashida Tlaib over their criticism of Israel and support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which McCarthy likened to GOP Rep. Steve King’s recent defense of white supremacy.

When an editor at the Jewish newspaper the Forward asked Omar who she “thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel,” the congresswoman replied, “AIPAC!” referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobbying group. Critics quickly condemned Omar’s remarks as trafficking in stereotypes about Jewish money being used to buy American politicians. These critics included Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who issued a statement saying Omar had deployed “anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters.” Omar apologized Monday and thanked “Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”

This is not the first time Omar’s tweets have caused controversy. During her campaign for Congress, four-year-old tweets were circulated in which she said Israel had “hypnotized the world” and accused it of “evil doings.” Omar also professed ignorance about anti-Semitic rhetoric in apologizing for those remarks in a Twitter exchange with New York Times columnist Bari Weiss in January. Tlaib was also accused of anti-Semitism in January for a tweet saying that sponsors of anti-BDS legislation “forgot what country they represent.” So these dust-ups are becoming part of a pattern.

On the substance of Omar’s tweets, if she was implying—as she seemed to be from her second response—that AIPAC gives money directly to politicians or their campaigns, that’s factually inaccurate. It’s offensive to say that politicians only hold pro-Israel views because of money they receive, and some of those members have made that clear. And there are only so many times Omar can claim ignorance of anti-Semitic tropes.

However, it’s undoubtedly true that AIPAC and other groups spend quite a bit of money to influence U.S. policy toward Israel—sponsoring junkets to the country for members, for instance. It’s not controversial to talk about that kind of influence when the group in question is the National Rifle Association or the fossil fuel industry, to use two examples Omar cited in her apology. To use another example, raising questions about Saudi influence in Washington does not make one Islamophobic.

After the last election, it was clear that Congress’ range of opinions on U.S. policy toward Israel had widened considerably. BDS supporters like Tlaib and Omar had entered a congressional delegation led by pro-Israel hawks like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who in recent years has co-led with McCarthy the AIPAC trip to Israel for incoming members. Other members like Eliot Engel, who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee on which Omar sits, and Robert Menendez, his counterpart in the Senate, have what could be called AIPAC-friendly views. This seems like a recipe for a clash.

Most elected Democrats are somewhere in the middle. The “safe” position for most Democrats is now to be “pro-Israel” but also critical, to varying degrees, of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its settlement policies in the West Bank. Tellingly, while 25 Senate Democrats voted for the recent bill encouraging state and local governments to pass laws discouraging the BDS campaign, nearly all of the seven senators who have announced or appear likely to announce bids for president opposed it. (Amy Klobuchar was the one exception.) Most cited free speech objections and were sure to distance themselves from BDS itself. With Democrats becoming in general less sympathetic to Israel as both countries’ governments have veered to the right, the need for Democratic candidates to demonstrate their pro-Israel bona fides may not be what it was.

That said, the furor over Omar’s and Tlaib’s tweets shows that the GOP is likely to try to paint the Democrats as the party of BDS and make the country’s first two female Muslim members of Congress the face of the movement.