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Opinion Ilhan Omar is getting off the hook

Rep. Ilhan Omar's (D-Minn.) remarks on Israel have pushed Democrats into two camps, setting up a harsh divide for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to navigate. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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Tribalism is one of the most powerful instincts in the world. It can be a force for good when it leads soldiers or first responders to risk their lives for others. But it can also be a dark, destructive impulse that leads to the demonization of outsiders and a willingness to protect your own at all costs, no matter how wrong they may be.

Republicans are destroying themselves morally, intellectually and politically because their tribalism leads them to excuse egregious misbehavior by President Trump. They would never allow a Democrat to get away with flattering Communist dictators, paying hush money to alleged mistresses, encouraging foreign interference in U.S. elections, denigrating the FBI, spending money by executive decree that Congress hasn’t appropriated or a thousand other sins. But when Trump does it, it somehow becomes okay, because he is “one of us.”

Republicans’ lack of any principles beyond loyalty to their supreme leader has created an opportunity for Democrats to seize the moral high ground — to show that they are more honorable and righteous. But in dealing with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Democrats are blowing their chance.

Omar has a long and dismaying record of anti-Semitic utterances. In 2012, she tweeted: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel.” As Bari Weiss noted in the New York Times, “The conspiracy theory of the Jew as the hypnotic conspirator, the duplicitous manipulator, the sinister puppeteer is one with ancient roots and a bloody history.”

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Then, last month, Omar suggested that Congress supports Israel because of the impact of AIPAC’s money — “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee does not actually give campaign contributions, although its members do.) Democratic leaders in the House condemned her “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters,” and she apologized.

But Omar seems to have learned nothing from that incident. Just last week, she said this about the U.S.-Israel alliance: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” When Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D.-N.Y.) politely asked her to retract that statement, Omar responded, “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.”

No one ever accuses supporters of the U.S.-Britain “special relationship” of owing allegiance to a foreign country. Nor do supporters of the U.S. alliances with Canada, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Poland or any other country face such accusations. Only supporters of Israel. This is an old and ugly anti-Semitic canard.

It should be a no-brainer for Democrats to condemn what Omar said — just as the House finally, belatedly condemned Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) in January for his promotion of white supremacy. The House leadership was preparing a resolution to do just that, but on Wednesday, the Democratic caucus rebelled.

Many Democrats objected that it was wrong to only condemn Omar’s anti-Semitic statements when she herself has faced bigotry as a Muslim. That’s a legitimate point. Anti-Muslim bias is as wrong as anti-Jewish bias. But even adding a condemnation of Islamophobia wasn’t sufficient. Instead, the House is poised to pass an anodyne resolution condemning all hatred, thereby letting Omar off the hook. King was stripped of his committee assignments, but Omar will remain on the Foreign Affairs Committee. It seems that Democrats simply don’t want to censure one of their own, and to avoid doing so they will do the same kind of mental pirouettes that Republicans perform to avoid condemning Trump.

Omar’s defenders — who, I am sad to say, include presidential candidates Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — suggest that to criticize her is to “stifle” debate and to equate any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Wrong. It’s perfectly legitimate to criticize Israel. I do it myself: I think that Israel’s settlement policies are undermining the chances of a two-state solution and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing grave damage to the Jewish state by embracing right-wing extremists at home and abroad.

But Omar wasn’t criticizing Israeli policies. She was criticizing Israel’s supporters by suggesting that they are not loyal Americans. That’s textbook anti-Semitism.

That Democrats hesitate to call out Omar sends a deeply dispiriting signal about the party’s direction. It raises the risk that anti-Semitism, in the guise of anti-Zionism, may become institutionalized within its ranks. That has already occurred with the British Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who once referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends.” (He later said he regretted using that language.)

The Democratic failure is even allowing Trump, of all people, to posture as an opponent of bigotry. This is the same president who said that there were “very fine people” among the white supremacists in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” who suggested that Jewish billionaire George Soros might be behind the Central American refugee caravans, and who chose the very same foreign policy slogan — America First — as the Nazi sympathizers of the 1930s. Trump may be pro-Israel, but, given his long record of racism, he has no credibility to condemn any kind of prejudice. But Democrats will undermine their own credibility to call out Trump’s racism if they are not willing to police their own ranks. Tribalism is terrible, whether on the right or the left.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The dishonest smearing of Ilhan Omar

Henry Olsen: Ilhan Omar is the Steve King of the left

Jennifer Rubin: The Ilhan Omar controversy is a self-inflicted wound

Dana Milbank: Ilhan Omar is using President Trump’s playbook

Jackson Diehl: The Democrats have an Israel problem — and it’s not Ilhan Omar