Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar isn’t backing down as she deals with attacks from both Republicans and members of her own party.
On Sunday, the freshman Congresswoman rejected resurgent accusations of anti-Semitism against her as nothing more than attacks manufactured to silence her criticism of Israel’s right-wing government and occupation of Palestinian territories — as she also grappled with assassination threats and Islamophobic attacks against her character.
In a series of tweets, 37-year-old Omar responded to outrage from her critics over comments she made at an event last week about groups that “push allegiance to a foreign country,” which the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee characterized as a “vile anti-Semitic slur.”
“I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel,” she tweeted. “I find that to be problematic, and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks.”
Omar’s stand comes after a series of tumultuous weeks for the congresswoman. Last Friday, an anti-Muslim poster that likened Omar to a 9/11 terrorist triggered mayhem in the West Virginia Capitol building. Omar was also allegedly on a now-arrested self-avowed white nationalist’s hit list, and the FBI is investigating graffiti found in February in Minnesota that called for her assassination.
Omar is one of only two Muslim women ever elected to Congress, along with Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, another freshman. Both women are among the only vocal critics of Israel in Congress as well as the only two members of Congress to openly support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel for human-rights abuses in occupied territories.
Here’s what you need to know about Omar’s latest controversy, the attacks against her, and her refusal to bend.
The loyalty controversy
Omar implied at a bookstore event in Washington last Wednesday that her critics accuse her of being an anti-Semite to attempt to shut down a legitimate debate about Israel.
"I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country," Omar said, according to the New York Times.
The comments may seem innocuous, but Omar’s critics characterized them as an anti-Semitic assertion that Jewish people in the U.S. have a “dual loyalty” to America and Israel.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, harshly criticized Omar’s remarks in a statement.
"I welcome debate in Congress based on the merits of policy, but it's unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the U.S.-Israel relationship," Engel said in a statement. "We all take the same oath. Worse, Representative Omar's comments leveled that charge by invoking a vile anti-Semitic slur."
And Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York, accused Omar of bigotry.
Omar’s brief tenure in Congress has been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, especially her tweet that criticized pro-Israel lobbying. Omar, however, pushed back against the latest controversy and even reiterated the very talking point that her critics latched onto in the first place.
“I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee,” she tweeted.
Omar’s supporters and defenders were quick to point out that there has been an effort to force legislators to show support for Israel over Palestine. Just last month, the Senate passed a bill that seeks to crack down on Israel boycotts by allowing states to refuse to engage in business with companies that are sympathetic to BDS causes. House Republicans also attempted to humiliate Omar by adding a pro-Israel clause in a resolution to end U.S. involvement in the conflict in Yemen.
“Because it is important to the national security interest of the United States to maintain strong bipartisan support for Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, all attempts to delegitimize and deny Israel’s right to exist must be denounced and rejected,” said the resolution, which the House unanimously voted to include in the now-passed resolution.
The threatening poster
The day that Rep. Engel publicly blasted Omar for her comments about Israel, a poster was discovered in West Virginia’s Capitol Rotunda that equated the elected congresswoman to terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
“‘NEVER FORGET’ - YOU SAID,” said the poster that include images of the smoking towers as well as an image of Omar. “I AM THE PROOF YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN.”
The image, hung outside the building as part of a celebration of the state’s GOP party, reportedly caused an uproar. State Democratic lawmakers expressed alarm and outrage over the image. Mike Caputo, the House Democratic minority whip, was allegedly so incensed that he injured a GOP staffer by pushing open a door. Anne Lieberman, the GOP’s sergeant at arms, resigned after a Democratic lawmaker accused her of saying “All Muslims are terrorists.”
Republicans have tepidly condemned the Omar-9/11 poster, which party leaders have blamed on an exhibitor at the event.
"The West Virginia Republican Party does not approve, condone, or support hate speech," West Virginia Republican Party Chairwoman Melody Potter said in a statement. "One of the exhibitors at our West Virginia Republican Party Day at the Capitol displayed a sign that we did not approve, were not aware of before the day started, and we do not support. Upon learning about the sign, we immediately asked this exhibitor to remove the sign.
Omar responded to the chaos in West Virginia by saying the poster was merely one in a series of anti-Muslim attacks against her. Omar pointed to graffiti that appeared in Minnesota’s Twin Cities in February calling for Omar’s murder. The FBI and other law-enforcement agencies are investigating the threat.
“No wonder why I am on the ‘Hitlist’ of a domestic terrorist and ‘Assassinate Ilhan Omar’ is written on my local gas stations,” Omar tweeted Friday. “Look no further, the GOP's anti-Muslim display likening me to a terrorist rocks in state capitols and no one is condemning them!”
What Omar’s supporters are saying
Although Omar continues to face backlash from Republicans and some Democrats, a swell of supporters and Democratic colleagues spoke out in Omar’s defense over the weekend regarding both accusations of anti-Semitism as well as the incident in West Virginia.
Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and many more issued statements praising Omar’s conduct amid numerous threats and attacks against her.
Progressive Jewish organizations, journalists, and activists have also come to Omar’s defense.
"The hypocrisy behind the attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar is breathtaking,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, told VICE News. “It has never been more important to be able to distinguish between critiquing the State of Israel — what Rep. Omar has been doing — and discrimination against Jewish people. Meanwhile, the outrageous attacks she is facing in calling her a terrorist because she is a Muslim — and especially those by the West Virginia GOP – show the depth of Islamophobia in the U.S. I’m proud to stand with Ilhan."
“Not only do these attacks on Rep. Omar weaponize anti-Semitism to silence criticism of Israel, they make her a target for hatred and violent threats, as we’ve seen the last few days in Minnesota and West Virginia,” IfNotNow said in a statement.