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Ilham Omar's Israel remark thrusts Democrats into uncomfortable debate ahead of House measure condemning anti-Semitism

Washington: Back in January, the Democrats welcomed their brash young newcomers to Congress with smiles and hugs. That was before the new colleagues dragged the party's simmering divisions over Israel out in the open.

Provocative comments from Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota have thrust the Democrats into an uncomfortable debate over Israel policy a few weeks before a high-profile conference where senior Democrats typically make a show of support for the Jewish state. Increasingly, the rift appears as much generational as ideological, with newly elected Democrats showing less deference to the party line.

 Ilham Omars Israel remark thrusts Democrats into uncomfortable debate ahead of House measure condemning anti-Semitism

File image of Democrat Representative Ilhan Omar. AP

Omar became the flashpoint after she suggested last week that Israel's supporters are pushing US lawmakers to take a pledge of "allegiance to a foreign country". It's at least the third time she has forced older, pro-Israel Democrats who run the House into awkward territory over US-Israeli policy.

Republicans have been happy to stoke the furore, with US president Donald Trump calling Omar's remarks "a dark day for Israel" and posting a photo of himself in Jerusalem. Inside the Democratic family, meanwhile, leaders are in a bind, torn between a need to admonish Omar for her comments and their desire to defend one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

This time Omar is not apologising. And this time pro-Israel Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi are not just warning her about the dangers of Jewish tropes. They're expected to offer a resolution condemning anti-Semitism on the House floor.

"Accusations of dual loyalty generally have an insidious, bigoted history," an early draft of the resolution reads in part. "The House of Representatives acknowledges the dangerous consequences of perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes and rejects anti-Semitism as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States."

Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced in a meeting of leading Democrats late Tuesday that the text will be updated to include anti-Muslim bias, according to a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting. Other Democrats said an outpouring of support for Omar prompted leaders to consider broadening the measure to avoid dissension. Omar did not speak to reporters outside her office on Tuesday evening.

"There is a lot of emotional disquiet about the situation, and it's a good time to restate our values," said Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who is Jewish and a member of leadership, as he exited a meeting in Pelosi's office. "That's what I hope our resolution can do."

The text, which includes a history of bigotry against Muslims and blacks as well as Jews, sounds unobjectionable by itself. But the fact that senior Democrats felt obliged to put the House on-record on the topic points to a transformation in the country — mostly among Democrats — about supporting the Jewish state.

In a poll by the Pew Research Center in January of last year, 46 percent of Americans said they sympathised more with Israel and 16 percent with the Palestinians in their Middle East discord.

But Democrats are about evenly divided, with about a quarter sympathising with each side and the rest saying they side with neither or don't know — and in recent years they have become less likely to sympathise with Israel than they were in the past. Liberal Democrats were nearly twice as likely to say they sympathise more with the Palestinians (35 percent) than with Israel (19 percent). Older Americans were much more likely to say they sympathise with Israel than with the Palestinians, with more division among younger Americans.

Omar, a Somali-American, says that what she is questioning is the influence game in Washington and she worries that anything she says about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians will be construed as anti-Semitic.

"Being opposed to (Israel prime minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic," she tweeted on Sunday. "I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same."

But Democrats in Congress remain largely supportive of Israel. Pelosi, for example, often attends the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, which is coming up later this month.

Omar on Tuesday got a boost from allies who point out that the congresswoman, too, has been the target of threats and bigotry.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested in a tweet that her fellow freshman was being treated unfairly.

"No one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about Latinx + other communities," the New York Democrat wrote.

Jewish groups generally said they support the resolution — but...

"We are concerned that the timing of this resolution will be seen as singling out and focusing special condemnation on a Muslim woman of colour as if her views and insensitive comments pose a greater threat than the torrent of hatred that the white nationalist right continues to level against Jews, Muslims, people of colour and other vulnerable minority groups," said J Street, a nonprofit that says it's a home for "pro-Israel, pro-Peace Americans".

The Democrats' strategy, the group added, "plays directly into the hands of the president and his allies, who act in bad faith to weaponise the debate for political gain".

Back home in Minnesota, a collection of elected officials started a #StandWithIlhan hashtag with a statement that reads in part:

"We call on Democrats to stand with Ilhan against Republican efforts to pit Jews and Muslims against each other."

But there also was the talk of finding a candidate to challenge her in 2020.

"I firmly believe that her anti-Semitic expressions do not reflect the views of her district's residents," said state Senator Ron Latz, who is Jewish, lives in her district and has been critical of Omar's recent statements on Israel. "She is rapidly making herself a pariah in Congress, rather than an effective representative for her constituents," he added — "exactly the kind of scenario that would open the door for a primary challenge."

Senior Democrats were standing firmly against Omar's comments, and not for the first time. Earlier this year, she apologised for a 2012 tweet in which she said Israel had "hypnotised" America. And last month, she apologised for suggesting that members of Congress support Israel because they are paid to do so.

That earned her stern rebukes from Pelosi and House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, among others. This time, Engel declared that Omar's suggestion about divided loyalties was a "vile" stereotype that had no place on his committee. Republicans, meanwhile, demanded that Democrats throw Omar off Engel's panel. There was no sign of that happening at midday Tuesday.

"I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on a committee," Omar tweeted.

Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell said Engel, while upset with Omar's comments, "feels that she brings a different perspective to the committee" that keeps it strong.

"This is a very complicated issue," Dingell said on Fox News Channel. "There is nothing complicated about being very clear that we must stand up against anti-Semitism."

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Updated Date: Mar 06, 2019 17:33:55 IST

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