Three times in the past week, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has accused Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, of making explicit, derogatory comments about Jews. McCarthy is lying: Omar has never made such comments. McCarthy is telling this lie because if Republicans were to grapple with what Omar actually said, they would have to acknowledge that they’ve said the same. Any censure of Omar would apply to them, too.
Omar is in trouble for three statements. In 2012, during Israeli military operations in Gaza, she tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” This year, on Feb. 10, she snarked that McCarthy’s threat to punish her for criticizing Israel was “all about the Benjamins.” Then, on Feb. 27, she said of Israel’s advocates, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
Many people think these statements are anti-Semitic. They point out that bigots often accuse Jews of deceiving the world, manipulating politicians with money, and promoting allegiance to Israel. I don’t think Omar meant her words to be taken that way. But a lot of folks, including many of my fellow Jews, disagree with me. So let’s set that debate aside. I want to focus on a simpler question: Did Omar say what McCarthy claims she said?
At a press conference on Wednesday, McCarthy asserted that “Congresswoman Omar … questioned whether somebody could … be of Jewish faith and still be an American” at heart. (His exact quote is a mess. You can watch it here.) Journalists noted that McCarthy’s statement was false, but on Friday he repeated it. “Listen to what Congresswoman Omar said,” he told reporters. “She questioned the ability of an American to have allegiance to America if they were Jewish. She questioned that.” The next day, in a Fox News interview, McCarthy again accused Omar of “questioning the allegiance and the alliance of American Jews—could they be true to America?”
McCarthy’s colleagues have joined him in this attack. Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the House minority whip, says Omar has argued that “any support of Israel is denouncing your own nationality.” New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, a co-chairman of the House Republican Israel Caucus, accuses Omar of “saying that if you support Israel, then you were bought off by Jews.”
All of these allegations are false. Omar has never challenged the loyalty of “American Jews” or people “of Jewish faith.” Nor has she accused anyone of being “bought off by Jews.” She has said just the opposite: that no one should be targeted or disparaged on the basis of religion. Omar’s beef is with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians—and with American politicians and activists who defend those policies.
Most pro-Israel politicians are Christian, not Jewish. McCarthy is one of them. He’s the congressman Omar was talking about in her tweet about “the Benjamins.” And many Americans who aren’t Jewish express allegiance to Israel. In a 2015 Bloomberg Politics survey, two-thirds of Republicans and 58 percent of born-again Christians said the United States should support Israel “even if our interests diverge.” It isn’t a smear to call that an abnormal degree of loyalty to another country. It’s a fact.
So McCarthy and his colleagues are lying when they depict Omar’s statements about Israel as statements about Jews. And the next question is why they’re doing it. One reason is that Republicans want to put Democrats in the hot seat. In January, Republicans stripped one of their own colleagues, Iowa Rep. Steve King, of his committee assignments for spouting bigotry. They want to pummel Democrats for refusing to do the same to Omar. That’s why McCarthy and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, chair of the House Republican Conference, have repeatedly compared Omar’s remarks to King’s. In fact, McCarthy says Omar’s statements are worse.
It’s a bum rap. Even if you set aside King’s statements about “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” ideas—which he claims were inaccurately reported by the New York Times—he has a long track record of decrying integration and disparaging people based on their countries and cultures of origin. He has explicitly criticized “Middle Eastern civilization,” “ethnic migration,” “mixing cultures,” and “cultural suicide by demographic transformation.” These are attacks on ethnicity and ancestry. Omar has said nothing like that.
But there’s a second and more damning reason why Republicans are lying about Omar: They’re trying to protect themselves.
When McCarthy said on Friday that Omar had “questioned the ability of an American to have allegiance to America if they were Jewish,” he was responding to a reporter’s query. The reporter had asked whether Republicans were hypocritical to accuse Omar of invoking anti-Semitic tropes, given that “those very same tropes were advanced by Republicans in attacking people like George Soros.” One of the guilty Republicans is McCarthy, who tweeted just before the November midterms, “We cannot allow Soros, [Tom] Steyer, and [Michael] Bloomberg to BUY this election!” Another is Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who accused a Jewish congressman last week of jumping “to Tom $teyer’s conclusion.” If Omar’s tweet about “the Benjamins” was anti-Semitic, so were Jordan’s and McCarthy’s.
McCarthy doesn’t want to admit that. So he pretends that Omar, unlike Jordan and himself, has explicitly targeted Jews.
Republicans aren’t just hypocritical about alluding to Jewish money. They’re also hypocritical about questioning people’s allegiance based on ethnicity. In June 2016, Donald Trump, who was then a candidate for president, accused a Mexican-American judge of treating him unfairly because “We’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican.” A month later, McCarthy went to the Republican National Convention as a delegate for Trump. Alongside McCarthy in Trump’s California delegation was Rep. Duncan Hunter, who won re-election last fall by airing an ad that accused his “Palestinian Mexican” opponent of plotting to “infiltrate Congress.” Hunter also distributed a letter that suggested his opponent might “compromise U.S. operations” to protect his “family in the Middle East.” If McCarthy had any scruples about questioning the allegiance of Americans, he would have spoken up. He said nothing.
If you want to know what McCarthy really believes, don’t listen to what he says about Omar. Listen to what he says about himself. Last month on Fox News, he was asked to explain his tweet about Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg. McCarthy said he had only meant to point out that Bloomberg had spent a lot of money to help Democrats. “That had nothing to do about faith,” the congressman insisted.
Omar has a lot to learn. She’s an ideologue, and like her counterparts on the right, she can be self-righteous and mean. She seems obtuse to the fears of American Jews, who worry that the Democratic Party, like Britain’s Labour Party, could become a forum for anti-Semites. But the points she’s raising about Israeli policies, pro-Israel donors, and unconditional American support for Israel are legitimate. She has condemned bigotry, and she has never disparaged Jews. Yes, she should have spoken more carefully. But if she deserves censure, so do her Republican colleagues.
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus