WASHINGTON — Rep. Ilhan Omar tried edging away Thursday from a bitter fight with Jewish Democratic lawmakers who'd accused her of likening the U.S. and Israel to Hamas and Afghanistan's Taliban, saying her remarks were “in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries."
A three-sentence statement by the Minnesota Democrat also said her comments were “not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel," and seemed to dial back a more confrontational tone she’d taken earlier. In a series of tweets, Omar had said her critics' public rebuke of her was “shameful," accused them of “islamophobic tropes" and said she was merely seeking justice “for all victims of crimes against humanity.”
Minutes after Omar released her latest remarks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the other top five House Democratic leaders issued an unusual joint statement making clear they'd disapproved of Omar’s initial comments.
“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 leaders said. “We welcome the clarification by Congresswoman Omar that there is no moral equivalency between the U.S. and Israel and Hamas and the Taliban.”
The leaders' statement seemed designed to try defusing their party's latest rancorous dispute over the Middle East. That schism has generally pitted younger progressives against older, establishment-leaning lawmakers who are more pro-Israel, a divide that has intensified since last month’s 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.
The quick intervention by top Democrats also came ahead of what may be a Republican attempt to train attention on Omar's words when the House returns next week from recess.
In a possible preview of that, the National Republican Congressional Committee tweeted Thursday, “@Housedemocrats must vote to strip anti-Semite @IlhanMN of her committee assignments.” The NRCC is the House GOP campaign organization.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Pelosi's failure to take action “sends a message to the world that Democrats are tolerant of anti-Semitism and sympathizing with terrorists.”
McCarthy has resisted Democrats' calls to punish Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who last month compared Pelosi's requirement that lawmakers wear masks in the House chamber to Nazis requiring Jews to wear yellow stars during the Holocaust.
A Republican effort to remove Omar from her committees would likely fail in the Democratic-run chamber, but would spotlight divisions within the party that the GOP has sought to exploit before.
A top House Democratic aide would not comment on whether Pelosi and party leaders had pressed Omar to issue her latest statement.
This week's flareup involving Omar, 38, was the most recent instance in which she has clashed with fellow Democrats over the Middle East. Two months after she arrived in Congress in 2019, the House approved a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry — without mentioning her — after she made remarks that critics said accused Israel supporters of having dual allegiances.
The latest confrontation between Omar, a Muslim-American born in Somalia, and fellow Democrats began when she tweeted a Monday exchange with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a video conference in which she called for justice “for all victims of crimes against humanity.”
In remarks that drew the most attention, she said, “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.”
Late Wednesday, Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., and 11 other Jewish House Democrats issued a statement labeling those remarks offensive and misguided. They said she should “clarify” what she meant.
“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,” they wrote.
They said that while the U.S. and Israel are “imperfect” and merit occasional criticism, “False equivalencies give cover to terrorist groups.”
On Thursday, Omar tweeted that it was “shameful” that fellow Democrats who sometimes seek her support on issues didn’t ask her for an explanation by simply calling her. “The islamophobic tropes in this statement are offensive. The constant harassment & silencing from the signers of this letter is unbearable,” she wrote.
She also wrote, “Every time I speak out on human rights I am inundated with death threats.” She posted an excerpt of an expletive-laden voice mail she said she’d just received with a caller saying he hopes she gets “what’s coming for you.”
She also said her comments did not reflect prejudice and cited an International Criminal Court investigation of the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas. “You might try to undermine these investigations or deny justice to their victims but history has thought us that the truth can’t be hidden or silenced forever,” she wrote.
In her later statement, Omar said her conversation with Blinken "was about accountability for specific incidents regarding those ICC cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel. I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems.”
Schneider tweeted he was pleased with that comment, adding, “I hope all can avoid such offhanded statements in the future.”
Yet, underscoring the party’s split, Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri also tweeted support for Omar. In 2018, Tlaib and Omar became the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
Tlaib said Democratic leadership “should be ashamed of its relentless, exclusive tone policing of Congresswomen of color.”
Bush said she expects criticism from Republicans, but it was “especially hurtful” that Omar was facing backlash from Democrats. “We’re your colleagues,” she tweeted. “Talk to us directly. Enough with the anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.”