Omar controversy looms over AIPAC conference
Talk at the first couple days of the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, D.C., has been dominated by a lawmaker who is not even there: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
From the speakers on stage at the general session to smaller panels in conference rooms throughout the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, attendees at the pro-Israel lobby’s gathering have offered implicit rebukes of the freshman Democrat, who has been accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes.
Few, if any, have mentioned Omar by name in their remarks. But their words have been unmistakably directed at her, rejecting the charge of “dual loyalty” that she was accused of invoking in her comments.
“When there are charges of dual loyalty, those charges often lead to attacks and violence and being kicked out of countries and death,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said Monday during a panel on bipartisanship.
Deutch gave a floor speech earlier this month in which he blasted fellow Democrats for failing to single out anti-Semitism in a resolution prompted by the Omar controversy, and was asked during his panel Monday why he chose to do so.
“This was not a debate about policy. This was not a debate about Israel, this was questioning those of us who support Israel, and there is no place for those kinds of suggestions. We have to be clear that anti-Semitic language can never be tolerated in our public discourse,” he said.
A spokesman for Omar did not respond to The Hill’s request for a response to comments made about her during the conference.
Omar, one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, first sparked controversy in early February when she tweeted that “it’s all about the Benjamins baby” in reference to lawmaker support for Israel. In a subsequent tweet, she specifically called out AIPAC.
The first tweet was widely condemned as invoking an anti-Semitic trope about Jewish people controlling politics through money. Omar apologized, but continued to criticize AIPAC.
Later in February, Omar, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reignited the firestorm around her by saying at a D.C. event that she wanted “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
Those comments were widely condemned as invoking an anti-Semitic trope about Jewish people having dual loyalty.
The controversy divided House Democrats while they debated for days how to respond as Omar’s defenders complained about her being singled out. Eventually, the House passed a resolution that broadly condemned hate in many forms.
With this year’s AIPAC conference coming just weeks after that vote, the Omar controversy was expected to loom over the event, and AIPAC’s leaders set the tone right away.
In his opening speech Sunday morning, AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr decried the “scurrilous charge of dual loyalty,” while later that day AIPAC President Mort Fridman said this year’s event was “different” because the “fundamental reasons that we support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship have been attacked. And worse, our loyalty to the United States has been questioned.”
The Trump administration has sought to capitalize on the controversy and paint the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic even though most Jewish people identify as Democrats. At the same time, Trump has worked to burnish a pro-Israel image.
That strategy was on full display when Vice President Pence addressed the AIPAC conference at the Monday morning general session, saying the Democratic Party has “been co-opted by people who promote rank anti-Semitic rhetoric and work to undermine the broad American consensus of support for Israel.”
“Anti-Semitism has no place in the Congress of the United States of America,” Pence said to a standing ovation.
“And at a minimum, anyone who slanders those who support this historic alliance between the United States and Israel should never have a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States House of Representatives,” he added to even more thunderous applause.
Just a short time later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Trump at the White House. Netanyahu was scheduled to speak to AIPAC on Tuesday but is instead returning to Israel early following a rocket attack in Tel Aviv that injured seven Israelis.
During the White House meeting, Trump officially recognized Israel’s control over the disputed Golan Heights territory, a policy that has gotten rousing applause each time it has been mentioned at the AIPAC conference.
While Deutch called out Omar’s comments at the conference, he also appeared to rebuke Trump for seeking to capitalize on them.
“There is not a Republican here, none, who would turn to their Democratic neighbor and suggest that they’re anti-Jewish or anti-Israel,” he told the audience in the panel with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). “Mark would never do that to me. And it’s really important that we be careful not to try to use the U.S.-Israel relationship for political gain.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also hit both Omar and Trump in his address Monday night.
“When somebody says that being Jewish and supporting Israel means you’re not loyal to America, we must call it,” Schumer said.
“When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some ‘very fine people’ among its company, we must call it out,” Schumer continued, quoting Trump’s comments after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Schumer’s rebuke of Trump drew a loud applause for which some members of the audience stood up.
“When someone suggests that money drives support for Israel, we must call it out,” Schumer added.
On Sunday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also offered a strong, albeit veiled rebuke of Omar, saying that “when someone accuses American supporters of Israel of dual loyalty, I say: Accuse me.”
On Monday, Hoyer sought to clarify another portion of his remarks where he appeared to call out Omar and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
“There are 62 freshman Democrats — you hear me?” he said. “Sixty-two, not three.”
Hoyer said in a statement Monday that comment has been “misinterpreted” and was meant to lament “that the media does not appear to be paying enough attention to other excellent new members who are also bringing important new energy and diverse perspectives to our caucus and to the Congress.”
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