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What the firestorm over Rep. Omar’s remarks says about anti-Semitism in America

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., faced a firestorm recently after suggesting political support for Israel might entail "allegiance to a foreign country." After critics slammed her remarks as anti-Semitic, the freshman congresswoman apologized, and House Democrats wrote a resolution condemning bigotry. Nick Schifrin talks to The Israel Project’s Josh Block and J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We return now to today's vote in the House on a resolution denouncing bigotry in many forms.

    Nick Schifrin looks now at the path to this divisive debate on Capitol Hill.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For years, Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar has criticized Israeli policies. As a candidate, she argued that criticism wasn't the same as criticism of Jews.

  • Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.:

    I see there being a difference between criticism of a country, criticism of its administration and its government, and criticism of the people and their faith.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, in February, Republicans targeted her Israel comments. And she said she was being attacked because — quote — "It's all about the Benjamins, baby," suggesting $100 bills created support for Israel.

    When asked who she thought was paying U.S. politicians to be pro-Israel, she replied, the powerful lobbying group AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Her critics accused her of repeating anti-Semitic tropes linking Jewish influence to money. By the next day, she deleted the tweets, but Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has called her criticism inappropriate.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.:

    The language they are using is wrong. And I would say their leadership is wrong for not standing up to it. It is unacceptable in this country, especially when you sit back and you thought about and you listened to what this country went through in World War II.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The same day, her own party issued a statement saying her — quote — "use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel's supporters is deeply offensive."

    Omar, who is Muslim and black, issued a statement thanking her colleagues for — quote — "educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes." She said, "I unequivocally apologize," but also criticized the — quote — "problematic role of lobbyists in our politics."

    It's not the first time she's apologized. During the 2012 conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, she tweeted: "Israel has hypnotized the world. May Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel."

    In January, she labeled that tweet unfortunate and offensive. But President Trump said those apologies weren't enough.

  • Donald Trump:

    What she said is so deep-seated in her heart that her lame apology — and that's what it was, it was lame and she didn't mean a word of it — was just not appropriate.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nearly a month later, at an event with Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib, Omar was asked about U.S. policy toward Israel.

  • Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.:

    I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask, why it is OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA or fossil fuel industries or big pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policy?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Her critics called her reference to allegiance an anti-Semitic trope, accusing Jews of having more loyalty to each other than to their own countries.

    On the same day, a poster brought to a Republican event in West Virginia linked her to 9/11.

    By today's vote, Democrats expanded their resolution from anti-Semitism to condemning bigotry in many forms.

    Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi:

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    It is in the spirit of unity and solidarity with my colleagues, as we come together in this chamber of our American democracy to condemn all forms of hatred, racism, prejudice, and discrimination with a hopefully single and strong voice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the vote specifically condemned anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all forms of hate.

    Now we get the views from leaders of two politically active Jewish organizations in Washington.

    Jeremy Ben-Ami is founder and president of J Street, which describes itself as a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy organization. And Josh Block, chief executive officer of The Israel Project, which describes itself as an educational organization dedicated to informing the media and the public about Israel and the Middle East. He worked at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, for nearly a decade.

    Thank you both for being on "NewsHour."

    Josh Block, let me start with you.

    Ilhan Omar says she's trying to criticize Israeli policy, she's trying to criticize the role of Jewish lobby groups, specifically AIPAC, in Washington. What is wrong with that?

  • Josh Block:

    There is nothing wrong with making policy concerns about Israel known, or even suggesting you think that the other folks in the political process are wrong.

    I think the trouble here is that there's been a pattern of using specific language that seeks to marginalize and stigmatize Jewish participation in the political process, in a way that's very dangerous for Jews.

    This kind of language that we have seen seep into the political process in the United Kingdom is creating a climate that's unsafe for Jews. And I think we need to be very conscious here of the need to stand up and make sure that the kinds of anti-Semitic language, tropes, ideas don't cloud the conversation when it comes to the discussion of Israel, which is a legitimate and important policy conversation to have.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jeremy Ben-Ami, is the language dangerous?

  • Jeremy Ben-Ami:

    Well, I think we can all agree that there is serious anti-Semitism in this country. It's a scourge that I think we're going to continue to fight for the rest of our lives and beyond.

    But I think the larger question for the society right now is, where does this atmosphere of hate and intolerance and racism come from? There is an atmosphere that's been created in this country, and it starts at the top with the president of the United States. And it has been created across the board. It's not simply about anti-Semitism.

    It's affected people of Muslim faiths, people of color, and we have an atmosphere right now that white nationalism, white supremacy coming from the right politically has created the atmosphere in which we're operating. That needs to be called out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Josh Block, can we get to some of the substance of what Ilhan Omar…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Josh Block:

    Yes, sure.

    I just want to say, I think the problem with the framing of the conversation in the way of right, left is, it really gets to the issue. The problem is anti-Semitism and the language that seeks to ostracize, delegitimize and disenfranchise Jewish participation in the political process.

    And that language is insidious. And it needs to be singled out and stopped. And so when we then suggest that critics who have objected to Ilhan Omar's remarks in February were from the right, they weren't. The two Democratic members of Congress who sparked the discussion were Democrats.

    The concerns are being voiced by Jerry Nadler. We missed in the package earlier her tweet to a senior member, Nita Lowey, in which she accused her of being a dual loyalist.

    The language is — I think Jeremy is right. There is a problem in our society. Jews are targeted six out of 10 times by religiously motivated hate crimes. They are the number-one target of those crimes per capita in the country. Unfortunately, that's been the case for two decades.

    It's not just since the election of — this last presidential election. We need to be honest about the virality of this hate and confront it on both sides. And we should be clear, all bigotry and racism has no place in the discussion.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jeremy Ben-Ami, I want to bring the Israeli government into this conversation.

    Many journalists who have lived in Jerusalem, including me, have been accused of anti-Semitism for criticizing Israeli policies. Do you believe the Israeli government has encouraged the idea that critics of Israel are anti-Semitic?

  • Jeremy Ben-Ami:

    Well, I think there is a pattern, and there are some in Israeli politics, I think there are some in the politics of this country, who do try to weaponize the charge of anti-Semitism in order to shut down debate.

    And I think there are instances where language goes too far. And I would agree with Josh, there are those instances. But there are many other instances and many more where the charge of anti-Semitism is used in order to delegitimize the critic or the journalist or the person who is talking, and it does shut down debate.

    It stifles the discussion of the actual issues that matter. How do we best end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What are the actions that can be taken to help Palestinians and Israelis find a better future? And, sometimes, we can't have that discussion because the, first time you criticize Israel you're called an anti-Semite.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Josh Block, is that debate being scuttled by people who are using the word anti-Semite too much?

  • Josh Block:

    I think it's a specious argument to suggest that there's no criticism of Israel or that criticism of Israel is regularly stifled by such accusations.

    In fact, I think what we see is, again, the weaponization of this dialogue by folks on both the left and the right who are seeking to advance their political gain.

    I think that we ought to focus on repairing the breach and educating those about the need to engage in civil dialogue around these policy issues. Now, again, I think it's certainly the case that we want to see evolution in Ilhan Omar's views.

    But I have to say, I'm deeply alarmed by the resistance that we all saw in the Democratic Caucus to moving forward swiftly and clearly in a denunciation. The circus that took place is a concern.

    I think, for American Jews, those of us who have believed that for, however many decades, that the elected officials United States would act unequivocally and forcefully without delay in any way to confront these things, we should pause for a moment and really reflect on where we are as a society and how much more we have to do.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jeremy Ben-Ami, I want to bring up President Trump. You mentioned him before.

    A couple of incidents here during the campaign, he tweeted an ad with Hillary Clinton — there it is — "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever" inside the Star of David. His closing ad during the campaign — I think we have got some stills of that — he talked about money and global special interests over video of those three people, prominent Jews.

    More recently, in Charlottesville, when white supremacists chanted "Death to Jews" there, the president said there were fine people on both sides, and more recently suggested activist George Soros, who's Jewish, might have funded the campaign — or the caravan, rather, coming up from Mexico.

    Is that accelerating anti-Semitism?

  • Jeremy Ben-Ami:

    Oh, absolutely.

    I mean, I think that the tone for the country is set at the top. And, unfortunately, I think that this president and some of the enablers around him — and, in this case, unfortunately, it is within the Republican Party, and it is on Capitol Hill and in the White House — they are enabling an atmosphere in which this kind of hate is festering.

    And the Pittsburgh shooter wasn't motivated by tweets that were critical of Israeli policy. The Pittsburgh shooter was motivated by this atmosphere of anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish hatred that has been fomented and made possible. And I don't see the Republican Caucus engaging in kind of condemnation of the president that we see here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Very quickly from both of you, are you worried that Israel is becoming a partisan issue? We have got a new generation of Democrats, younger, more progressive, who are more interested in criticizing Israel.

  • JOSH BLOCK:

    Look, I think there's a unanimous consensus among the American public that Israel is one of our closest allies in the world. That's not changing.

    I think we see a strong bipartisan support for Israel in Congress. The U.S.' relationship isn't reduced to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is much more there. And so I think we will see a robust relationship for many years to come.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Quick answer on that?

  • Jeremy Ben-Ami:

    I do think that Israel is becoming a partisan political football.

    And I think that folks on the right are trying to turn it into a culture war issue, rather than a serious policy discussion.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Josh Block of The Israel Project, Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, thank you very much to both.

  • Jeremy Ben-Ami:

    Thank you.

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