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Rep. Omar’s latest tweets expose the thin line between criticizing Israel and being labeled anti-Semitic

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes the thin line between criticizing Israel and being labeled anti-Semitic, after Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) comments about AIPAC. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Several incoming Democrats were elected due to their support for ideas popular with the Democratic Party’s more progressive base — including increased criticism of Israel. Some liberals believe that the treatment of those residing within the West Bank by America’s strongest ally in the Middle East has been deeply concerning for decades. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s staunch support for the Trump administration has caused some on the left to fear that the Israeli government could be growing increasingly conservative.

But a recent tweet from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress — is the latest example of how some of the newest members of Congress are struggling to criticize Israel without incurring condemnation and accusations of anti-Semitism.

Omar suggested in a tweet Sunday that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) supports Israel only for campaign donations.

“It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she tweeted, referencing the 1997 Puff Daddy hit featuring the Notorious B.I.G., Lil’ Kim and The Lox.

Omar was responding to a tweet from Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who criticized the Republican Party as “obscene” for equating criticism of Israel by Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) to Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King’s history of sympathizing with white supremacists.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Feb. 8 slammed comments about Israel from Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). (Video: Reuters)

After people asked Omar what she meant by responding to questions about McCarthy’s motives by tweeting a song about getting money, she tweeted, “AIPAC,” an acronym for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group known for spending millions over the years to send lawmakers on visits to Israel.

McCarthy has been a critic of Omar since she came to Washington, and on Friday he urged Democratic leadership to admonish her and Tlaib for their support of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, which aims to put economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank. McCarthy, who led the GOP’s recent criticism of King after years of relative silence about his white supremacist sympathies, argued that Omar’s positions on Israel are worse than recent remarks from King that were widely denounced as racist.

The pushback against Omar’s tweet was strong from those on both sides of the aisle who believe that Omar was playing into a stereotype about wealthy Jews and their political power. But defenders stepped up to argue that Omar was correct — AIPAC does spend its resources trying to encourage lawmakers to vote for policies that benefit the Israeli government. In 2018, AIPAC, which is not a political action committee, spent more than $3.5 million lobbying for pro-Israel legislation. Although the organization does not make campaign contributions to politicians, its individual members can.

But Omar’s response alarmed lawmakers who fear that the BDS movement could be growing in influence and that those affiliated with it are leaning into anti-Semitism.

Two Jewish House Democrats, concerned by what they view as anti-Semitic comments from their new Muslim colleagues, are urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her top lieutenants to denounce the divisive rhetoric and take action to stop it.

Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Elaine Luria (D-Va.) plan to submit a letter to Pelosi and other senior Democrats requesting that they confront Omar and Tlaib about their “recent rhetoric.”

The letter says: “We cannot remain silent in the face of hateful speech or actions. We know what happens in our communities when leaders ignore or embrace unacceptable rhetoric. That is why we have an obligation to speak out against anti-Semitism and to vigorously confront, challenge, and defeat those who traffic in these harmful tropes and smears.”

Omar released a statement later Monday apologizing for her comments but said Americans must address “the problematic role of lobbyist in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”

Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank is an issue of growing concern among some liberals — particularly millennials, who are now the country’s largest demographic and who showed their political power during the midterm elections by helping Democrats retake the House. But finding a way to criticize the Israeli government without being charged with anti-Semitism is something that some new lawmakers have yet to master. And some Democrats fear that this battle is getting worse.

The Democratic Party is going into 2020 arguing that, demographically, it is significantly more multicultural in values than the GOP. But finding out how to make room for members who strongly back Israel, as well as those who want to see Washington curtail support for the Israeli government, is going to be one of the party’s biggest challenges in the area of diversity — not just optically but in terms of policymaking.