2020 Democrats Roll Out Lukewarm, Whataboutism Statements on Omar Anti-Semitism Controversy

Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris
Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris / Getty Images

Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have rolled out lukewarm statements after the latest anti-Semitism controversy involving Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.), signaling a fear of condemning a new left-wing darling in Congress or a tacit endorsement of her vehement anti-Israeli views.

Omar is under fire yet again after criticizing the "political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country," which House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) called a "vile anti-Semitic slur." It came after she was forced to apologize last month by Democratic leadership for saying "it's all about the Benjamins" for pro-Israel politicians, saying they were paid off by Jewish lobbyists.

Yet, Omar's stance on Israel is increasingly in line with the Democratic Party base, and candidates seeking the nomination in an already crowded field used a light touch on Omar, invoking other forms of bigotry to condemn as well, falsely suggesting she was only being criticized because she opposes Israel's government, and making sure to hit Republicans for hypocrisy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) called anti-Semitism a "dangerous ideology" but added it shouldn't be equated with "legitimate criticism" of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

"Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology, which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world," Sanders said. "We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. Rather, we must develop an evenhanded Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace."

Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) added a host of other forms of bigotry to her statement, saying "we all have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all forms of hatred and bigotry, especially as we see a spike in hate crimes in America."

However, she said she joined members of the Congressional Black Caucus in expressing concern that "the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk."

"We should be having a sound, respectful discussion about policy," Harris said. "You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country. I also believe there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism."

Like Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) also framed her response around the false notion Omar was being criticized for anti-Semitism simply for criticizing Israel's government. The objection was to Omar's invocation of the dual loyalty canard, an old charge leveled against Jews in the United States and other countries suggesting they couldn't be true patriots because of their allegiance to Israel.

"We have a moral duty to combat hateful ideologies in our own country and around the world—and that includes both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. In a democracy, we can and should have an open, respectful debate about the Middle East that focuses on policy," Warren said in a statement. "Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Threats of violence—like those made against Rep. Omar—are never acceptable."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) went the "whataboutism" route, saying anti-Israel opinions like those of Omar should be expressed "without employing anti-Semitic tropics about money or influence," immediately adding, "just as those critical of Congresswoman Omar should not be using Islamophobic language and imagery that incites violence, such as what we saw in West Virginia."

She added, "We must also call out the hypocrisy of the Republican Party in this instance," saying GOP members offended by Omar said "little or nothing" about what she deemed instances of bigotry regarding Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.).

"Both are unacceptable," she said.

Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) called Omar's comments "disturbing" but also said criticism of her had been wrapped in "bigotry and anti-Islamic sentiment."

"So anybody like me who stands against anti-Semitism, we should condemn anti-Semitism where it exists, bigotry and hate of any type, but we can't be selective in that combination, we need to do it all the forms of that," he said, according to CNN.

Omar is one of the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress, along with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), who has made her own share of eyebrow-raising remarks like referring to President Donald Trump as a "motherf—er" and also invoking the dual loyalty canard regarding Israel.

Omar's controversies have exposed a divide among congressional Democrats, with the newer, more progressive members tending to support her stance and putting Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) in a difficult position. The resolution against "all hate" they are set to vote on will amount to a second public rebuke of Omar by Congress in as many months.

Pelosi, who called on Omar to apologize last month, defended her to reporters on Thursday, saying she didn't appear to grasp the weight of her own words. She noted she was once an activist herself with Omar's kind of "enthusiasm."