Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar apologises over accusations of anti-semitic remarks

First-time legislator faces wrath of fellow Democrats for suggesting support for Israel motivated by money

US Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, speaks during a press conference calling on Congress to cut funding for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to defund border detention facilities, outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, February 7, 2019. / AFP / SAUL LOEB
Powered by automated translation

US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar apologised on Monday over remarks she made about money and support for Israel, that were widely condemned and seen as anti-Semitic by her colleagues in Congress.

"Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on this painful history of anti-Semitic tropes...This is why I unequivocally apologise," Ms Omar tweeted.

The comments made by the Minnesota lawmaker suggesting that money is the reason behind support for Israel have unleashed accusations of “anti-Semitism” at the freshman legislator and drew a rebuke from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday.

The controversy started on Sunday night when Ms Omar suggested in a tweet that the outrage about her criticism of Israel from other lawmakers was driven by money. “It's all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote, referencing a song by the rapper Puff Daddy and the $100 bill that features president Benjamin Franklin's image.

When asked what she meant by the tweet, Ms Omar responded “AIPAC!”, the acronym for the influential pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC does not donate money to Congress members or campaigns but promotes pro-Israel legislation in Congress and organises trips to Israel for members from both parties.

The tweets were enough to ignite fury on Twitter, and accusations that Ms Omar was being anti-Semitic for suggesting that support for Israel was all about the money. Her fellow Democratic legislators Jerry Nadler, Max Rose, Elaine Luria and Josh Gottheimer were among at least 30 members who attacked her rhetoric. "Congresswoman Omar's statements are deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself,” Mr Rose said.

Mr Gottheimer and Ms Luria started collecting signatures on Monday on a letter expressing deep concern over "recent rhetoric from certain members within our Caucus, including just last night, that has disparaged us and called into question our loyalty to our nation", according to Politico.

Ms Pelosi, a Democrat, issued a statement on Monday denouncing Ms Omar's comments.

"Congresswoman Omar's use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel's supporters is deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks," Ms Pelosi said, asking Ms Omar to apologise.

Criticism also came from former first daughter Chelsea Clinton, who was planning to reach out to Ms Omar’s office on Monday to discuss “anti-Semitic tropes”.

“Co-signed as an American. We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism,” Ms Clinton tweeted.

Lebanese-American Congresswoman Donna Shalala also condemned Ms Omar’s rhetoric. “To suggest members of Congress are 'bought off' to support Israel is offensive and wrong,” she tweeted.

But others have called the attacks a smear campaign against Ms Omar, and some said that there is a difference between criticising AIPAC activities and anti-Semitism.

“No, criticism of Israel isn’t anti-Semitism, just like criticism of a Muslim majority state isn’t Islamophobia, by default. However racist or bigoted tropes can be intentionally or unintentionally triggered in making those critiques and yes that matters – it always matters,” Hend Amry tweeted.

On Monday, Ms Omar appeared to stick by her comments, retweeting a comment that “accurately describing how the Israel lobby works is not anti-Semitism”.

Ms Omar has been consistent in her criticism for Israel and is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Her office did not return a request for a comment from by The National.