Jeffrey Prottas is deeply troubled by U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s use of language long seen by many as anti-Semitic. Mohammed Amin thinks Omar is being unfairly targeted by critics. David Dobkin just wants the political firestorm to end.
“I hope the conversation for the next two years isn’t just about Israel,” Dobkin said.
The uproar over Omar’s recurring comments challenging political support of Israel has quickly thrust the freshman member of Congress into a searing national spotlight. It is also dividing voters in Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, a diverse and deeply Democratic stronghold that easily elected her last fall.
Despite concerns about her views on Israel, Prottas hoped that Omar, 37, could become a transcendent character who would deftly break down race and cultural barriers. Now, as congressional leaders and presidential candidates debate her actions, he is less sure.
“I just don’t think it lends itself to enabling her to be a credible force in the Congress, unlike some of her freshman colleagues, who are taking positions on policies rather than speaking in broad general terms and reinforcing anti-Semitic tropes,” said Prottas, a Democrat from Golden Valley.
Omar inflamed critics last week after saying in a Washington, D.C., bookshop that she wanted “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Before that, she drew widespread criticism for a tweet suggesting a financial motive behind U.S. political support for Israel, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” The tweet references a 1997 Puff Daddy song that includes a derisive reference to Jews. In 2012, she tweeted that “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Omar later apologized.
Like Omar’s earlier tweets, her latest remarks were rebuked by Jewish leaders and colleagues on both sides of the aisle for leaning on historically anti-Semitic themes. Republicans once again called for her to be stripped of her position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On Thursday, Congress responded with a vote to condemn hate in all its forms.
The latest controversy did little to smooth strained relations with the local Jewish community, which makes up a sizable share of Omar’s Minneapolis and suburban congressional district.
Avi S. Olitzky, senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, said Omar’s statements and behavior represent an “attack against the Jewish community with words, with tropes, and with imagery and language.”
“Our Jewish community expects more from our members of Congress,” he said. “We expect sensitivity and an acceptance of responsibility.”
Omar, who filled the House seat held by Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, has apologized for the statements after the backlash, saying “my intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole,” noting that she has been attacked for her identity.
Kolmon Harris, an artist from Minneapolis, sees the backlash against Omar as overly aggressive and “totally inappropriate.” He called the outcry over her remarks “a conjured way of trying to stop serious questioning of Israeli policy and U.S. support of Israel.”
“One could point to the language that she’s using and suggest there are better ways to say some things, but that’s not an excuse for discounting what she’s saying,” said Harris, who is Jewish.
His daughter, Amber Harris, condemned what she called “obscene” attacks against Omar. The 28-year-old stay-at-home mom said the attacks are a concerted effort to beat back critics and ensure Democrats continue their lockstep support of the Israel.
“She’s trying to change the Democratic Party to what I think it should be,” Amber Harris said.
Dobkin, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, said while he saw Omar’s statements as unprofessional and “a little bit out of line,” he did not view them as anti-Semitic. While he’d like to see Omar be more careful with her language, Dobkin felt attention on the tweets was “disproportionate,” especially when another other member of Congress has been rebuked recently for statements related to white supremacy.
“She has the right to make these opinions, to critique a nation’s actions,” said Dobkin, who is vice president of the campus group Students Supporting Israel. “This whole thing like, ‘She should step down, she should be demoted’ is ridiculous like when there are white supremacists in Congress.”
In the eyes of Omar’s coalition of supporters, the backlash is, at best, overblown and, at worst, driven by racism and xenophobia. A group of 20 local officials, ranging from state legislators to Park Board members, issued an online petition standing with Omar. More than 250 local labor union members signed on to a letter of their own saying they “unequivocally stand with Ilhan Omar against the Islamophobic smears being leveled at her for her outspoken views.”
“Her statements and intentions are being purposely twisted in cynical and disingenuous ways to try to discredit and isolate her,” the letter reads.
Supporters say Omar, a Somali-American refugee, is being unfairly targeted.
“She’s a black woman, Muslim and she’s visibly different from anyone else in Congress ever and I think that’s what makes her vulnerable,” Minneapolis resident Kevin Chavis, chairman of the Twin Cities chapter of Our Revolution, a spinoff of Bernie Sanders’ last presidential campaign. “It’s not her stance, it’s not her statement. That is the key differentiator.”
Amin, of Minneapolis, said he knows Omar has a “beautiful heart” and wishes her advisers would steer her away from making remarks that could draw more fire. But he also sees the backlash as a reflection of the challenges that come with going up against a deeply established political system. He, too, worries she is not being treated fairly.
“Everybody knows that yes, as a new immigrant, a new American, that you are more vulnerable than someone who has been in a system for longer, someone who knows the system,” said Amin, who is Ethiopian. “I guarantee that if she was any other color they would have let this slide. They would have acknowledged her and directed her to the right direction, advised her and mentored her.”
Julia Marley, a 28-year-old state employee from Minneapolis, is also disappointed in the response from Democratic leaders in Washington. She believes Omar has been attacked after she “phrased a couple of things indelicately.” Now, Marley worries, the controversy hanging over the congresswoman is “probably never going to go away.”
But a growing concern for some in the local Jewish community is what they see as a pattern in troubling language by Omar.
After Omar’s tweet alleging financial motivation behind Israel’s political influence, “she did apologize and she pledged to listen and learn from the Jewish community,” said Sami Rahamim, a staffer at the regional chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “But now just two weeks later she seems to leave that promise unfulfilled.”
Rahamim, who voted for Omar in 2018, said he’s growing more concerned.
“She’s made me and many others embarrassed to be represented by her,” he said.
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