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House Democratic leaders move to broaden anti-Semitism resolution to deal with other religious bigotry

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), left, seen on Capitol Hill on Feb. 27. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Democratic leaders moved Tuesday to broaden a resolution condemning anti-Semitism to encompass other types of religious bigotry after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other liberal lawmakers and groups bristled at the attempt to sanction Rep. Ilhan Omar for comments targeting supporters of Israel.

Top party officials drew up plans specifically targeting anti-Semitism — circulating a draft Monday that did not mention Omar (D-Minn.) directly but came in response to remarks she made last week suggesting that Israel’s supporters have an “allegiance to a foreign country.” But Tuesday those plans were thrown into doubt after the response split the Democratic caucus, with several lawmakers angry that the House was poised to vote on a measure indirectly condemning Omar while failing to denounce the vitriol that she has faced as a Muslim.

Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told her 3.4 million Twitter followers Tuesday that “no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about Latinx + other communities,” mentioning an incident in which Rep. Jason T. Smith (R-Mo.) shouted “Go back to Puerto Rico!” at Democrats during a floor debate this year.

“It’s not my position to tell people how to feel, or that their hurt is invalid,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “But incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’ ”

The tweets were an implicit critique of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who moved to put the anti- Semitism resolution on the House floor after Omar’s comments last week prompted several Jewish members to push for a rebuke.

Twice this year, Omar has apologized for tweets that critics said had anti-Semitic overtones, but she has defended her latest comments questioning Israel supporters’ “allegiance” — arguing that she is only raising questions about Israeli government policy and U.S. support for it. She declined to comment to reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Top Democratic leaders met in Pelosi’s office Tuesday to discuss the resolution language. Heading into the meeting, Hoyer said the timing of votes was “still being discussed.” Coming out, several members said the resolution would be broadened.

Two Democratic aides said language would be added to condemn anti-Muslim bias specifically, while another said it could condemn religious hatred generally.

“Our party stands strong against anti-Semitism, our party stands strong against racism, our party opposes bigotry and prejudice and discrimination, and so we should be careful that we’re not sending the wrong messages to people,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.),a junior member of the House Democratic leadership.

Pelosi on Tuesday declined to discuss what the resolution would ultimately say but said it would get a vote this week. She said she spoke to Omar over the weekend about her comments but did not disclose details of the conversation.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), who helped craft the initial resolution concerning anti-Semitism, would not say whether he supported something broader, nor would he say whether he would prefer Omar’s name be included in the resolution.

“We’re talking about anti-Semitism because my colleagues happened to say some very hurtful things,” he said. “But I think that all attempts to demean a group of people, whether it’s Muslims or LGBT people, we have to be very strong and forceful in condemning it.”

Omar’s allies pointed to an incident last week in the West Virginia state capitol where a sign was posted at a state Republican Party event falsely linking Omar, an immigrant from Somalia who wears a traditional Muslim headdress, with the 9/11 attacks. They suggested the House should rebuke that behavior, as well.

The leaders of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a left-wing political advocacy group, sent a fundraising email Tuesday criticizing Democratic lawmakers who “thought this would be a really good time to go on Twitter and . . . attack Ilhan while defending big-money interests. It’s shameful. Absolutely shameful.”

And in Ocasio-Cortez, the breakout liberal star of the House freshman class, Omar has a powerful ally who is able to reach a wide audience on social media. On Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez wrote that Omar “has demonstrated a willingness to listen+work w/impacted communities” and thus should not be subject to a “calling out” from fellow Democrats in the House.

“If House leadership is creating a standard & committing to calling a resolution for every incident . . . then that’s a clear way to address the issue & we can all understand,” she added. “But if they’re not, I think it’s valid to ask why not.”

A senior Democratic aide noted that Smith quickly apologized for his “go back to Puerto Rico” remark and that the lawmaker targeted, Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), did not pursue official sanctions against Smith.

Ocasio-Cortez’s tweets came hours after President Trump used his Twitter account — with nearly 59 million followers — to lambaste Omar: “Representative Ilhan Omar is again under fire for her terrible comments concerning Israel,” he said. “Jewish groups have just sent a petition to Speaker Pelosi asking her to remove Omar from Foreign Relations Committee. A dark day for Israel!”

Questioned about the resolution, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it was time for the country “to think again about anti-
Semitism,” and criticized Omar without mentioning her by name.

“It seems to be more fashionable in Europe; it seems to be more fashionable in this country, regretfully, among at least some members of the new class in the House,” McConnell told reporters at his weekly news conference. “We need to stand up to it in every way we possibly can.”

Amid pressure from Republicans, Democratic leaders are not considering removing Omar from any committee posts, according to three people familiar with the internal discussions among party leaders, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity. But they are mindful of how the increasingly aggressive criticism of Israeli government policy from Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and other liberals is creating tensions inside the Democratic caucus, where pro-Israel sentiment generally remains strong.

On Monday, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) tweeted that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable” — prompting Ocasio-Cortez to ask him publicly to “further explain his stance.”

“I remember a time when it was ‘unacceptable’ to question the Iraq War. All of Congress was wrong, including both GOP & Dem Party, and led my generation into a disastrous + wrong war that virtually all would come to regret,” she wrote.

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