More than 100 people showed up for a rally in Times Square Monday night to witness the reveal of a billboard condemning Rep. Ilhan Omar and calling for her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Hey hey, ho ho, Ilhan has got to go!” chanted members of the largely middle-aged, predominantly white crowd. “Fuck Ilhan!” others shouted over indecipherable chatter bouncing off the skyscrapers overhead. Corralled inside police barricades, the crowd waved Israeli and Trump 2020 flags.
The gathering was organized by a group called Ilhan Must Go (IMG), which accuses the representative of anti-Semitism and a “disdain for our nation.” Along with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Omar became one of the first two Muslim women to ever serve in Congress earlier this year. Omar, a refugee who came to the US on asylum, is also the first Somali-American elected to the U.S. House. She quickly garnered national attention in February when she accused the notoriously powerful pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, for bending senators to its will through copious funding.
The protest—and a counter-protest across the street—highlighted a growing divide within the American Jewish community over the support of Israel, with an increasing number of young Jewish people moving away from support for the country. Similarly, the dueling rallies illustrated tensions that have been boiling on social media for months surrounding Ilhan Omar.
Through its website and social media, IMG encouraged people to gather on 48th Street to watch the unveiling of a “massive Times Square Billboard” defaming Omar. But when it came time to unveil the billboard, there was no billboard to show. Instead, rally participants were shown a small beat-up truck with a large LED display, on which video switched among an image of the 9/11 attacks with Rep. Omar’s face in the foreground, a copy of IMG’s press release for the rally, and IMG’s website URL. According to one cop responsible for crowd control at the rally, IMG was unable to secure the funds to purchase the billboard, so they opted for a cheaper alternative. IMG did not respond to interview requests.
Despite the lack of a billboard to unveil, attendees and organizers remained impassioned. On the podium, Joe Diamond, the rally’s MC, yelled, “I’m not Islamophobic, I’m Ilhan-phobic!” before going on to criticize Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Some in support of IMG seemed unconcerned with factual information concerning Omar. “Ilhan Omar is a disgusting racist,” said Juliet Germanotta, a 38-year-old woman from Minnesota who was holding a “LGBT for Trump” flag. “She supports Hamas. She supports the stoning of women and homosexuals.” (In reality, Omar was an active supporter of a bill banning gay conversion therapy in Minnesota, is endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, and this month introduced a bill to sanction Brunei for a new law in the country that aims to punish LGBTQ people with death.)
Since February, Omar has been harassed and accused of anti-Semitism by GOP pundits and media outlets like the New York Post. She has also received death threats, one resulting in an arrest. The attacks on her escalated when, in April, president Trump tweeted a misleading video of Omar and the 9/11 attacks after Omar made comments which some interpreted as an attempt to downplay the September 11 attacks. (The video at the IMG rally closely resembled the one tweeted by Trump.) In response, politicians and celebrities like Beto O’Rourke and Javier Munoz, among many others, accused the right of targeting Omar because of their own racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia towards Omar as a Black Muslim refugee.
Across the street from IMG’s rally was a smaller counter-rally, organized by IfNotNow, a progressive Jewish organization dedicated to ending Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the war in Gaza. There was a stark contrast between this crowd, made up of young people and middle-aged Orthodox Jews, and the IMG supporters across the street. “We are here today to provide the obvious counter-narrative to IMG’s nonsense,” said Josh Hyman, a member of IfNotNow. “Jews, especially young Jews, stand with Ilhan Omar. We know what anti-Semitism is and we know what racism is. We will not be erased by people who use charges of one to hide the other.” Other counter-protestors expressed similar sentiments. “I’m just sick and tired of seeing this one part of the Jewish community try to silence those who criticize Israel,” said Farrah Celler, a Jewish woman from New Jersey. “I think this causes more anti-Semitism. At least for me, I kinda hate what they stand for. They give people who don’t hate Jews a reason to be mad at them.”
In the counter-demonstration were members of the anti-Zionist Orthodox Jewish sect Neturei Karta International, a mainstay in anti-Israel demonstrations in New York. “When Rep. Omar first began speaking out against the pro-Isreal lobby, she was immediately attacked by Zionists who claimed she was invoking anti-Semitic stereotypes,” said the group's spokesperson Rabbi Dovied Felidemen. “However, the truth is that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, and criticizing the State of Israel or its supporters is not anti-Semitic.”