WASHINGTON — A resolution passed by House Democrats Thursday against hatred has, ironically, further divided a party that's grappling with evolving views and positions on Israel and Islam.
The resolution was put forth earlier this week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) on the Israel lobby which many senior members of Congress viewed as anti-Semitic. A backlash immediately ensued over claims Omar’s comments had been misinterpreted, and that she was being singled out because of her Muslim faith.
“I don’t want to cry about it, but it does – it hurts a lot.”
On Thursday, a revised version of that resolution, now cast as a broad rebuke of hatred, was passed by the Democrat-controlled House. But despite the resolution's inoffensive syntax, which condemned anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry broadly and did not mention Omar by name, the damage was done. The move left hurt feelings, particularly among black and Muslim members of Congress, as well as freshman members.
“I don’t want to cry about it, but it does – it hurts a lot,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) told VICE News in a phone interview while fighting back tears. “I just feel like I’m not being truly seen or heard.”
Besides Omar, Tlaib is the other historic first Muslim woman elected to Congress. Her grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins are living in the occupied territories of Palestine, and she says she wishes even her fellow Democrats would stop and listen to their stories instead of rushing to label them anti-Semitic.
“There’s times that I do feel I’m being silenced or shushed.”
“These are powerful stories that I feel like need to be told,” Tlaib said. “You have to make sure we have a Congress where we can talk about issues like oppressive actions of governments and human rights violations. That’s what I heard from Ilhan at that event. I heard her speaking up for peace and justice for Palestinians like my grandmother.”
And Tlaib says this week she also learned that her supposedly “big tent” party might not really be that big.
“I think we realized how bipartisan Islamophobia is,” Tlaib said. “I have been on the front lines getting other Democrats elected, and I realize being here just how much work we have to do still. This seems to be an attempt to silence this perspective. You know, women of color, Muslims, those who have different experiences. There’s times that I do feel I’m being silenced or shushed.”
It’s not just the freshmen. Seven-term Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), the only other Muslim currently in Congress, says his party’s leaders disappointed the entire Muslim community. When VICE News asked if Omar was targeted because of her faith, Carson said it was more than that — the attacks were also sexist and racist.
“Absolutely, and a black woman. Come on. Absolutely,” an animated Carson replied while walking to his car after casting a vote.
Carson says Democratic leaders stepped into a trap laid for them by Republicans and conservative media distorting Omar’s comments.
“I think even with political leaders who should be enlightened, there’s still an unconscious bias and Islamophobia even within so-called politicians,” Carson said. “All of us should condemn the ills of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia.”
Democratic Party leaders disagree with those accusations. “It’s not about her,” Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday ahead of the vote.
Rep. Omar was unavailable for comment, and throughout the week she dodged the reporters who camped outside her congressional office. Democratic leaders have resisted calls from Republican leaders for them to strip Omar of her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
After the vote, Omar, Tlaib, and Carson called the resolution “historic” in a statement, noting that it was the first time anti-Muslim bigotry had been condemned in U.S. history. “We are tremendously proud to be part of a body that has put forth a condemnation of all forms of bigotry including anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacy,” they wrote. “Our national is having a difficult conversation and we believe this is great progress.”
Some of the senior Democrats who wanted to specifically single out Omar for her comments say they have no regrets.
“When you question people’s loyalty, that’s unacceptable.”
In February, Omar tweeted “it’s all about the Benjamins” in reference to pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Most recently, she made a comment about “allegiance” to foreign countries. Both comments have been widely criticized as falling into long-standing anti-Semitic tropes. Omar apologized for the tweet, but not her comments at a bookstore event.
Omar's views on Israel have been closely scrutinized since she disclosed shortly after her election that she supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s rights abuses in occupied Palestinian territories and against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
She tweeted Sunday: “I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic, and I am not alone.”
“When you question people’s loyalty, that’s unacceptable,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) said walking down the Capitol’s front steps. “In the Jewish faith, these are historic anti-Semitic tropes, and when we see anti-Semitism, we have to stand up and say ‘unacceptable.’”
But members of Omar’s freshmen class don’t like how this episode unfolded.
“I think it’s important not to be too reactionary. I also understand how sensitive this can be on so many different levels,” said Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), one of two freshman lawmakers picked to have a seat at the party’s leadership table. “But I think we’ve got to be fair about recognizing there’s not just one group that is experiencing hatred and intolerance right now.”
This was a learning experience for the freshman class, many of whom heard about the initial resolution targeting Omar on social media before any senior Democrat asked them for input.
“What I found more frustrating – and more common than I expected — was all the leaks, because internal dialogue is really important to make sure we’re on the same page, to make sure we aren’t being divided,” Hill said.
And Hill says her party’s three septuagenarian leaders, who’d been locked out of power for the past eight years, now have to learn how to lead in the era of social media and misinformation era.
“So managing this kind of thing is going to be difficult, I think, especially when you’re talking about this age of social media where people can react in an instant. Where if something is said and then it’s out of context or it’s part of a bigger discussion, then it’s taken as this little tidbit and then turns into this massive explosion,” Hill said. “That’s the new reality.”
When asked by VICE News if he’d rather the party not be put in this awkward and painful spot, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), the chief deputy whip, said it’s complicated. “You have still have to take positions, and, no matter who it is, when somebody says something that has in its roots really strong bias or prejudice, we have to say something about it,” he said.
Still, Rep. Carson says despite the pain that the resolution has caused many in the Muslim community both inside and outside of Congress, the episode has drawn him closer to Reps. Omar and Tlaib.
“It’s been fruitful. Yeah. And it’s been raw, and it’s been real,” Carson said.
Senior Democrats say they aren’t worried about this week’s bitter infighting having any negative lasting repercussions on their ability to effectively govern.
“This, too, will pass. It’s something every day,” Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), a Jewish lawmaker, told VICE News at the Capitol. “It’s a democracy, so there’s going to be disagreements about things.”
Cover image: U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) and US Representative from Michigan Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), dressed in white in tribute to the women's suffrage movement, arrive for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)