On Wednesday, 12 House Democrats
sparked a potentially costly intraparty feud by publicly criticizing their colleague Rep. Ilhan Omar
(D-Minn.), a longtime target of the right, in a statement that amplified Republican talking points about the Democratic Party
and misrepresented Omar's views.
During a hearing on Monday, Omar asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken
where he believes victims of human rights
abuses around the world can seek justice in light of the Biden administration
's opposition to the International Criminal Court and the failure of national courts to investigate alleged war crimes. She specifically cited two contexts in which she believes both US partners and their opponents should be held accountable.
“We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,” Omar later tweeted, condemning atrocities committed by militant groups Hamas
, as well as by Washington
and the US-backed Israeli and Afghan governments.
Most international human rights organizations follow this logic, as does, to some extent, the US government, which has admitted that American forces and their allies have violated human rights standards under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Reps. Brad Schneider (Ill.), Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), Ted Deutch (Fla.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Elaine Luria (Va.), and six colleagues claimed in a statement released Wednesday night that Omar's remark could "provide cover to terrorist groups."
“Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law
and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice,” they wrote, referring to the GOP
’s years-long campaign to portray Omar as anti-Semitic. The group asked Omar for clarification.
Their criticism heightened the latest right-wing attack
on Omar, a Black Muslim
American and former refugee whom former President Donald Trump
and other Republicans
have labeled un-American. Omar's Democratic colleagues avoided mentioning her identity, but singling her out only strengthens Republican efforts to demonize her and their entire party.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
(D-Calif.) and her five-member leadership team eventually issued their own rare joint statement about Omar, cautioning against drawing "false equivalencies."
Omar's office told reporters on Thursday morning that she had reached out to her colleagues before they issued their statement, but that they had not returned her calls.
“The far right is inciting hatred against Rep. Omar over a technical question about an ongoing investigation
, which has already resulted in an increase in death
threats against her and our staff, and now some of her own Democratic colleagues are inciting the same Islamophobic hatred against her,” said Omar aide Jeremy Slevin.
Slevin's remark brought to light an important aspect of the controversy: its roots in conservative commentary.
Before Democrats weighed in, far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert
(R-Colo.) tweeted on Tuesday that Omar was an "honorary member of Hamas" and a "terrorist sympathizer." (Boebert is a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory
, which researchers say is closely linked to anti-Semitism.)
In a Fox News
segment the same day, former Trump campaign aide Jason Meister and disgraced one-time New York Times
reporter Judy Miller blasted Omar, saying, “Hatred for America and hatred for Israel has really become mainstream in today’s Democratic Party.”
gained traction on Wednesday after a prominent Democrat, Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.), weighed in. “It's not news that Ilhan Omar would make outrageous and clearly false statements about America and Israel,” Sherman said of his colleague.
Now, key Republicans see an opportunity to incite a Democratic civil war.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) said the congresswoman should be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee
, citing a statement released by House Democrats on Wednesday.
On Thursday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy
(R-Calif.) escalated the attack, claiming that if Pelosi did not “act” against Omar, it would demonstrate that “Democrats are tolerant of anti-Semitism and sympathizing with terrorists.” Taking the bait, Pelosi and her staff issued their statement less than three hours later.
Because Democrats have a slim majority in the House of Representatives
, only a handful of Republicans would have to vote with them to rebuke Omar, as GOP leadership is planning, according to Punchbowl News.
Two critical points of context have been largely ignored in the ensuing debate.
Legislators regularly investigate America's responsibility for human rights violations and accept its mistakes as they oversee public officials and the use of taxpayer funds.
Nadler, one of the signatories to the statement targeting Omar, has publicly stated that “America committed horrific abuses during the ‘War on Terror,’” and has proposed reforms to prevent future excesses. And, as Omar pointed out this week in responding to critics on Twitter
, former President Donald Trump has repeatedly responded to questions about Russia
’s human rights record by pointing out where the US had erred.
Second, the allegations against Omar are inextricably linked to racist
assumptions about her, just as previous attempts to portray her as a zealous anti-Semite were inextricably linked to Trump's remark that she should "go back" to Somalia, the country from which Omar was forced to flee as a child
Muslim Americans, like Omar, are frequently accused of being un-American or otherwise suspect for making statements similar to those of non-Muslims, despite the widely acknowledged fact that it is not only enemies of the United States
who violate human rights.
The risk is heightened because Islamophobic actions, statements, and policies are so common in much of the world, from Trump's Muslim ban to violence against Muslims like the recent attack in Canada
, creating a general atmosphere of impunity for violence inspired by Islamophobia
. For people
who hold other marginalized identities, such as Omar, the risk is heightened.
Lawmakers "have no idea for the danger they put [Omar] in by skipping private conversations and leaping to fueling targeted news cycles around her," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
(D-NY) tweeted on Thursday, accusing Democrats of "vilification" and "intentional mischaracterization" of Omar.
Some Democrats want party leaders to recognize the pattern, examine their own possible biases, and avoid falling into the GOP's trap.
According to the Jewish
Telegraphic Agency, thirteen Jewish House Democrats were present at a meeting on Wednesday where Omar's remarks were discussed, but did not sign a statement issued later by some of their colleagues.
In a second Thursday statement, Omar provided the clarification requested by her colleagues.
“The conversation was about accountability for specific incidents involving those [International Criminal Court] cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the United States and Israel,” Omar explained, adding that “I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems.”
Pelosi and her team stated that they "welcome the clarification." However, the party has already assisted Republicans in making significant progress in engineering a scandal and has demonstrated that it still lacks a new and more effective response to an old GOP game.