By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
Feb. 1, 2019
Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were hailed as symbols of diversity when they were sworn in last month as the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, Ms. Tlaib in her mother’s hand-embroidered Palestinian Thobe, Ms. Omar in a tradition-shattering hijab.
Four weeks later, their uncompromising views on Israel have made them perhaps the most embattled new members of the Democratic House majority. Almost daily, Republicans brashly accuse Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar of anti-Semitism and bigotry, hoping to make them the Democrats’ version of Representative Steve King as they try to tar the entire Democratic Party with their criticism of the Jewish state.
And while Democratic leaders publicly defend them, some Democratic colleagues are clearly uneasy. Representative Ted Deutch, Democrat of Florida and a founder of a bipartisan task force to combat anti-Semitism, said some of the lawmakers’ comments “fall into longstanding anti-Semitic tropes.” When Ms. Omar was named to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, its chairman, Representative Eliot Engel of New York, told her privately that he would not allow some of her “particularly hurtful” remarks to be “swept under the rug,” Mr. Engel said.
The tussle over Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar has exposed a growing generational divide within the Democratic Party, pitting an old guard of stalwart supporters of Israel against an ascendant wing of young liberals — including many young Jews — willing to accuse the Israeli government of human rights abuses and demanding movement toward a Palestinian state.
For the Democratic Party, where most Jews have long made their political home, the risks are clear — and visible across the Atlantic. In Europe, left-wing parties are courting Muslim immigrant voters with increasingly anti-Israel positions, while the populist right is wooing Jews and cosying up to Israel’s right-wing government. In Britain, the leader of the Labour Party is besieged by accusations of anti-Semitism, bringing British Jews to the streets of London in protest.
Mr. Trump and Republicans are trying to find the same rifts among Democrats. Next week, the Senate is expected to easily pass legislation aimed at curbing the boycott-Israel movement — and stifling the new Democratic voices like Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar that back it. The bill would allow state and local governments to break ties with companies that participate in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or B.D.S., movement, which is intended, among other things, to pressure Israel into ending the occupation of the West Bank, and backed by some who advocate a single state with equal rights for all, instead of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Backers of B.D.S., including Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar, argue that economic boycotts are protected by the constitutional right to free speech; opponents insist the movement’s true goal is to destroy Israel as a Jewish state. The Senate bill, which has considerable Democratic support, is destined to fail in the House, where Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic Caucus chairman, has labelled it a “political stunt.”
But the debate is more than political. It is also playing out at the uncomfortable intersection of race, gender and religion in a Capitol whose complexion has changed dramatically with the arrival of an extraordinarily diverse freshman class. Allies of Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar accuse Republicans of bullying and bigotry, and they say Republicans are looking for a Democratic twin of Mr. King, the Iowa Republican who was recently rebuked by the House for his seeming embrace of white supremacy.
“I see this as an Islamophobic attack against two outspoken women of colour who are shaking things up by boldly standing for crucial issues,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. Critics of Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar, he said, are failing to recognize that “Palestine is increasingly becoming part of the progressive politics of justice for all.”
Both women are under fire for comments they have made on Twitter, and in Ms. Tlaib’s case, for her association with Palestinian rights activists who have used social media either to express or share extreme views, such as equating Zionism with Nazism. Both declined to be interviewed, instead sending written statements in which they expressed their commitment to fighting hatred of any kind, while also standing up for the oppressed.
“This respect for free speech does not equate to anti-Semitism,” Ms. Tlaib wrote, defending economic boycotts as peaceful and constitutionally protected. “I dream of my Palestinian grandmother living with equal rights and human dignity one day, and would never allow that dream to be tainted by any form of hate.”
Ms. Omar sought to turn the tables on Republicans. “Especially at a time when white supremacist violence is on the rise,” she wrote, “we all need to condemn hate against any religious group — something the current President has shamefully failed to do.”
Defenders of the women warn that their critics are entering dangerous territory by conflating anti-Zionism, hostility toward Israel as a Jewish state, with anti-Semitism, hostility toward Jews — a trend that Jeremy Ben Ami, the president of J Street, the liberal Jewish advocacy group, said he found “disturbing.” J Street did not endorse Ms. Omar and rescinded its endorsement of Ms. Tlaib after she declined to publicly support a two-state solution with Israel and a Palestinian state existing side by side.
Even so, Mr. Ben Ami said the two are “opening up a discussion that is absolutely needed on American policy,” and are helping to pull the Democratic Party more toward the view espoused by J Street and “younger liberal Jews” who believe that “you can be sympathetic to the state of Israel and also sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people.”
Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar both made history with their elections. Ms. Tlaib, 42, is the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress; her grandmother lives in the West Bank. Ms. Omar, 36, fled war-torn Somalia with her family as a child and is the first Somali-American lawmaker in the Capitol. House Democrats changed a 181-year-old rule barring head coverings to allow her to wear her hijab.
They are hardly the only Democrats who express support for the rights of Palestinians. Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, has gathered 31 co-sponsors for a bill that would bar taxpayer funds from going to Israeli military detention of children.
Ms. Tlaib, a lawyer and former state legislator, said during her campaign that she would “absolutely” vote against military aid to Israel. She also said she would be open to a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would create a single state that would include Israel within its 1948 borders, the West Bank and possibly the Gaza Strip under one democratic government, a position some fear would erode Israel as a Jewish homeland.
She believes the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “should be up to the people who live there, not Americans,” according to her office.
Ms. Omar, a nutrition educator and former state legislator, backs a two-state solution. “That said,” she wrote in her statement, “I will never apologize for standing up against oppression and injustice in Israel or anywhere else.”
When the Senate took up its anti-B.D.S. bill in early January, Ms. Tlaib took to Twitter. “They forgot what country they represent,” she wrote, referring to its Senate backers.
Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and the lead sponsor of the bill, shot back: “This ‘dual loyalty’ canard is a typical anti-Semitic line.” Mr. Deutch, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, also said he found the statement troubling, noting that the idea of dual loyalty — that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their home countries — amounts to “classic anti-Semitism.”
Ms. Tlaib said her comments were not aimed at Jews. The anti-B.D.S. legislation was written by Senators Rubio and Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia; neither is Jewish. But Ms. Tlaib is also facing harsh criticism from conservatives and some Jewish groups, as well as in the Israeli press, for comments and social media postings of some of her supporters — a criticism that she said in her statement was unfair.
One, Abbas Hamideh, who heads a Palestinian rights group, has praised Hezbollah, which is classified by the United States as a terrorist organization, and has equated Zionists with Nazis.
Another, Maher Abdel-qader, who has donated to Ms. Tlaib and organized events for her, shared a blatantly anti-Semitic video on his Facebook page. His connection to Ms. Tlaib was first reported by The Daily Caller, a conservative outlet; the video was removed from his Facebook page on Wednesday after The New York Times asked Ms. Tlaib’s office about it, and on Thursday Mr. Abdel-qader apologized for sharing it.
“It is unfair to be held responsible for the statements of others, especially when my actions — including votes as a Michigan legislator and leading the Take On Hate campaign — make clear that I oppose all forms of hate and condemn those who dehumanize others,” Ms. Tlaib wrote.
Ms. Omar has drawn intense criticism for defending, until last week, a 2012 tweet in which she asserted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel” — language that Mr. Deutch said “sounds a lot like, ‘Jews control the world.’”
Ms. Omar clarified it last week — and again Thursday night on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah — saying on Twitter that the statement “came in the context of the Gaza war,” and conceding that it was an “anti-Semitic trope I unknowingly used, which is unfortunate and offensive.” But Mr. Engel said he “would have been happier if it had been an apology.”
This week Ms. Omar raised eyebrows yet again when she compared Israel to Iran in an interview with Yahoo News, while criticizing a 2018 Israeli law that defined a national right to self-determination in Israel as belonging only to the Jews and effectively downgraded the status of the Arab language. When she hears Americans describe Israel as a democracy, “I almost chuckle,” she said, because “in any other society we would criticize it, we would call it out. We do that to Iran.”
The law is controversial in Israel as well, but the House’s Republican political arm blasted out an email to reporters carrying the subject line: “Dems take anti-Semitism mainstream.” At the same time, House Republican leaders are pushing a resolution that condemns anti-Semitism, citing Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar by name.
Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington who has sharply criticized Israel’s use of force against Palestinian protesters, called the increasingly personal Republican attacks on Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar “absolutely inappropriate” and “very unprofessional.”
“I think that there are a lot of people across the country who are deeply disturbed by some of the real issues that we are seeing in the Middle East,” she added.
Democratic leaders are standing by the women. Mr. Jeffries, the caucus chairman, called them “thoughtful colleagues.” Representative Steny D. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader and a staunch ally of Israel, said, “I don’t know that I draw the conclusion that these two members are anti-Semitic.”
Democratic critics of Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar held out hope that time in Congress could temper their views. “You hope that when people are elected to Congress, they continue to grow,” Mr. Engel said, “and I hope that will be the case here.”