WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 16: The House Foreign Affairs’ Committee’s Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations Subcommittee member Rep. Ilhan Omar , DFL-Minn., questions witnesses during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill May 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, testified before the committee. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
WASHINGTON—U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar on Thursday faced a backlash from leaders in the House and Democratic colleagues — including her fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Dean Phillips — after she tweeted a video of a virtual exchange she had with Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
But some House Democratic allies also rose to Omar’s defense, saying that critics within the party should speak to her directly rather than issuing statements or using social media. Republicans, meanwhile, called for Omar to be stripped of her assignment on the foreign affairs panel.
In the tweet that set off the dispute, Omar wrote: “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. I asked @SecBlinken where people are supposed to go for justice.”
A dozen Jewish Democratic lawmakers in a statement issued late Wednesday accused Omar of making an “offensive” and “misguided” comparison of the human rights records of Israel and the United States to those of Hamas and the Taliban.
“Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice,” the House members said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democratic leaders including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on Thursday also called for Omar to clarify her statement and added that “there is no moral equivalency between the U.S. and Israel and Hamas and the Taliban.”
“Legitimate criticism of the policies of both the United States and Israel is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate,” they said. “And indeed, such criticism is essential to the strength and health of our democracies. But drawing false equivalencies between democracies like the U.S. and Israel and groups that engage in terrorism like Hamas and the Taliban foments prejudice and undermines progress toward a future of peace and security for all.”
The statement from the dozen Democratic lawmakers was signed by Phillips, whose district comprises the western suburbs of Minneapolis; Rep. Brad Schneider of Illinois along with Reps. Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts; Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Lois Frankel of Florida; Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey; Elaine Luria of Virginia; Kathy Manning of North Carolina; Jerrold Nadler of New York; Kim Schrier of Washington state; and Brad Sherman of California.
Omar tweeted that the 12 Democrats who criticized her should have spoken with her rather than putting out the statement.
“It’s shameful for colleagues who call me when they need my support to now put out a statement asking for ‘clarification’ and not just call,” she said.
“The islamophobic tropes in this statement are offensive. The constant harassment & silencing from the signers of this letter is unbearable.”
In the exchange at a Monday hearing that prompted the brouhaha, Omar asked Blinken how victims of human rights violations inflicted by Israeli security forces and Hamas could seek justice if the U.S. would not support an International Criminal Court investigation. The U.S. and Israel do not recognize the authority of the ICC, which can put individuals on trial for war crimes.
The line of questioning was about how the ICC opened an investigation in 2020 about the alleged crimes committed in Afghanistan by the Taliban and the United States, as well as an investigation this year into allegations against Hamas and Israeli forces dating to the 2014 Gaza conflict, and why the Biden administration is opposing those investigations.
Omar in a follow-up tweet defended her previous remarks.
“Citing an open case against Israel, US, Hamas & Taliban in the ICC isn’t (a) comparison or from ‘deeply seated prejudice’,” she said shortly after her colleagues’ statement was issued, adding that “the truth can’t be hidden or silenced forever.”
Omar’s office did not respond to requests for comment Thursday, but Omar’s senior communications director and strategist Jeremy Slevin issued a statement.
“As usual, the far right is ginning up hate against Rep. Omar for a technical question about an ongoing investigation. This has already led to an increase in death threats against her and our staff. And now some of her own Democratic colleagues are ginning up the same Islamophobic hate against her, accusing her of giving ‘cover to terrorist groups’ simply for exercising oversight over a criminal investigation,” Slevin added.
He said that her role as a member of that committee is to “ask questions of the Administration and work to make sure the public understands our government shouldn’t deny any person from seeking justice.”
Still later, Omar wound up clarifying her remarks: “I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems.”
House Democrats who came to Omar’s defense included Rep. Rashida Tlaib D-Mich., who along with Omar was one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress in 2018.
Tlaib wrote on Twitter that she was tired of her Republican and Democratic colleagues demonizing Omar.
“Their obsession with policing her is sick,” she tweeted. “She has the courage to call out human rights abuses no matter who is responsible.”
Rep. Cori Bush, a Democratic freshman from Missouri, also criticized those Democrats who issued the statement rather than talk directly to Omar.
“I’m not surprised when Republicans attack Black women for standing up for human rights,” she tweeted. “But when it’s Democrats, it’s especially hurtful. We’re your colleagues. Talk to us directly.”
The Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Campaign Committee, has already called for Omar to be stripped of her seat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The campaign committee is headed by Rep. Tom Emmer, a Minnesota Republican.
“If Democrats truly cared about Ilhan Omar’s anti-American and anti-Semitic rhetoric, they would immediately take action to remove her from her committee assignments,” NRCC spokesman Mike Berg said in a statement.
Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum rose to Omar’s defense, saying Omar “asked a serious question which is her right as a member of Congress, but the hypocrites at the NRCC, including Chairman Tom Emmer, should be reminded of their silence when the Trump administration sat down with the Taliban to negotiate a diplomatic agreement without the Afghan government while American service members and Afghan civilians were being attacked and killed.”
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