Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., walks to the chamber Thursday, March 7, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington, as the House was preparing to vote on a resolution to speak out against, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, "anti-Semitism, anti-Islamophobia, anti-white supremacy and all the forms that it takes," an action sparked by remarks from Omar (Photo: AP)
Divided in debate but mostly united in a final vote, the House passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other bigotry. Democrats are trying to push past a dispute that has overwhelmed their agenda and exposed fault lines that could shadow them through next year’s elections.
The one-sided 407-23 vote Thursday belied the emotional infighting over how to respond to freshman Rep. lIhan Omar’s recent comments suggesting House supporters of Israel have dual allegiances. For days, Democrats wrestled with whether or how to punish the Minnesota Democratic lawmaker, arguing over whether Omar, one of two Muslim women in Congress, should be singled out, what other types of bias should be decried in the text and whether the party would tolerate dissenting views on Israel.
Republicans generally joined in the favorable vote, though nearly two-dozen opposed the measure, one calling it a “sham.”
Generational as well as ideological, the argument was fueled in part by young, liberal lawmakers — and voters — who have become a face of the newly empowered Democratic majority in the House. These lawmakers are critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, rejecting the conservative leader’s approach to Palestinians and other issues.
They split sharply from Democratic leaders who seemed caught off guard by the support for Omar and unprepared for the debate. But the leaders regrouped.
“It’s not about her. It’s about these forms of hatred,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said before the vote.
The resolution approved Thursday condemns anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities “as hateful expressions of intolerance.” Omar, a Somali-American, and fellow Muslims Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Andrew Carson of Indiana, issued a statement praising the “historic” vote as the first resolution to condemn “anti-Muslim bigotry.”
Some Democrats complained that Omar’s comments on Israel had ignited all this debate while years of President Donald Trump’s racially charged rhetoric had led to no similar congressional action.
The seven-page document details a history of recent attacks not only against Jews in the United States but also Muslims, as it condemns all such discrimination as contradictory to “the values and aspirations” of the people of the United States. The vote was delayed for a time on Thursday to include mention of Latinos to address concerns of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. It was inserted under a section on white supremacists who “weaponize hate for political gain” over a long list of “traditionally persecuted peoples.”
An earlier version focused more narrowly on anti-Semitism. The final resolution did not mention Omar by name.
Getting this debate right will be crucial for Democrats in 2020. U.S.-Israel policy is a prominent issue that is exposing the splits between the party’s core voters, its liberal flank and the more centrist Americans in Trump country the party hopes to reach.
“What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong,” said presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent.
“Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world,” the senator said. “We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel.”
Other Democratic presidential contenders tried to walk a similar line.
California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris said “we need to speak out against hate.” But she said she also believes “there is a critical difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism.”
A statement from Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said, “Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians.” She said threats of violence, including those made against Omar, “are never acceptable.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, they are allowed to have free speech in this country,” Gillibrand said. “But we don’t need to use anti-Semitic tropes or anti-Muslim tropes to be heard.”
Another member of the new crop of outspoken young House freshmen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, said the final product, as well as the way presidential candidates are now talking about the issue, showed “there’s been some really great progress we’ve made.”
But Omar’s rhetoric is taking Democrats to a place that leaves many uneasy. The new lawmaker sparked a weeklong debate in Congress as fellow Democrats said her comments have no place in the party. She suggested Israel’s supporters were pushing lawmakers to take a pledge of “allegiance” to a foreign country, reviving a trope of dual loyalties. It wasn’t her first dip into such rhetoric.
The new congresswoman has been critical of the Jewish state in the past and apologized for those previous comments. But Omar has not apologized for what this latest comment.
Pelosi said she did not believe that Omar understood the “weight of her words” or that they would be perceived by some as anti-Semitic.
Asked whether the resolution was intended to “police” lawmakers’ words, Pelosi replied: “We are not policing the speech of our members. We are condemning anti-Semitism,” Islamophobia and white supremacy.
Some of the House’s leading Jewish Democrats wanted to bring a resolution on the floor simply condemning anti-Semitism.
But other Democrats wanted to broaden the resolution to include a rejection of all forms of racism and bigotry. Others questioned whether a resolution was necessary at all and viewed it as unfairly singling out Omar at a time when Trump and others have made disparaging racial comments.
There remained frustration that the party that touts its diversity conducted such a messy and public debate about how to declare its opposition to bigotry.
“This shouldn’t be so hard,” Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said on the House floor.
Among the Republican dissenters, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of the GOP leadership, called the resolution “a sham put forward by Democrats to avoid condemning one of their own and denouncing vile anti-Semitism.”
In part, Democratic leaders were trying to fend off a challenge from Republicans on the issue.
They worry they could run into trouble on another bill, their signature ethics and voting reform package, if Republicans try to tack their own anti-Semitism bill on as an amendment. By voting Thursday, the House Democratic vote counters believed they could inoculate their lawmakers against such a move.