Ilhan Omar | The other voice 

The Democratic Congresswoman, one of the strongest critics of America’s Israel policy, was ousted from the House Foreign Affairs Committee over alleged anti-Semitism

February 05, 2023 01:27 am | Updated 12:04 pm IST

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Ilhan Omar, 40, a Democrat who represents Minnesota’s fifth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, was removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee on charges of having made anti-Semitic and anti-American remarks. The House witnessed a contentious debate during which Ms. Omar made the case that she was being targeted for identity — of being a Muslim, an immigrant, and a person of colour. The debate, Ms. Omar said, was not about alleged anti-Semitism but “about who gets to be American” and “what opinions do we have to have to be counted as Americans”.

But House representatives voted along party lines and the Republican-sponsored resolution was passed 218-211. The move against Ms. Omar — a former refugee from Somalia and one of just two Muslim women in Congress — sparked strong condemnation and charges of bigotry from the Democrats.

Charges of anti-Semitism have dogged Ms. Omar right from the beginning of her trailblazing political career. Born into a prominent family of civil servants in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1982, she was the youngest of seven children. Civil war broke out when she was seven, and her family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, where they lived for four years. They moved to the U.S. after getting asylum in 1995.

Ms. Omar began her professional life in Minneapolis, Minnesota — an area with a large East African population — as a community nutrition educator and coordinator. She made headlines as a rising star when in November 2016 she won an election to the Minnesota House of Representatives. In June 2018, she filed to run for the U.S. Congress and won.

As a hijab-wearing, African, Muslim, former refugee, woman and a staunch leftist, Ms. Omar became a favourite target of the then Trump-led Republicans, with Mr. Trump himself targeting her on social media and public rallies, so much so that she began to receive death threats and had to be given extra security. In 2019, Ms. Omar had tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby”, to suggest that the main reason U.S. politicians keep defending Israel in the teeth of evidence that it is violating the human rights of Palestinians is because they are paid to do so by pro-Israel lobbies. In a subsequent tweet, she named the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The reaction to these tweets was swift and bipartisan. Even as vitriol rained down on her from the Republicans, the Democratic leadership, led by then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, put out a public statement calling her tweet “anti-Semitic”. She apologised.

Public knowledge

It is indeed public knowledge that AIPAC spends millions of dollars to influence American legislators. However, it is also true that historically, tropes about Jewish money and its political potency have been used to target the community. A cannier politician would have been careful to point out the role played by pro-Israel lobbies without seeming to suggest that money was the reason why American lawmakers defend Israel.

The second controversy involved Ms. Omar raising the issue of ‘dual allegiance’ — also a common anti-Semitic trope used to question the patriotism of Jews. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she said, referring to Israel. Her remarks were condemned as anti-Semitic.

Ms. Omar has said the charges flung against her are derived not from the content of her remarks but her identity as a Muslim. Charging someone with “anti-Semitism” is a good way to end the debate, as the focus then shifts to the person’s character rather than what she is saying. In this instance, Ms. Omar’s criticism of American foreign policy — that its blindness to Israel’s excesses constitutes a violation of the much touted American values of equality, liberty and dignity — has been sidelined.

Ms. Omar belongs to a generation of Democrats who rode the upswing of progressive politics unleashed by Bernie Sanders. It was this generation that also made it more acceptable to criticise Israel. Ms. Omar’s strident appeal to match American policy with American values has also sharpened the cleavages between the progressives and the centrists in the Democratic party.

Had she been allowed to serve, Ms. Omar may have introduced a perspective that tends to go unrepresented in the House Foreign Affairs Committee: how the rest of the world experiences American militarism. This is perhaps another factor that has made her presence unpalatable to many in Washington. She may have lost this battle. But the firebrand Congresswoman and mother of three has vowed to fight back. “If I am not on this committee for one term, my voice will get louder and stronger…” she said. “So take your votes or not. I am here to stay.”

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