correction: An earlier version of this story used the incorrect title of “reverend” for Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Republicans are focusing their ire at the two Muslim women in Congress, accusing them of anti-Semitism and pressuring Democratic leaders to rebuke the lawmakers as attitudes in the party toward Israel shift from unquestioned support.
The pressure on Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) is part of a larger GOP effort to drive a partisan wedge into the traditionally nonpartisan relationship between the United States and Israel. Republicans are casting themselves as the more resolute defender of Israel, heightening the party’s appeal to traditionally Democratic Jewish voters.
The Democratic Party’s renewed internal debate over Israel is certain to have repercussions in 2020 for congressional candidates as well as White House hopefuls challenging President Trump, whose unwavering support of Israel and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have won plaudits in the Jewish state.
Dozens of liberal Democrats have been critical of Israeli government policy, and some — including Omar and Tlaib — have endorsed what is known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, meant to apply economic pressure on Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinian population.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Friday that Democratic leaders, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), should admonish Omar and Tlaib, and suggested the situation was worse than the firestorm over the racially charged comments of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
King over the years has repeatedly targeted immigrants and minorities, and last year met with members of a far-right Austrian party with historical Nazi ties during a trip to Europe. Last month, Republicans stripped King of his committee assignments after he questioned whether white supremacy was offensive.
“We took action on our own side. I think when they stay silent, they are just as guilty,” McCarthy said. “I think this will not be the end of this.”
Pelosi and Democratic leaders have declined to directly address the conservative backlash to Omar and Tlaib. McCarthy said the GOP would try to force a response.
One GOP option is to seek a vote on a resolution by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) rejecting “anti-
Israel and anti-Semitic hatred in the United States and around the world.” The resolution mentions Omar and Tlaib alongside Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, leaders of the liberal Women’s March, as well as the 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville and last year’s mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
The accusations of anti-Semitism are rooted in statements and associations that appear less clear-cut than the controversies created by King.
In 2012, Omar said in a tweet that “Israel has hypnotized the world” and referred to “the evil doings of Israel.” Under pressure last month, Omar disavowed “the anti-Semitic trope I unknowingly used, which is unfortunate and offensive” but stood by her criticism of Israeli policy.
Tlaib came under fire last month after a Daily Caller report identified a campaign supporter, Maher Abdel-Qader, as having posted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook — including to a group that included Tlaib. Another campaign ally, Abbas Hamideh, also made comments critical of Israel in social media posts, referring to “Zionist terrorists” and asserting that Israel “does not have a right to exist.”
Last month, Tlaib attacked the sponsors of a Senate bill that would undermine the BDS movement by tweeting, “They forgot what country they represent.” That prompted criticism from Republicans and a few Democrats, who saw in that comment a frequent anti-Semitic insinuation.
This past week, the Senate approved the bill on a 77-to-23 vote. The legislation divided Democrats, with several presidential candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), opposing the measure.
Ralph Reed, the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and an ally of the Trump White House, said Republicans are working to “change the center of gravity in the American electorate on the issue of Israel.”
“The leftward drift of the grass roots of the Democrat Party, away from wholehearted and robust support of Israel, means you have people in that party who see Israel through the prism of apartheid and occupation,” he said. “That’s an opportunity for Republicans to say, ‘That’s not how we see Israel.’ ”
Some Republicans have pointed to a recent phone call between Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the high-profile young leader of her party’s hard-left wing, to British lawmaker Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the Labour Party who has come under intense criticism for tolerating anti-Semitism in his ranks.
Both Omar and Tlaib have denounced their critics as attempting to conflate their policy views with hatred and say they themselves have been subject to harassment and physical threats.
“Republican attacks are nothing more than an attempt to discredit my position as a member of Congress and distract from the real hate within their own party — including from the president himself,” Omar said in a statement provided before McCarthy spoke Friday.
Tlaib declined an interview Thursday, and a spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. She said in a recent statement to the New York Times that it was “disappointing that some of my colleagues are feeding into the hate and division and mislabeling me to ignite fear.”
“I urge those fighting against racism and all forms of hate, including anti-Semitism, to not fall for the rhetoric from right-wing media and elected officials who relentlessly attack communities of color,” she said.
One Democratic House aide, who was not authorized to comment publicly on internal strategy, said leaders are uninterested in responding to what they consider to be “trolling.” Another aide said Republicans have “extensive exposure” in their ranks.
“Steve King is just the tip of the iceberg,” that aide said. “If Mr. McCarthy would like to vote on his members’ racist, homophobic and other deeply offensive remarks on a weekly basis, then we suggest he proceed with his plan to target Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib.”
Multiple Democratic lawmakers and strategists interviewed over the past week argued that the apparent rift within the party over Israel is overstated, and several said that any changing attitudes had less to do with BDS or Palestinian sympathies and more to do with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s courting of Republican politicians — including Trump — and his clash with former president Barack Obama over his nuclear deal with Iran.
Steve Rabinowitz, a veteran Democratic consultant who worked in the Clinton White House, said Republicans are “having a field day because two Muslim women got elected to Congress, and all of sudden they want to say the sky is falling.”
“It’s not the end of the world or changing the party’s traditional pro-Israel position,” Rabinowitz said. “Respectfully, these freshman members aren’t leading Democrats on Israel.”
But some Democrats have spoken out about repairing the party’s increasing skepticism about the U.S.-Israel relationship, such as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), whose panel includes Omar. And some prominent Democrats last month formed a new political committee, Democratic Majority for Israel, aimed at solidifying the party’s support of Israel.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), a former Democratic National Committee chairwoman who pushed for strong pro-Israel planks in the party’s recent platforms, said it was the Republican attacks, not the allegations against Omar and Tlaib, that were politicizing the countries’ relationship.
“The fact that we have a few outlier members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, who are not supportive in the same way as the overwhelming majority of the Congress . . . does not mean that there has been any erosion of support,” she said.
Still, Republicans appear trained on making the Democratic Party at large answer for Omar and Tlaib. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the House Republican Conference chairwoman, accused Democratic leaders of “enabling the growth and the rise in anti-Semitism among their caucus by their silence.”
“We have seen in history where anti-Semitism hides itself. People try to hide it in phrases, they try to hide it in keywords, they try to hide it by saying, ‘Well, look, I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m anti-Israel or anti-Zionist,’ and I think that that’s all just absolutely wrong,” she said. “It’s been clear that there has been an acceptance of that kind of language on the Democratic side of the aisle.”
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump political adviser, said the president will be mindful of the Democratic schism on the issue. He said senior GOP strategists are studying how Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, was dogged by past remarks that were critical of the Israeli response to some Palestinian attacks.
“He is going to look at what’s going on with the three new Democrats in Congress and not let Democrats forget about them,” Nunberg said, referring to Omar, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez.
That effort is already well underway on Capitol Hill. McCarthy, who weathered an anti-Semitic controversy of his own last year after accusing Jewish financier George Soros of trying to buy the midterm elections, compared the Democrats’ silence “to what this country went through in World War II,” in an apparent reference to the Holocaust.
“We’re nowhere near anything like that,” McCarthy added. “But why stay silent now? Have we not learned from the mistakes of the past? Have you not in a leadership position, have a responsibility?