CAPITOL HILL — The Democratic party is not a monolith or a rubber stamp for any idea or policy position. That’s House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s oft-repeated way of describing the party she leads. But lately, a handful of House Democratic freshman have tested that approach to its limits, revealing cracks between the party’s traditional support of Israel and progressives’ vocal advocacy for Palestinians.
Newcomer Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Somali-American, drew widespread condemnation for a tweet last Sunday implying Congressional support for Israel has been bought by money from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobbying group that supports the U.S.-Israel relationship.
"It's all about the Benjamins baby," Omar tweeted late Sunday, asserting that politicians' support of Israel is driven by money.
She touched off a firestorm of complaints from Democratic and Republican leaders alike, including Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Omar's comment invoked offensive tropes about money or "Benjamins" a reference to $100 bills — that are often used against Jewish people. Her remark was magnified because the freshman holds a coveted seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"It's shocking to hear a member of Congress invoke the anti-Semitic trope of 'Jewish money.' I fully expect that when we disagree on the Foreign Affairs Committee, we will debate policy on the merits and never question members' motives or resort to personal attacks," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of New York said in a statement this week that reflects many of his colleagues' reactions to the tweet.
"Criticism of American policy toward any country is fair game, but this must be done on policy grounds."
Omar apologized for her remarks Monday, tweeting "Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes." But she went on to say that AIPAC continues to be an issue of concern, although the highly influential organization does not make campaign contributions.
During a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed Omar's apology as "lame" and called on her to resign. Omar replied by calling the president a hypocrite who has "trafficked in hate your whole life against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, immigrants, black people and more."
The weeklong dust-up underscored growing divisions within a Democratic Party that for decades provided unalloyed support to the state of Israel but that now must adjust to skepticism within its ranks about the Israeli government and that country's policies towards the Palestinians. Trump and other Republican leaders are attempting to use their insistence on unqualified support for Israel as a litmus test to drive a wedge through the Democrats, according to media reports.
Omar, 37, was born in Mogadishu and spent her formative years in Somalia. She and her family were resettled as refugees in the United States in 1995, after the start of the Somalia civil war, and subsequently moved to Minneapolis, where she learned English and went to school. She studied political science and international affairs at North Dakota State University, before launching a career in politics. She won a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016 — which made her the first Somali-American elected to legislative office in the U.S. Then last November, she won an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Omar and Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, became the first two Muslim-American women elected to Congress.
Omar has been accused of anti-Semitic language in previous tweets expressing support for BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), a movement that aims to end international support for Israel because of what the group calls "oppression of Palestinians." Each time, Omar has apologized and said the controversy was an opportunity for her to learn.
This week, Omar declined requests to speak with the media following her apology on social media for her "Benjamins" comment. But she showed no signs of backing down from courting controversy on Wednesday, when she challenged U.S. Special Representative to Venezuela Elliott Abrams on his human rights record during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
During the contentious exchange, Omar mistakenly referred to Abrams as "Mr. Adams" and told him she did not understand why "this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful."
Omar is one of several high-profile Democratic freshman members of Congress who have publicly voiced their support for the BDS.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from a heavily Democratic district in New York, has condemned "the occupation of Palestine." Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress, is currently seeking support for a congressional delegation trip or CODEL to Palestine later this year. AIPAC has a long history of organizing yearly congressional CODELs to Israel so that members can learn more about the situation on the ground.
Rep. Brian Babin, a Republican from Texas, urged Democratic leaders in a letter sent Thursday to "please deny Rep. Tlaib's request to sponsor and lead a CODEL to Palestinian territories and exercise your authority as chair to deny your consent to any member of your committee who seeks your approval to participate in such a misadventure."
Last month, 22 Senate Democrats voted against legislation that would facilitate penalties against American companies that boycott Israel. Six of those votes were from Senate Democrats who are running for president.
Republicans see the growing support for Palestine on the part of younger, more progressive members of Congress as a possible opportunity to divide Democratic voters ahead of next year's presidential nomination contest.
A January 2018 Pew Research Center poll shows the partisan divide over Israel is at its widest point in four decades and that Democrats who sympathize more with Israel than with Palestinians has dropped from 38 percent to 27 percent since 2001.
The House Republican leadership unexpectedly added a provision to unrelated legislation Wednesday condemning anti-Semitic language, forcing Democrats to go on the record against Omar's remarks. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California called the vote a defining moment in Congress and for the country.
"Amid the troubling rise of anti-Semitism, including attacks on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, it is our duty as a nation to stand firmly against intolerance and division," McCarthy said in a statement. The provision passed unanimously, 424 to 0 vote.
McCarthy has also faced criticism about comments invoking stereotypes about Jews. In a now deleted tweet just before the 2018 midterm elections, McCarthy accused three leading Jewish Democratic donors of trying "to buy this election."
Leadership in both parties will have to step carefully in the coming months, as a high-stakes 2020 presidential race heats up. Both sides will be looking for divisive tweets and off-the cuff remarks to run in campaign ads, firing up the more committed voters at the extreme ends of the parties who tend to show up at polls in early primary contests.
Pelosi faces a tough dilemma. For the first time in decades of polling, the majority of Democrats identify themselves as liberal. The handful of progressive new House members are forcing policy discussions on a range of issues from U.S. support of Israel to climate change to taxation rates that is commanding media attention in a new way.