Omar: 'I unequivocally apologize' after backlash over new Israel tweets
Posted February 11, 2019 8:55 a.m. EST
Updated February 11, 2019 3:10 p.m. EST
CNN — Freshman Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota publicly apologized Monday after she faced backlash for tweets condemned by both sides of the aisle as anti-Semitic.
"Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes," Omar said. "My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize."
She continued, "At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It's gone on too long and we must be willing to address it."
Omar's statement came on the heels of one from House Democratic leadership calling on Omar to apologize for comments they said included "anti-Semitic tropes."
The statement from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and other members of House Democratic leadership said anti-Semitism had to be called out "without exception."
"Legitimate criticism of Israel's policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share," the statement read. "But Congresswoman Omar's use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel's supporters is deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments."
Omar faced increasing backlash after suggesting Republican support of Israel is fueled by donations from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a prominent pro-Israel group.
On Sunday, Omar responded to a tweet by journalist Glenn Greenwald that reads, "GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It's stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans."
Omar replied, "It's all about the Benjamins baby," followed by a musical notes emoji. Omar has been critical of the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians and supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a non-violent activist campaign that aims to put economic and political pressure on Israel over its actions toward Palestinians, including calling for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
In response to Omar's tweet Sunday, a woman named Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor of the Forward, tweeted, "Would love to know who @IlhanMN thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, though I think I can guess. Bad form, Congresswoman. That's the second anti-Semitic trope you've tweeted."
Omar responded to the tweet and wrote, "AIPAC!"
The freshman congresswoman faced condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans on Twitter.
New York Democratic Rep. Max Rose tweeted, "When someone uses hateful and offensive tropes and words against people of any faith, I will not be silent. Congresswoman Omar's statements are deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself. Implying that Americans support Israel because of money alone is offensive enough. But to go a step further, and retweet someone declaring their pain at her sentiment is simply unacceptable."
"At a time when anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise, our leaders should not be invoking hurtful stereotypes and caricatures of Jewish people to dismiss those who support Israel," Rose tweeted.
"In the Democratic Party - and in the United States of America - we celebrate the diversity of our people, and the Gods we pray to, as a strength," Rose continued. "The Congresswoman's statements do not live up to that cherished ideal."
On Friday, before the tweets were posted, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy railed against recent comments by Omar and other freshman Democrats who have spoken critically against the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians. He said if Democratic leaders don't take action, he may act on his own.
McCarthy directly compared their comments, which Republicans have labeled anti-Semitic, to the recent comments by Rep. Steve King of Iowa when he told The New York Times, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?" McCarthy pointed to actions that he took to punish King, such as blocking him from committee assignments, and criticized Democratic leaders for being silent about their own members.
It is unclear what actions he can take, though there is already a resolution in the works that introduced by New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin that calls for a rejection of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred in the US and around the world. The text of the resolution mentions Omar by name, citing, among other things, Omar's statement that "Israel has hypnotized the world."
Two Jewish Democratic House Members -- Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Elaine Luria of Virginia -- have begun gathering signatures for a letter to send to House Democratic leaders saying they must confront "hateful tropes" and "stereotypes" against Jews, emanating from comments and positions taken by members of their caucus.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, issued a statement Monday saying Omar had invoked "the anti-Semitic trope of 'Jewish money.'" Omar is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"I fully expect that when we disagree on the Foreign Affairs Committee, we will debate policy on the merits and never question members' motives or resort to personal attacks," said Engel, who is Jewish, in his statement. "Criticism of American policy toward any country is fair game, but this must be done on policy grounds."
Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee told CNN's John Berman on "New Day" that while he had not seen Omar's comments previously and he would not agree with Omar's comments, he wouldn't "take it as anti-Semitism" and that he doesn't "believe she would harbor those sorts of views as they've been characterized."
"I would say that she probably objects to the fact that when it comes to issues around foreign policy or comes to issues, specifically to Israel, there are a lot of interests, a lot of folks who make campaign contributions based on a person's position on israel," Kildee said. "I think we ought to be careful not to construe that in anything other than a concern about the fact that money has undue influence on political decision making."
Rep. Jim Himes too defended Omar saying, "this is really a good example of the need for all of us to be very, very specific about what it is we are saying so that we don't come off as being anti-Semitic, as being racist, as being bigoted."
"If you have concerns about the state of Israel, make sure, especially given the nature of the history of Israel, the nature of anti-Semitism -- It's perfectly legitimate to criticize Israel or to criticize the pro-Israeli lobby," the Connecticut Democrat said. "Just please be careful to do it in a way that can't be interpreted as being anti-Semitic."
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley responded to Omar's "AIPAC" tweet and wrote on Twitter, "To see this at the UN was a fight every day. This CANNOT be tolerated in our own Congress by anyone of either party. In a time of increased anti semitism, we all must be held to account. No excuses." She added a heart and flag emoji followed by, "#NoSpaceForHate #NoToleranceForAntiSemitism #WhatIsHappeningWithPeople"
Chelsea Clinton also weighed in on Twitter, writing, "We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism."
Last week, Omar defended her views on Israel and told CNN it is "not surprising" she is generating attention and said, "I think it is actually exciting because we are finally able to have conversations that we weren't really willing to."
"It is really important for us to get a different lens about what peace in that region could look like and the kind of difficult conversations we need to have about allies," Omar told CNN on Tuesday.
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.