Pelosi tries to quell Democrat divisions following anti-Semitism accusations

America Letter: Criticism follows comment online by congresswoman Ilhan Omar

Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar (left) and Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi attend a media event to push for campaign finance reform outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Friday. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar (left) and Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi attend a media event to push for campaign finance reform outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Friday. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

 

When Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visits the United States this week to mark St Patrick’s Day, much will be made of the enduring power of Irish-American relations.

But Irish-American goodwill in Washington has its limits.

Recently, ten members of Congress sent a letter to members of the Oireachtas criticising the Occupied Territories Bill, which proposes a ban on imports from Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.

Ireland’s stance on the Middle East, and its tradition of supporting Palestinian rights in the EU, has not gone unnoticed in Washington.

The inference that money was driving US policy on Israel prompted furious reactions from some Democrats, who accused her of engaging in anti-Semitic tropes about money

The office of former House speaker Paul Ryan raised the issue on at least one occasion with Irish representatives, while several members of Congress have also flagged their concern, including with Tánaiste Simon Covey last month during his visit.

This week an insight into the sensitivities around Israel and any perceived hint of anti-Semitism were laid bare in Congress as the Democratic Party became embroiled in a very public split over comments made by one of its members, Ilhan Omar.

Camp to Congress

The Minnesota congresswoman was one of two Muslim women elected to Congress in November’s midterm elections. She emigrated to the United States from Somalia in 1995, having spent several years living in a refugee camp.

Omar (37) stirred controversy last month after a tweet that said: “it’s all about the Benjamins, baby”, a reference to $100 bills, which bear an image of Benjamin Franklin.

The tweet referred to Aipac, the American Israel public affairs committee and a pro-Israel group. The inference that money was driving US policy on Israel prompted furious reactions from some members of her party, who accused her of engaging in age-old anti-Semitic tropes about money and influence. Following a meeting with Democratic congressional leader Nancy Pelosi, Omar apologised.

As the Democrats grappled with their own Jeremy Corbyn moment, and tried to fend off accusations of anti-Semitism within its ranks, Republicans reacted with glee

But the controversy re-emerged this week. Speaking at an event, Omar referenced the “political influence in this country that says that it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country”. When criticised by fellow Democrat Nita Lowey, Omar responded on Twitter: “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress.”

Uproar ensued, with furious Democrats, many of whom are Jewish, claiming she was suggesting they were somehow un-American for supporting Israel.

A closed-door meeting on Wednesday of the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill erupted into acrimony, as Pelosi tried to quell the growing crisis within her party.

A promise to table a resolution in the House of Representatives condemning anti-Semitism itself became embroiled in controversy, with some members, including the Black Congressional Caucus, insisting that other forms of racism be included.

Republican glee

In the end, the resolution tabled on Thursday was an “anti-hate” bill that condemned “hateful expressions of intolerance” and made specific reference to anti-Semitism and “anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry”.

As the Democrats grappled with their own Jeremy Corbyn moment, and tried to fend off accusations of anti-Semitism within its ranks, Republicans reacted with glee.

Pelosi has been riding high since reclaiming the gavel in January, masterfully outmanoeuvring president Donald Trump in her handling of the government shutdown. This week she faced the first real challenge of the new congressional session as she tried to bring her caucus together.

Unsurprisingly the president weighed in. “It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against Anti-Semitism in their conference,” he tweeted. “Anti-Semitism has fueled atrocities throughout history and it’s inconceivable they will not act to condemn it.”

Despite Pelosi’s efforts to unify, the controversy over Omar this week has highlighted an ideological and generational divide within the Democratic Party

Pelosi did not refrain from a reference to the president’s own track record in making offensive statements about minorities and his apparent sympathy with neo-Nazis during the Charlottesville demonstrations in 2017.

“The president may think there are good people on both sides; we don’t share that view,” she said.

But the drama over the anti-Semitism bill overshadowed all else on Capitol Hill this week, including a vote on strengthening background checks for gun purchases, a legislative achievement that should have been trumpeted by Democrats.

Despite Pelosi’s efforts to unify her caucus, the controversy over Omar this week has highlighted an ideological and generational divide within the Democratic Party that has been accentuated by the election of a new crop of younger and ethnically diverse candidates in November.

Pelosi might say that her party is committed to religious freedom and diversity – she herself had ashes on her forehead during the meeting on Wednesday in a reminder of her Catholic faith – but this week’s tensions have exposed a diverse group that could prove difficult to unify in the coming months.

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