Ilhan Omar started out in Congress as a somewhat lonely critic of decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Now, six months into her second term, the Minnesota Democrat has new and diverse allies.
The latest flareup of intra-party frustration with Omar’s progressive brand of foreign policy appears to have calmed — a notable turnaround for a lawmaker the GOP continues to try to turn into a symbol of a Democratic Party hurtling too far leftward. While Omar’s recent comments weren’t as directly disparaging as she’s been in the past, Democrats are showing they’re increasingly comfortable backing her up, particularly as she hammers the Israeli government in ways that buck long-held bipartisan traditions in Washington.
That friendlier posture toward Omar indicates that her party’s shift on America’s role in the Middle East was more than just a short-term fixture of the recent 11-day conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
One of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and a Somali-born refugee, Omar is emblematic of a trend much different from the one portrayed by her Republican detractors: Her perspective is aligned with that of younger Democrats, both inside and outside Congress, who want to center U.S.-Israel policy more closely on the needs of Palestinians.
“Some may call Congresswoman Omar’s comments harmful or piercing. But I think they’re only piercing because we’ve avoided the conversation for so long. And she’s not avoiding it,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a freshman elected on a promise to join her in the liberal alliance known as “the Squad,” said in an interview.
“She’s lived through human-rights atrocities, so she’s going to call that out when she sees it,” Bowman added. “And we as a party have to support her and we have to also call it out when we see it — whether it’s Israel or another part of the world.”
Omar faced condemnation two years ago when she used what many colleagues saw as antisemitic tropes on Twitter. Democrats, especially Jewish members of the caucus, decried Omar’s rhetoric then and have continued to monitor her consistent criticism of settlement activities by the Israeli government that have disproportionately disrupted the lives of Palestinians.
During last month’s conflict in Gaza, Omar again slammed Israel for what she described as human-rights abuses; she also posted messages against antisemitism amid an uptick of attacks on Jewish Americans. When Omar pushed for an international investigation into Israeli treatment of Palestinians, she grouped together Israel, the U.S., Hamas and the Taliban to say that all four have committed “unthinkable atrocities.”
A dozen Jewish House Democrats responded with a statement blasting Omar for an “offensive” and “misguided” comparison that “give[s] cover to terrorist groups”; the top six House Democratic leaders also pushed back on Omar for “drawing false equivalencies” while thanking her for clarifying her remark.
That friendly fire toward Omar prompted speculation that the House could move to punish her, but no tangible threat materialized. In fact, a notable number of colleagues — including Jewish Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus — defended Omar and insisted that she was being unfairly targeted because she is a Muslim woman.
“She is attracting much more scrutiny than anybody, like a person like me, would. People are ready to parse every word that she says. And I just think that’s unfair,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), a septuagenarian Jewish American who contended that he wouldn’t face similar backlash for his agreement with Omar’s comment.
“The idea that you can’t mention the U.S., Israel and Hamas in the same sentence without being accused of being anti-Semitic? That’s just stupid,” Yarmuth added.
Even as Republicans leaped to deride Omar as antisemitic, it quickly became clear that the majority of Democrats simply wanted to move on. The 12 lawmakers who initially condemned Omar didn’t push the issue further, and Republicans have edged away from their initial flirtation with forcing a vote to kick her off the Foreign Affairs Committee.
A greater number of Democrats used the moment to emphasize that they don’t see criticism of the Israeli government’s policies on its own as biased against Jewish people.
“Do you believe in accountability for human rights, for war crimes? How can you believe in it for everybody except yourself, or your friends?” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a Jewish American. “That is what Representative Omar was actually saying. And since I’ve taken that position myself for many years, why does everybody jump on her when she says it?”
The rising number of defenders marks a victory for Omar and fellow progressives, who say their messaging on Israel is getting stronger and attracting more support from across the caucus and the party.
“There were more Jews who didn’t sign that letter than did,” Yarmuth noted, describing the anti-Omar statement as an “overreaction” by the 12 Democrats. “Some of the people probably regret that they did it.”
Progressives were initially furious that the upper rung of Democratic leadership was so quick to push back on Omar’s comments. Still, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) later declined to characterize that response as a “rebuke,” and Republicans viewed the cooling-down as their opponents effectively ceding a potential political cudgel.
“The Democrat Party does not support Israel anymore, and they’re fine with helping a terrorist organization. That’s where they are,” said Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the upper chamber’s GOP campaign arm. “It’s a good issue for us.”
Republicans have long sought to tie vulnerable Democrats to Omar and use her rhetoric as a political cudgel to paint the entire party as radical. During the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, some GOP lawmakers went as far as to accuse Democrats of supporting the terror group because they were openly pushing for a ceasefire in defiance of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Liberals counter that their position is favorable on the political and policy merits, as a generational divide within the Democratic Party has elevated younger lawmakers’ calls for a recalibration in U.S. policy toward Israel. Democrats should consider a foreign-policy doctrine that takes into account the alleged human-rights abuses by U.S. allies, these younger members say, and a party leadership dominated by octogenarians should be encouraging that discussion.
“Young people really look at this through a secular and non-ethnic or cultural or national point of view,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in an interview. “Young people are saying, why are we paying for this? Why are we supporting this?”
Ocasio-Cortez, a longtime Omar ally who’s advocated for a tougher posture with Israel, said she often hears from young Jewish Americans who were “raised with one narrative” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they “do not want their identity tied to this injustice.”
One of several progressives pressing to put conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel, which is critical for its survival in the region, Ocasio-Cortez noted that she has long called for conditioning American aid money to various countries that are suspected of human-rights abuses, not just Israel.
Some lawmakers will confront such issues firsthand in the coming weeks. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will lead a congressional delegation to Israel as early as July 5, according to multiple sources. The number of members and who is going remains fluid, but one source told POLITICO that Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) will be joining Meeks’ first such trip as chair.
Meanwhile, progressives who want to keep reevaluating the U.S.-Israel relationship often add a social justice component to their messaging, underscoring that theirs is an anti-establishment tack. Progressives and young Democrats in particular view the foreign-policy establishment in Washington — which has encompassed a majority from both parties — as a destructive force.
And after a springtime conflict that saw more Democrats expressing deep reservations with President Joe Biden’s strategy of “quiet, intensive diplomacy” as Israel waged retaliatory strikes against Hamas assets in Gaza, liberals sense more of an appetite for taking on the traditional breed of foreign policy that Biden embodies.
“It’s a generational shift of prioritizing human rights and having a human-rights focus in American foreign policy,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “And it’s definitely a recognition that those rights include Palestinian human rights.”
Sarah Ferris and Laura Barron-Lopez contributed.