House Democratic leaders denounced the Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar for using “antisemitic tropes and prejudicial accusations” in tweets, amid a widening controversy over remarks by new members of the Democratic caucus who are openly critical of Israel.
In response, the representative “unequivocally apologized” but also compared a major pro-Israel lobbying group to “the NRA or the fossil fuel industry”.
Republicans were already threatening action against Omar and Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic representative from Michigan and the other Muslim woman in Congress, over past comments they say were antisemitic.
In a tweet on Sunday, Omar suggested Republican support for Israel was fueled by financial incentives. Replying to a user who asked who she believed was “paying American politicians to be pro-Israel”, Omar wrote: “AIPAC.”
That was a reference to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Aipac does not contribute to political campaigns. Lawmakers from both parties attend its large-scale conferences and are included on congressional visits to Israel.
In a statement on Monday, members of House leadership including the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and majority leader, Steny Hoyer, affirmed their support for Israel and called on Omar to “immediately apologize for these hurtful comments”.
“Antisemitism must be called out, confronted and condemned whenever it is encountered, without exception,” the statement said.
“Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share. But Congresswoman Omar’s use of antisemitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive.”
In her own statement, Omar said she was “grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me in the painful history of antisemitic tropes” and said: “We have to always be willing to step back and think though criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.
“At the same time,” she added, “I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be Aipac, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”
Another senior Democrat, the House judiciary committee chairman, Jerrold Nadler, called the tweets “deeply disappointing and disturbing” and said Omar had appeared to “traffic in old antisemitic tropes about Jews and money”.
Lawmakers should debate the “relative influence of a particular organization on our country’s policy-making process”, Nadler said, but they must also be “extremely careful not to tread into the waters of antisemitism or any other form of prejudice or hate”.
The House foreign affairs chairman, Eliot Engel, like Nadler a Democrat from New York, said it was “shocking” for a member of Congress to make such a comment. Omar serves on Engel’s committee.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) accused Omar of promoting the “ugly antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jews have an outsized influence over politics”.
“These tweets are part of a disturbing pattern of behavior that must end,” said the ADL chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt. “The congresswoman needs to understand that these comments promote dangerous stereotypes and are hurtful to her Jewish constituents and Jewish Americans throughout the country.”
Omar recently apologized for comments on Israel including a tweet in which she said it had “hypnotized the world”. Regretting her “unfortunate word choice”, she said: “What is important to me is that people recognize that there’s a difference between criticizing a military action by a government that has exercised really oppressive policies and being offensive or attack-y to particular people of faith.”
Jewish House Democrats are gathering signatures on a letter, first reported by the Washington Post and seen by the Guardian, that calls on Pelosi, Hoyer and other senior figures to “reiterate our rejection of antisemitism and our continued support for the state of Israel”.
Some progressive activists and writers claim to see a double standard.
“Why is it OK to talk about Saudi lobbies, and Saudis buying Trump, and Saudi-first policies, why is it not Islamophobic to say all of that, but it’s antisemitic when it comes to Israel?” the Intercept columnist Mehdi Hasan wrote in a lengthy Twitter thread.
In a piece for Forward entitled “No, Ilhan Omar Is Not Anti-Semitic For Calling Out Aipac”, the columnist Peter Feld wrote: “The problem is, all lobbies, by definition, are designed to exert secret control over policy, using money. That’s what they do.”
Omar is part of small but vocal group of lawmakers who are critical of the Israeli government and its policies. Some, including Omar and Tlaib, have endorsed the BDS movement, which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and seeks to put economic pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and to ensure “full equality” for Arab-Palestinian citizens.
Republicans have seized on such division within the opposition party. On Monday J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group, said it was “dismayed and frustrated by the ongoing war of words between lawmakers” and said “overheated, ill-considered and reductive attacks, playing out on social media and in the press, [have] failed to address these issues with the nuance, sensitivity and seriousness that they deserve”.
Referring to controversial instances in the 2016 Republican primary, it added: “Elected officials must be extremely aware that tropes about Jewish money and political influence have been used for centuries to target and stigmatize our community.”
Donald Trump, whose campaign came under fire for instances of alleged antisemitism, has received staunch support from Israel for policies including the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. At home, however, he has faced criticism for refusing to condemn neo-Nazis after a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly.
Earlier this month the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill that would undermine the BDS movement. The measure passed by 77-23. Several Democratic presidential candidates and potential contenders opposed it.