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What you need to know about the backlash against Rep. Ilhan Omar

When she criticized pro-Israel lobbying, the accusations of anti-Semitism came quickly, but her supporters say it's a smear campaign.

by Rex Santus
Feb 11 2019, 6:05pm

When Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar quoted P. Diddy — ”it’s all about the Benjamins baby” — in a Sunday-night tweet that criticized pro-Israel lobbying, the accusations of anti-Semitism came quickly.

Omar tweeted after House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy promised to “take action” against the congresswoman and her colleague, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, for their criticism of Israel, which he equated with Iowa Rep. Steve King’s controversies over white supremacy.

Both Omar’s critics and some members of her own party said her response to McCarthy invoked anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish people and money. Her supporters, however, labeled the controversy an attempt to smear one of the only vocal critics of Israel in Congress.

Since taking office in January, Omar and Tlaib — the first two Muslim women in Congress — have become the only two sitting members of Congress who openly support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel for human-rights abuses in occupied territories.

In a follow-up tweet, Omar said that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most prominent and powerful Israel lobbying group in the U.S., used money to rally politicians’ support for Israel.

Here’s what you need to know about Omar’s tweets and the fallout that ensued.

Why were the tweets so controversial?

Republicans and some Democrats — including some sitting members of Congress — asserted that Omar’s tweets implied Jewish people used money to control governments. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and more top Democrats in the House urged Omar to apologize.

The group targeted by Omar, AIPAC, has 100,000 members and a host of prominent donors across the country. Former AIPAC official Steven Rosen once bragged to the New Yorker that he “could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin” in 24 hours. AIPAC spends a small amount of money on individual campaign donations, but the group spent $3.5 million on lobbying efforts, according to OpenSecrets.

Up until the 116th Congress, Israel’s government enjoyed almost unadulterated support from Congress. But now, Omar and Tlaib’s open stance on the BDS movement has invited a steady stream of backlash for the two lawmakers. Just recently, the Senate voted to penalize businesses that support an Israel boycott. The bill, however, divided Democrats, who are facing pressure by their progressive voting base to be more critical Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

What are Omar’s supporters saying?

Omar responded to the backlash by telling Politico that her tweets “speak for themselves.” Her supporters say that accusations of anti-Semitism are used to undermine legitimate criticisms of Israel and its influence over U.S. politicians.

"I wouldn't take it as anti-Semitism,” Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, told CNN. “When it comes to issues around foreign policy or comes to issues specifically with Israel, there are a lot of interests, a lot of folks who make campaign contributions based on a person’s position on Israel.”

“I know Congresswoman Omar,” he added. “I don’t believe that she would harbor those sorts of views as they’ve been characterized.”

Other defenders of Omar — including members of progressive Jewish organizations and Arab American organizations as well as journalists — have said that there’s an Islamophobic undercurrent to attacks against Israel critics. Omar, Tlaib, and former Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, have all experienced numerous controversies related to alleged anti-Semitism.

“It’s not controversial to say lobbies influence American politics,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of the Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS Jewish organization, told VICE News.

In addition, McCarthy, has himself been accused of anti-Semitism. McCarthy once tweeted that billionaires George Soros, Tom Steyer, and Michael Bloomberg — all of whom come from Jewish families — sought to “buy elections.”

Cover image: Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, looks on during a press conference calling for an end to immigrant detentions along the Southern United States border held at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC on February 7, 2019. (Credit: Alex Edelman / CNP | usage worldwide Photo by: Alex Edelman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)