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Rep. Ilhan Omar, seen here on Feb. 13 during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the political situation in Venezuela. (Screengrab/C-SPAN)

Ilhan Omar Faces Renewed Smears From GOP and Fellow Democrats Over Her Criticism of Israel

"Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic," Omar said Sunday.

Eoin Higgins

 A firestorm over comments critical of Israel by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) continued to engulf the Democratic Party and American politics over the weekend. 

Omar continues to stand firm in her assertion that criticism of the Israeli occupation does not constitute anti-Semitism. And the blowback she's received from Republicans and Democrats alike sheds light on the absence of questioning over Israel's special treatment in U.S. foreign policy.

The controversy over Omar's criticism of Israel's influence on American politics began on February 11 and hasn't let up since then. Omar endured renewed accusations of anti-Semitism on Friday for remarks made last Wednesday at a Washington bookstore.

"I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country," Omar reportedly said. 

In an opinion piece for the Guardian in February, president of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi and historian Stephen Wertheim cautioned against playing into prejudice and racism but noted that "concern about lobbyist influence is legitimate and poised to intensify." Wertheim reconfirmed that position on Sunday.

The Congresswoman posted a Twitter thread Sunday defending herself from attacks over that comment, claiming the criticism was at least primarily based on her opposition to Israeli influence in American politics. 

"I have not mischaracterized our relationship with Israel," wrote Omar, "I have questioned it and that has been clear from my end."

Omar pointed out that her willingness to speak out on Israel was generating an avalanche of attacks, primarily from the right, and that those attacks were conflating a perceived otherness to the Congresswoman.

"I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel," Omar said. "I find that to be problematic and I am not alone."

An African refugee Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, Omar is often subject to right wing attacks, and this past weekend proved no exception. The Congresswoman was a target at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference, where provocateurs held a news conference accusing her of traitorous behavior, and in West Virginia, where Omar's election to the House was analogized to 9/11 by state Republicans. 

"My Americanness is questioned by the President and the @GOP on a daily basis, yet my colleagues remain silent," said Omar. "I know what it means to be American and no one will ever tell me otherwise."

Attacks on Omar weren't confined to the extremists at CPAC. 

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens accused Omar of "classic anti-Semitism" for her alleged "charge of dual loyalty" for American Jews.

Of course, as critics pointed out, Stephens might not be the right messenger for that accusation. While at the Wall Street journal, Stephens once wrote an opinion piece referring to "the disease of the Arab mind"—making him possibly not the best judge of racism on the topic of Israel/Palestine. In an April 2017 interview with Vox, Stephens defended the piece by saying that critics of the column didn't understand his point and were twisting his words.

 "I don't think, unless you are actively and willfully trying to twist what I said into something I didn't mean," Stephens said, "that you can read that as in any sense a racist comment or not a fair comment to appear in a major publication."

Right wing Democrats joined the pile on as well. Talking Points Memo writer Josh Marshall tweeted that whether or not Omar's statements came from "misunderstanding or animus," it was hard for him to care at this point. At New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait wrote that "whatever presumption of good faith [Omar] deserved last time should be gone now" (though, as HuffPost reporter Jessica Schulberg pointed out, Chait's column "[misled] readers about the timing of Omar's supposedly anti-Semitic comment").

Some of Omar's fellow Democrats were similarly critical. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) criticized Omar on Twitter and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) released a statement calling Omar's statement a "vile anti-Semitic slur." 

Other Congressional Democrats, however, showed their support for their fellow member in the face of right wing attacks. Omar "shows us real courage," tweeted Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).

"We got your back," said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).

Via Twitter, Omar expressed thanks to supporters on Sunday night and reiterated that her position on Israel was based on policy, not prejudice.

"Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic," Omar wrote. "I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same."

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