Democrats in 2020 Race Rally Around Ilhan Omar Amid Anti-Semitism Flap

(Bloomberg) -- Four U.S. senators seeking the Democratic presidential nomination are rallying around first-term Representative Ilhan Omar amid a backlash over her remarks about Israel that sparked an acrimonious debate in the House this week.

Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand denounced anti-Semitism in separate statements Thursday, while also saying Omar was being unfairly targeted by those who want to muffle criticism of Israel’s policies.

On a 407 to 23 vote on Thursday, the House adopted a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry without mentioning Omar of Minnesota by name. She has apologized for previous comments criticized as anti-Semitic, while defending her right to question U.S. foreign policy.

Democrats in 2020 Race Rally Around Ilhan Omar Amid Anti-Semitism Flap

The Minneapolis-area Democrat, one of two Muslim women elected to Congress in November, reportedly took aim at “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” referring to Israel. She voted with a unanimous Democratic caucus for the resolution on Thursday.

House leaders had responded to the uproar by crafting a resolution to condemn anti-Semitism. Following a backlash from the party’s left flank and Omar’s defenders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi broadened the measure to denounce white supremacists and discrimination against Jews, Muslims and other groups as "hateful expressions of intolerance" contrary to American values.

A Pew Research poll in January 2018 found a partisan divide over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Democrats’ sympathies were evenly split between the two sides, having shifted in recent years away from Israel. Republicans sympathized with Israel over Palestinians by 73 points. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced critics at home and abroad who say his hard-line policies are isolating Israel.

An Economist/YouGov poll in September 2018 provided further evidence of a shift. Just 37 percent of Americans described Israel as “an ally,” compared to 47 percent in 2015. The change was driven by a drop among Democrats and Americans aged 18-29 — just 25 percent of both categories described Israel as “an ally.”

‘Legitimate Criticism’

Sanders, who is Jewish, said Americans mustn’t "equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel."

The Vermont senator called for an "even-handed Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together" and added: "What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong.”

Harris of California said the attacks on Omar "may put her at risk" and instead called for a respectful policy debate. "You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country," she said. "I also believe there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism."

Democrats in 2020 Race Rally Around Ilhan Omar Amid Anti-Semitism Flap

Warren of Massachusetts called for "an open, respectful debate about the Middle East that focuses on policy" with room for criticizing Israel.

"Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians," Warren said in a statement. "Threats of violence -- like those made against Representative Omar -- are never acceptable."

Gillibrand, of New York, decried “hypocrisy of the Republican Party,” arguing that some Republicans condemning Omar “said little or nothing when President Trump defended white supremacists at Charlottesville.”

But Gillibrand chided the Minnesotan as well, arguing that Omar and others “should be able to express their views without employing anti-Semitic tropes about money or influence.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who’s running for president as a moderate, chimed in without defending or mentioning Omar.

She said that “members of Congress can have legitimate policy debates about Israel, but there is no place in Congress or our country for anti-Semitic language — just as there is no place for anti-Muslim language and threats of violence.”

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