The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pelosi left with no good options for how to address Rep. Ilhan Omar’s controversial Israel comments

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

The first time Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said something about the U.S. government’s support for Israel that was perceived by critics as perpetuating an anti-Semitic stereotype, condemnation from her fellow Democrats was hard and swift. She apologized.

Then Omar made another comment about pro-Israel advocates pressing for “allegiance to a foreign country” that some also found offensive. The calls for a strong rebuke of Omar from within and outside the party have Democratic leaders grappling with how to handle it.

Their answer is a formal rebuke in the form of a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism — and in a last minute add, Islamophobia — on which the House plans to vote on Thursday.

Rep. Omar’s comments force Democrats to act on anti-Semitism measure

But to what end? Does Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) bring up a resolution every time Omar says something about Israel that some think is anti-Semitic? Does she kick Omar off the Foreign Affairs Committee, as some Republicans had called for even before these latest comments?

After all, Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, has continued to question the United States’ foreign policy as it pertains to Israel even after the rebuke. And if criticizing Israel is conflated with criticizing the Jewish population, then Omar is going to continue to give her critics fodder.

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)

It leaves Pelosi, and to a larger extent the Democratic Party, in an untenable position. No matter what, Pelosi risks alienating people within her ranks who either feel that she hasn’t done enough to condemn anti-Semitism or that the party is unfairly singling Omar out for punishment.

Many high-ranking Jewish Democrats in Congress have been extremely critical of Omar’s comments and have put pressure on leadership to take action. But in recent days, the progressive wing of the caucus has risen to Omar’s defense, including her friend Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Ocasio-Cortez has been using her tremendous reach on social media to defend Omar and criticizing what she says is the double standard of not calling for resolutions when lawmakers trade in xenophobic, sexist or racist tropes.

“One of the things that is hurtful about the extent to which reprimand is sought of Ilhan is that no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about Latinx + other communities,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which saw its ranks grow after last year’s midterms, is raising money for Omar and members who defend her, while encouraging its supporters to sign a petition urging “every congressional Democrat to show public solidarity with Ilhan Omar — not attack her — in the face of anti-Muslim racist attacks.”

The above is a reference to a poster that hung in the West Virginia State Capital over the weekend showing the burning Twin Towers next to a photo of Omar with the caption, “'Never forget,’ you said … I am the proof — you have forgotten.”

There’s also a question of moral purity in the age of President Trump. Democrats have taken a no-nonsense stance when it comes to issues of sexual misconduct, racism and anti-Semitism to maintain moral high ground against Republicans, who have let many of Trump’s words and actions slide. Trump has jumped all over Omar’s comments as marking a “dark day for Israel.”

An intractable battle over Middle East policy is probably the last thing Pelosi wants dividing her caucus and soaking attention away from her legislative goals. This week, the House will pass Democrats’ signature legislation on overhauling ethics, lobbying, election and voting laws.

But instead of focusing on that, Pelosi is navigating a delicate balance on a very emotional issue while trying to avoid causing further disunity.