Colleagues downplay impact of BDS-supporter Ilhan Omar on top House committee
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Colleagues downplay impact of BDS-supporter Ilhan Omar on top House committee

Jewish Democrats say the Muslim Congresswoman, who backs Israel boycotts, will not influence the key Foreign Affairs Committee on the issue; Omar vows to focus on human rights

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and other freshmen members of the House of Representatives walk to the Senate side to speak about the government shutdown on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and other freshmen members of the House of Representatives walk to the Senate side to speak about the government shutdown on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The top two Jewish members of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee revile BDS, the boycott Israel movement.

Its newest member, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., has embraced the movement.

It’s not a big deal, the Jewish Democrats say.

Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the committee chairman, and Ted Deutch, D-Fla., its Middle East subcommittee chairman, told JTA that yes, they consider the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel to be a threat. But the bigger picture, they say, is that Omar is just one of two members who have embraced BDS, that the party remains pro-Israel and that there’s much common ground among Democrats.

“As I have consistently made clear, I am steadfastly opposed to BDS against Israel, as are nearly all of my colleagues,” Deutch told JTA in an email.

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., questions FBI Director Christopher Wray during a House Judiciary hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, on Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“I am confident that, notwithstanding any one Member’s support for an effort that I vehemently oppose, the Foreign Affairs Committee, together with Congress as a whole, will remain unwavering in our opposition to any effort to delegitimize the State of Israel,” he said. “Support in Congress for the U.S.-Israel relationship continues to be broad, deep, and bipartisan.”

Engel commended Omar for the regrets she expressed this week about a 2012 tweet that accused Israel of “hypnotizing” the world. Many Jews felt the tweet invoked an anti-Semitic trope, and Omar asserted that she wasn’t aware of the “unfortunate and offensive” connotations it contained. Engel said he would open a discussion with her and others on Israel and anti-Semitism.

“We’ll debate these issues in the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I expect those debates to be respectful and rooted in evidence and facts,” Engel told JTA in an email. “My colleague from Minnesota recognizes that her 2012 tweet was ‘unfortunate and offensive,’ which I appreciate. In the days ahead, I hope to work with her and all members of the Committee to share my views about the importance of the US-Israel relationship and the dangers of anti-Semitism.”

Omar, who started her first term this month, is believed to have secured the plum spot in part because of the credibility she brings to issues the committee will address. She is a refugee from Somalia and one of the two first Muslim women elected to Congress. She will be expected to use her committee seat to address issues in which there is broad agreement among Democrats: greater engagement with Africa and advocacy on behalf of refugees. President Donald Trump has slashed refugee intake and has described African countries as “shitholes.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., second from left, poses during a ceremonial swearing-in with Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., second from right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, during the opening session of the 116th Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Omar told JTA that her emphasis on the committee would be to expose human rights abuses. Notably the only country she named in her email was Saudi Arabia. She did not mention Israel and said she had already had “fruitful” discussions with Engel.

“As someone who has seen firsthand the havoc wreaked by war, I look forward to serving on the committee responsible for overseeing our country’s actions abroad,” Omar said in an email.

“Everything we do as a committee and as a country should be guided by creating a more peaceful and just world — and upholding human rights globally,” she said. “There are several ways we can do that immediately: we can investigate how foreign governments and their lobbyists have violated our laws, we can reign in arms sales to human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia, and we can use the committee’s human rights jurisdiction to hold the President accountable for deaths in detention centers on his watch. I’ve had fruitful discussions with the Chairman and other committee members about these priorities and look forward to making progress on these goals.”

Republicans sounded the alarm about Omar after her appointment was announced last week. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California put out a statement calling it “disgraceful” to seat “a member who has a documented history of making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, one of two Jewish Republicans in the US House of Representatives and a member of the committee, said last week on Twitter: “Instead of the Dems supporting Israel & combatting BDS & anti-Semitism on college campuses & elsewhere, they’re now empowering it,”

On Tuesday, Zeldin initiated with other Republicans a resolution condemning anti-Semitism that noted Omar’s 2012 tweet, but not her subsequent apology. The resolution lists allegedly anti-Semitic remarks on the left side of the political spectrum, and by Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam movement, as well as the deadly white supremacist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and the October attack by an anti-immigration fanatic on a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 worshippers dead.

Deutch suggested that it was more important that he, Engel and Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who chairs the Appropriations Committee, are all solid pro-Israel Democrats heading the committees and subcommittees critical to preserving the US-Israel relationship.

“Along with Chairman Engel and Chairwoman Lowey, who will chair the two most relevant committees to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship, I will continue my work to enhance the relationship, strengthen Israel’s security, and support the goal of a two-state solution,” Deutch said.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America echoed that point and noted its own concerns about Omar.

“The Jewish Democratic Council of America has clearly and repeatedly stated its concerns with the views of Representative IIhan Omar as it relates to Israel,” JDCA said. “We have also expressed strong support for bipartisanship when it comes to Israel, and we are confident that bipartisan support of the US-Israel relationship will continue in the 116th Congress under Democratic leadership. In this regard, we welcome the recent appointment of pro-Israel stalwarts Rep. Eliot Engel, Rep. Nita Lowey, and Rep. Ted Deutch as the chairs of the relevant committees and subcommittees in the House.”

Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., one of the most pro-Israel members of the caucus, just left Foreign Affairs to join the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, but told JTA he is confident that his caucus has his back.

“I fundamentally oppose BDS, not least because it denies the right of the Jewish people to a state, and I will continue to fight against all attempts to delegitimize Israel or weaken the economic and security bonds between our two nations,” he said in an email. “The U.S.-Israel relationship has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress. I have no doubt that this support will continue, including within the House Democratic Caucus.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. speaks during a hearing on Iran before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. At left House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Said Engel: “Support for Israel in Congress is strong and bipartisan, and as Chairman I will work to strengthen the US-Israel relationship, fight anti-Semitism, and push back against the BDS movement, which harms the prospects of a two-state solution.”

There are eight Jewish lawmakers on the 47-member committee: seven Democrats and Zeldin. The committee has 26 Democrats and 21 Republicans.

JTA solicited comment from a number of other members and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the speaker who has the last word on committee membership, but did not receive responses.

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