Once again, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is facing scrutiny for comments critical of U.S. foreign policy and the state of Israel. Once again, the backlash started as a GOP hit job and ended with Democratic acquiescence to the right’s framing of the issue — a failure to protect one of their caucus’ most stalwart defenders of social justice, equity, and the fate of marginalized peoples. And, not surprisingly, once again, one of the key figures in the Republican attack was Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer.
Ostensibly, this controversy was over a June 7 tweet stating: “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”
What started with criticism the next day by the National Republican Congressional Committee, chaired by Emmer, eventually led to a denunciation by 12 Jewish, Democratic members of Congress on June 9, and then a critical statement June 10 from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s entire leadership team. Eventually Omar was forced to clarify that she not equating the United States and Israel with terrorist groups, but rather calling for justice victims of war crimes regardless of whether they are victimized by terrorist actors or legitimate state actors.
It is time for Democratic leadership to stop validating the GOP attacks on Omar and recognize them for what they are: transparently opportunistic, cynical ploys. These ploys serve specific functions in terms of the GOP’s chronic demonization of non-white, non-Christian Americans, its efforts to redraw the boundaries of acceptable political discourse, and its need to draw false equivalencies between its own antidemocratic, conspiratorial membership, and the anti-imperialist patriotism of Omar.
First, as an openly democratic socialist, former refugee, and woman of color, Omar serves as an easy bogeyman for today’s GOP, which by some measures, more closely resembles a far right, ethnonationalist party than the postwar center right party of Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, and even Richard Nixon.
In line with this ethnonationalism, Omar has been a popular target for vilification. In July 2019, Donald Trump told all members of “the squad” to “go back” to the “places from which they came.” He frequently singled out Omar as a scapegoat during his rallies, prompting chants of “send her back.” As Minnesotans know, this plays out on a local level, where the congresswoman is a constant star of GOP attack ads.
Second, the context of this latest “scandal” makes clear that a primary function of the right’s outrage is to narrow the range of acceptable criticism of U.S foreign policy in the Middle East, the policies of Israel, and the conditions of U.S. support for Israel. While there appeared to be a turning point only a few weeks ago, when a broader range of Democrats stepped up to offer more robust criticism of Israeli settlement policy and bombing of Gaza, this latest knee-jerk condemnation of Omar represents an unfortunate step backward.
Finally, the Republican Party is desperate for the opportunity to deflect attention from the transgressions of its own increasingly extreme membership. This is clear in Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s framing of the event as evidence of Pelosi’s “continued failure to address the issues in her caucus,” signaling that “Democrats are tolerant of anti-Semitism and sympathizing with terrorists.”
Republican leaders want to distract from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green’s comments about “Jewish space lasers,” and the fact that upwards of 20 percent of the party’s constituency believes key elements of the deeply antisemitic QAnon conspiracy theory. Drawing false equivalencies with Omar’s statements — which address real problems with U.S. foreign policy — helps them to do this. And while Omar’s comments have been poorly phrased, they have never crossed into unambiguous antisemitism. There is a reason Omar continues to be supported by Jewish Currents and Jewish Voice for Peace.
The Democratic Party can go in two directions: It can be a party of liberal voters and the working-class, standing for human rights and social justice, or it can be a party primarily concerned with the effective administration of American Empire. To the extent it prefers the former, its congressional leadership should stop rushing to co-sign bad faith right-wing attacks on a member who consistently and courageously stands for the values of the party’s base.
Lucas Dolan is a Minnesota native and Ph.D. candidate at American University in Washington, D.C. He is writing a dissertation on Islamophobia, antisemitism, and the far right.
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