A group of a dozen House Democrats, all of whom are Jewish, fired off a letter accusing Rep. Ilhan Omar of “deep-seated prejudice,” after Omar said that the U.S. and Israel, as well as Hamas and the Taliban, have committed “atrocities.” In turn, Omar blasted the signees of the letter for “constant harassment and silencing,” and said the letter played on “Islamophobic tropes.”
The episode is re-opening a wound within the Democratic House caucus between pro-Israel liberals and an emerging group of progressives, led by Omar, who are outspokenly critical of U.S. foreign policy and Israel.
The latest iteration of a fight that’s been brewing for more than two years started when Omar, one of two Muslim women ever elected to Congress, shared to Twitter an exchange she had with Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a House Foreign Affairs committee hearing earlier this week.
Omar’s comments during the hearing centered around the Biden administration’s opposition to recognizing the International Criminal Court as an arbiter of justice, particularly in the case of potential U.S. and Israeli war crimes.
“We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,” Omar tweeted, along with a clip of the exchange. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”
Republicans and conservative media outlets pounced on the “unthinkable atrocities” comment, but on Wednesday a group of House Democrats led by Rep. Brad Schneider joined in.
“Equating the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban is as offensive as it is misguided,” the Democrats wrote, adding that doing so “discredits one's intended argument and at worst reflects a deep-seated prejudice.”
“The United States and Israel are imperfect and, like all democracies, at times deserving of critique, but false equivalences give cover to terrorist groups,” they added. “We urge Congresswoman Omar to clarify her words placing the US and Israel in the same category as Hamas and the Taliban.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported earlier on Wednesday that more than two dozen Jewish House Democrats took part in a call weighing whether or not to condemn Omar; ultimately, 12 signed on. In March 2019, the House passed a resolution condemning antisemitism and Islamophobia after Omar commented on the pro-Israel lobby’s influence in the U.S. and was accused of antisemitism; the resolution ultimately passed and Omar herself voted for it.
Omar fired back in her own set of tweets Wednesday night, accusing the Democrats of using “Islamophobic tropes” such as accusing her of giving “cover to terrorist groups.”
“It’s shameful for colleagues who call me when they need my support to now put out a statement asking for ‘clarification’ and not just call,” Omar tweeted. “The constant harassment & silencing from the signers of this letter is unbearable.”
On Thursday, Omar’s fellow House progressives defended her from the new round of attacks, with Rep. Cori Bush describing it as “anti-Blackness and Islamophobia,” and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez saying she was “sick & tired of the constant vilification, intentional mischaracterization, and public targeting of @IlhanMN coming from our caucus.”
“They have no concept for the danger they put her in by skipping private conversations & leaping to fueling targeted news cycles around her,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet.
On Thursday, Omar released a statement clarifying her remarks from earlier this week.
“On Monday, I asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken about an ongoing International Criminal Court investigation,” she wrote. “To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding those ICC cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel. I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems.”
Omar has frequently clashed with the signees over her criticism of Israel. Last month, after Omar and other House progressives described Israel as an apartheid state following Israeli air strikes killing and injuring hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, four of the signees of the new letter, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, wrote a letter to President Joe Biden saying the apartheid comparisons were “antisemitic at their core and contribute to a climate that is hostile to many Jews.”
Republican lawmakers predictably jumped on the letter as reason to call for Omar’s removal for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “She should have never been appointed to this Committee in the first place,” Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican from Long Island, said in a tweet that was later retweeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Omar has also continuously come under fire from the far-right, including repeated racist attacks from former President Donald Trump. Last year a self-described “patriot” pleaded guilty to threatening to “put a bullet in [Omar’s] fucking skull.”
And on Wednesday, before the statement was released, Omar shared a voicemail left with her office that used abhorrent racist slurs to describe the congresswoman, who was born in Somalia and is the first member of Congress to wear a hijab on the House floor.
“Every time I speak out on human rights I am inundated with death threats,” Omar tweeted.
This article has been updated throughout to reflect recent developments.
Correction: This post was updated at 1:32 p.m. to reflect that New York Republican Lee Zeldin is from Long Island.