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Opinion Ilhan Omar is the Steve King of the left

Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar (D) is one of two Muslim women elected to Congress on Nov. 6 (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)
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Rep. Ilhan Omar has, yet again, angered many House Democrats and Jewish groups by making anti-Semitic comments over the weekend. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the rest of the leadership need to realize that Omar (D-Minn.) has become their party’s version of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). They must do what Republicans recently did to King: remove Omar from her seat on all House committees.

The first-term congresswoman has only been in office for two months, yet she has already created significant controversy for her anti-Semitic tropes. First came her accusations that Republicans support Israel only because they have been paid by Jewish groups, especially the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. That statement immediately caused consternation among Democrats, who said it played on “old anti-Semitic trope about Jews and money,” as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said. That produced an “apology” from Omar that fell short of actually apologizing to AIPAC.

Omar is now in trouble for alleging that many people support Israel because they express “allegiance to another country.” The “dual loyalty” trope — that Jews are either equally or more loyal to Israel than to the country they are citizens of — is one of the most long-standing anti-Semitic canards. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which Omar is a member, immediately condemned her statement as “a vile anti-Semitic slur.” But Omar doubled down on that slur when, in response to criticism from Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), she tweeted: “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress.”

Omar is right that it is entirely legitimate to criticize U.S. policy towards Israel, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is her repeated suggestion that support for the current policy toward Israel is the product of Jewish money buying support and/or Jews who are more loyal to Israel’s interests than they are to those of the United States. Those claims are false and bigoted.

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Republicans learned the hard way with King that where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. His repeatedly bigoted statements about immigrants were condemned but otherwise ignored by House Republican leadership. Clearly, they hoped that they were aberrations, or that the congressman would come to his senses and keep whatever bigotry he harbored in his heart to himself.

But that approach proved too lenient. Earlier this year, King finally made indisputably clear what many had long suspected during an interview with the New York Times, in which he said: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” He had finally crossed the line, and Republicans — who could not expel him from their caucus under party rules — removed him from all committee assignments. (King has argued that the quote was mischaracterized.)

Democrats need to do the same thing with Omar. They might hope that she will straighten up, but as the GOP learned with King, bigotry can be a deep-rooted plant.

Keeping Omar on her committees when Republicans have divested King of his harms Democratic claims that their party is pure of heart. Democrats have regularly insinuated or called Republicans racists or sexists, even when such claims are transparently attenuated. (See: How they twisted Mitt Romney’s statement during the 2012 presidential campaign that, as governor, he had compiled “binders full of women” to improve gender diversity into claims that he was, in fact, sexist.) Democrats are united in their belief that President Trump is a racist, sexist bigot. Running against that image is central to their attempts to regain the White House. How can they credibly maintain that line of attack if they harbor someone such as Omar?

They ought to look to Britain if they want to see how anti-Semitism can poison a party. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly been attacked as an anti-Semite because of statements and appearances at events that can have no other honest interpretation. Eight Labour members of Parliament have now left the party, citing the unwillingness of Corbyn’s party to honestly purge anti-Semitism from its ranks as one reason for their departures. Labour now trails the governing Conservative Party by as many as 11 points in recent polls, despite the government’s incredibly incompetent handling of Brexit.

History gives House Democrats a clear example of what they must do. The famous Roman leader Julius Caesar divorced his wife because of accusations that she had tried to meet a lover during a female-only religious ceremony. Even though the allegations were never proved, Caesar said his wife must be beyond suspicion and sent her packing. So, too, it must be with the Democrats. If they wish to credibly maintain that they have no tolerance for bigotry in any of its forms, they must be beyond suspicion of such. They must remove Omar from all of her committees now, or forever risk that bigotry will haunt them for the remainder of her time in office.

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