US House Democats delay anti-Semitic resolution amid pressure

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Washington, DC – US House Democrats have delayed a vote on a second resolution condemning anti-Semitism as politicians squabble over its wording, according to US media.

The resolution, which was slated for a Wednesday vote, was initially drafted as an indirect rebuke of Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim congresswomen in the United States.

But after pressure from some Democrats to include language addressing anti-Muslim attacks on the representative, House leaders are now looking at adding broader language that addresses bigotry in general.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said on Wednesday the House leadership had not set a time for the vote. “We are working on the language,” he said. 

“Let me repeat, every Democrat is against all these ‘-isms’; all this hate, all this prejudice which unfortunately the president of the United States stokes on a regular basis,” he told reporters.

“Israel hasn’t always existed, obviously, as a country, but this is not a new trope. Therefore, it was perceived to be, correctly in my opinion, a particular danger to this kind of rhetoric, whoever said it. So, that is why this question is being raised and being dealt with and being discussed,” he said, adding that he did not think Omar was anti-Semitic.

Omar, an African, Muslim, American immigrant, has been under fire for weeks over what has been labelled as anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Controversy swirled around Omar first last month when she suggested pro-Israel politicians in the US were being influenced by the lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who advocate pro-Israel policies. 

In the wake of the comments, the House passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, and Omar apologised.

But the Somali American politician is under fire again for making comments during a discussion at a Washington, DC, event last week that some politicians and Jewish groups called “anti-Semitic”.

“I want to talk about … political influence in this country that says it’s OK for people to push for allegiance for a foreign country,” Omar said at the event.

“I want to ask why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, or fossil fuels industries, or big pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying that is influencing policy,” she said.

Her comments prompted Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, to write a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accusing Omar of using a “vile anti-Semitic slur”.

Others, including Representatives Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey have joined Greenblatt in publicly criticising Omar and demanding an apology.

Omar and her supporters, which includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others, contend her comments were in reference to Israeli lobbyists and not the Jewish community.

Pelosi and Hoyer began drafting the second resolution over the weekend, but by Tuesday night it appeared they decided to postpone any vote while they consider amending the text to include language addressing all forms of hate and bigotry.

Death threats

The controversy came just days after Omar was the subject of an anti-Muslim attack in the West Virginia legislature, where a poster falsely linking her to the 9/11 attacks was on display at a Republican-sponsored gathering.

The poster with a picture of the twin towers burning and Omar’s face in front of it, said, “I am the proof you have forgotten”. The poster was later removed, and the state’s Republican Party chairwoman said it was not affiliated with the party. 

Omar has also been subjected to death threats on a daily basis, she confirmed last week. Recently, the words “Assassinate Ilhan Omar” were written across a toilet in Minnesota petrol station. The incident is under investigation by the FBI.

Rights groups and activists worry that the continued condemnation from Congress and the president are increasing Islamophobic attacks on Omar and other Muslims.

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies who serves on the board of Jewish Voices for Peace, was among those who attended last week’s disputed event in Washington, DC.

She said while anti-Semitism was on the rise in the US, “[Omar] said nothing that was anti-Semitic”.

Bennies argued attacks on Omar have been driven “more about who she is than what she said”.

“She (Omar) is being attacked for what people think what she might have meant,” she told Al Jazeera. People are “looking for ways to take her down.”

Although Omar is not the first Muslim in Congress, she is the most visibility Muslim person in the House to date due to her hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women. Khaled Beydoun, a law professor, civil rights activist and author of a book on Islamophobia, said this contributed to her “vilified” image and “anti-Semitic” label.

“Anything critical of the state of Israel has been translated as anti-Semitic,” he told Al Jazeera.

Omar was not available for comment, but during last week’s event, she shared Beydoun’s argument. 

“What I am fearful of, because Rashida [Tlaib] and I are Muslim, that a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituencies, a lot of our allies, go to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim,” she said. “And so, to me, it is something that becomes designed to end the debate,” she said.

‘Hypocrisy’

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, called the House Democrats’ behaviour “shameful”, and proof that they did not listen to what Omar said during the event, a video of which is available online.

“They don’t care what Ilhan actually said,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s a manufactured crisis from the beginning … This is not even a crisis – they are making one.”

The House’s lack of response to Omar’s recent GOP poster attack was “hypocritical”, Zogby said, and “worrisome”, as it could incite and normalise hatred towards Omar. 

Although some politicians have condemned the acts, including Ocasio-Cortez, others remain silent.

“They are inciting against Ilhan Omar, giving an open invitation to people who, as we seen, issue death threats,” he said.

A coalition of Muslim and Jewish groups on Wednesday held a press conference on Capitol Hill to call on Democratic Party leaders to equally condemn anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-black racism, xenophobia, and physical threats against any member of Congress. The coalition also declared their “unequivocal” support for Omar.

With additional reporting by William Roberts

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