U.S. House approves resolution condemning anti-Semitism, hate

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., walks through an underground tunnel at the Capitol as top House Democrats plan to offer a measure that condemns anti-Semitism in the wake of controversial remarks by the freshman congresswoman, in Washington, March 6, 2019.

Washington — Michigan's congressional delegation voted Thursday in favor of a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hate after statements on Israel made by freshman U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota that critics called anti-Semitic.

Omar, a Somali refugee and one of the first two female Muslims elected to Congress, last week questioned supporters of Israel’s “allegiance to a foreign country,” prompting outrage from Jewish lawmakers who said it evoked the anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty.”

The episode set off an emotional debate among House members, some of whom demanded Omar’s comments be formally condemned. Others said Omar had been unfairly scrutinized for her foreign policy views, considering comments by some Republican lawmakers deemed bigoted or anti-Semitic.

House lawmakers voted 407-23 on a broadly worded resolution that did not mention Omar but condemned anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination and other bigotry against minorities as "hateful expressions of intolerance that are contrary to the values and aspirations of the United States."

Freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who is Jewish, said the resolution was positive but that Jewish members might write another resolution or letter separate from Thursday's vote "that helps inform and educate people." 

"I think people feel the need to be very clear about what we mean by anti-Semitism, how it affects us, and that there's just such a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism in events, in violent events, that we just feel the need to be vocal about it," said Slotkin, a Holly Democrat. 

Republican Rep. Tim Walberg of Tipton said he wants Democrats to strip Omar of her seat on the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, “especially since she's getting intelligence briefings on a regular basis on our relations with our foreign countries, our friends, as well as enemies, and one of those being Israel." 

“Rep. Omar's language really hasn't changed. There's been no significant apology that she's given that means anything,” Walberg said.

“You have free speech. We believe in that. You can have your own opinions, but there are consequences when you cross the line of what is appropriate in developing a working relationship, not only with our colleagues but with our allies.”

Omar’s supporters include freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, who has also been critical of Israel. She argues that Omar is “being targeted just like many civil rights icons before us who spoke out about oppressive policies,” referring to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., right, listen as President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

'Double standard' on Omar

Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress, said Wednesday she sees a double standard for the younger women of color in the Congress, calling for a conversation about white supremacy in the United States.

“I know that the Congresswoman Ilhan Omar really tries to push back against oppression,” said Tlaib, who is also Muslim.

“And as a Palestinian, I can tell you, when she speaks about those issues, what I hear is her trying to uplift my grandmother in Palestine, in the West Bank, and saying that there are real, actual factual evidence to show that there's human rights violations.”

Tlaib and some of her progressive House colleagues had pressed for the broader language in the House Democratic resolution that initially addressed anti-Semitism only. Tlaib said she submitted language for inclusion that specifically addressed anti-Muslim bias.

“We want it to be much broader because we think that hate and racism in our country is growing, no matter if you're Jewish, LGBTQ, Latino, immigrant, Muslim,” Tlaib said Wednesday.

“It is something that needs to be looked at as a whole, instead of just trying to come up with this hierarchy of hurt and pain that we all have.

“I think we need to talk about white supremacy in our country very much more directly than that resolution did in the first place, and I think we've been heard.”

Omar drew criticism for a comment earlier this year when she tweeted that American politicians’ support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins, baby,” which was also interpreted as an anti-Semitic trope. She deleted the tweet and apologized.  

Rep. Dan Kildee, chief deputy whip for the House Democrats, suggested the debate is a byproduct of the “growing pains that come with a really diverse class” that delivered Democrats into the House majority last fall.

“You still have to act. You still have to take positions and no matter who it is, when somebody says something that, you know, has its roots in really strong bias or prejudice, we have to say something about it,” Kildee said.

He also criticized Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, whom Kildee said has provoked Omar. Zeldin has sparred with Omar on Twitter about her statements on Israel.

“Some of our newer members hopefully are going to not take the bait when clearly some of this is coming from at least one Republican who is always baiting one of our members to say things that ultimately contribute to this problem,” Kildee said.

A spokeswoman for Zeldin noted Omar has made comments critical of Israel since at least 2012. 

"It’s rich when someone finally calls her out on her repeated anti-Semitic remarks, Rep. Kildee decides to blame Rep. Zeldin — who is Jewish — saying he’s brought her continued anti-Semitic remarks on himself," said Zeldin spokeswoman Katie Vincentz. 

"Rep. Kildee needs to stop blaming Jewish Members of Congress for Rep. Omar’s anti-Semitism and look in the mirror at who’s enabling it."

Congressman Andy Levin and Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin speak to federal employees as they haven't collected a paycheck due to the government shutdown during a round table meeting at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Friday, January 11, 2019.

'Definitely anti-Semitic trope'

Freshman Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, said the language used by Omar was “definitely an anti-Semitic trope,” noting how the idea of “dual loyalty” was used in Henry Ford’s 1918 serialized publication about a vast Jewish conspiracy afflicting the country.

“I have faced anti-Semitism since early grade school — almost since I can remember, and in very personal ways. I have no tolerance for it, but you have to put it in context,” said Levin, who is Jewish and the former president of the Reconstructionist synagogue Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park.

“I'm particularly troubled by trying to single out a person who, more perhaps than anyone in the caucus … is facing death threats every week and horrifying Islamophobic images of her,” Levin added, referring to Omar.

“We're at a moment of big change in our country. I feel like my approach is to try to work together to increase mutual understanding and to tackle racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment.”

Levin, who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said calls to remove Omar from the panel are “purely political.”

He noted that Republicans, including President Donald Trump, also have made statements interpreted as anti-Semitic.   

“We have the president calling one of our committee chairman 'shifty’ — a Jewish committee chairman. We have Rep. Jim Jordan putting dollar signs in a wealthy Jewish person's name,” Levin said. 

“This idea of singling out Ilhan Omar is not appropriate.”

Slotkin said it's problematic any time the "specter" of dual loyalty is raised. 

"I've experienced this personally," said Slotkin, who as a Pentagon official ran the U.S.-Israel defense relationship and engaged with the Israelis 10 or 15 times a year. 

"I always had a note taker in the meeting with me because I never wanted someone to question my loyalty is first and foremost and always to the United States.

"I'm always concerned when someone questions the loyalty of another member of Congress, and that one I feel pretty personally about."

Slotkin said it's important to her that members do something "affirmative" to educate one another "in the spirit of understanding." 

"We can go back and forth with resolutions and with letters and with social media comments, but I think we need to have real person-to-person communication, based on real relationships to build understanding on these issues," she said.

Slotkin said she has had positive conversations with Tlaib and that they'd spoken about the idea of dual loyalty.

"I expressed my concerns and my personal experience with the dual loyalty problem, and she knows my concerns directly on that issue," Slotkin said. 

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said she also pushed for broader, “more inclusive” language to be incorporated into the resolution.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, speaks during a discussion on the state of women in our nation, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday.

“I don't think as a caucus we should be sending out a resolution every time a member says something. I think every member has the right to have their own voice. They're sent here by the people, not by us as a caucus,” said Lawrence, who said her district includes a significant Jewish community.

“However, we should be very clear of what we stand for when it comes to those 'isms' — racism, sexism and all those things that we are in solidarity in standing up against that.”

Lawrence, who is first vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said with such a historically diverse caucus, Democrats must learn how to handle members with views opposing the majority.

She would not comment on whether she thought Omar’s comments were anti-Semitic.

“I am not even gonna get into that. I can tell you what I stand for, and I am very pro-Israel and supporting of the Jewish community,” she said.

Walberg said there was a need for House Democratic leaders to take a stand. He referenced Republican leaders removing Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, from committees in January after a white supremacy remark.

The House also passed a resolution condemning white nationalism in the wake of King's comments.

Walberg said serving on the Foreign Affairs panel is a privilege.

“I know I wouldn't be put on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Energy Subcommittee, for instance, if I told my leadership that I'm going to vote against anything other than coal,” he said.

“This is more significant. We're talking about a relationship with a wonderful, longtime friend — maybe our strongest friend and ally in the Middle East.”

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, appeared to suggested on Fox News Wednesday that Omar could pose a threat to national security while sitting on Foreign Affairs.

"She is literally getting intelligence briefings on foreign policy of the United States, including our relationship with Israel, as she makes these kind of comments where she thinks any support of Israel is denouncing your own nationality," said Scalise, the House minority whip.

"Why would you have her on a committee that important, that sensitive to our foreign policy?”

Tlaib tweeted in response to Scalise late Wednesday:

"Hard to watch Rep. Scalise demand that Rep. ⁦‪@IlhanMN‬⁩ be removed from House Foreign Affairs w/o wondering if it’s steeped in Islamophobia," she wrote.

"Ilhan is more than capable of sitting on the committee & making decisions that are in the best interests of her constituents & all Americans."