GOP-led House boots Ilhan Omar from Foreign Affairs panel over past Israel comments

Progressive lawmaker co-sponsors pro-Israel resolution hours before vote, whose results still fall along party lines; Democrats accuse Republicans of targeting women of color

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., leaves the House chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, February 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., leaves the House chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, February 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The Republican-led US House of Representatives voted after raucous debate Thursday to oust Democrat Ilhan Omar from the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee, citing her past anti-Israel comments, in a dramatic escalation after Democrats in the last session booted a pair of far-right GOP lawmakers over their own incendiary remarks.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was able to solidify Republican support against the Somali-born Muslim woman in the new Congress, although some GOP lawmakers had expressed reservations. Removal of lawmakers from House committees was essentially unprecedented until the Democratic ousters two years ago of hard-right Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona.

The 218-211 vote, along party lines, came after a heated debate with voices raised in which Democrats accused the GOP of targeting Omar based on her race. Omar defended herself on the House floor, asking if anyone was surprised she was being targeted, “because when you push power, power pushes back.”

“My voice will get louder and stronger, and my leadership will be celebrated around the world,” Omar said in a closing speech.

Republicans focused on six statements Omar has made that “under the totality of the circumstances, disqualify her from serving on the Committee of Foreign Affairs,” said Rep. Michael Guest, R-Miss.

The most well-known of the remarks was a tweet she posed in 2019 in which she claimed that US lawmakers’ support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins.” She subsequently apologized, saying she was learning “the painful history of antisemitic tropes.”

Hours before Thursday’s vote, Omar even co-sponsored a resolution titled, “recognizing Israel as America’s legitimate and democratic ally and condemning antisemitism.”

The measure resolves that the House “rejects hate, discrimination, and antisemitism in all forms, including antisemitism masquerading as anti-Israel sentiment… [and] explicitly condemns perpetuation of antisemitic tropes, including claims of dual loyalty, control, and other conspiracy theories antithetical to American values.”

Hours after the vote, Omar tweeted, “my critique of our foreign policy, Israel’s policy towards Palestinians or that of any foreign nation will not change. As a person who suffered the horrors of war and persecution, my advocacy will always be for those that suffer because of the actions of governments.”

Omar’s removal was condemned by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which said there was no equivalence between the two parties on the issue of antisemitism.

“Democrats have sought to combat extremism, while the GOP has normalized bigotry and provided a political home for extremists,” JDCA said in a statement.

“We’ve disagreed with Rep. Omar on Israel, condemned her use of antisemitic tropes, and welcomed her apology. Today, we stand with House Democrats in strongly opposing this unjust act of political retribution. We also stand with Muslim Americans calling out this Republican attack for being rooted in bigotry and Islamophobia,” the group added.

JDCA’s GOP foil, the Republican Jewish Coalition, hailed the Thursday vote, saying that “for years, Democratic leadership has failed to hold Rep. Ilhan Omar accountable for her vile, hateful, and dangerous anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric.”

In the debate ahead of the vote on Omar, Democrats lined up to express support for their progressive colleague. Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York said she had at times “made mistakes” and used antisemitic tropes that were condemned by House Democrats four years ago. But that’s not what Thursday’s vote was about, he said.

“[But this] is not about accountability, it’s about political revenge,” Jeffries said.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky furiously defended Omar, declaring, “I stand before you as a proud Jew and a proud friend and colleague of Ilhan Omar. I don’t need any of you to defend me against antisemitism.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, took it one step further, saying that the GOP’s action was one of the “disgusting legacies after 9/11… the targeting and racism against Muslim-Americans throughout the United States of America. And this is an extension of that legacy.”

She added, “This is about targeting women of color.”

Omar is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. She is also the first to wear a hijab in the House chamber after floor rules were changed to allow members to wear head coverings for religious reasons.

“It’s so painful to watch,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who joined Congress with Omar in 2019 the first two female Muslims elected to the House.

“To Congresswoman Omar, I am so sorry that our country is failing you today through this chamber,” Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, said through tears. “You belong on that committee.”

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, argued for excluding Omar from the panel during a recent closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans.

“It’s just that her worldview of Israel is so diametrically opposed to the committee’s,” McCaul told reporters in describing his stance. “I don’t mind having differences of opinion, but this goes beyond that.”

McCarthy already blocked Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both California Democrats, from rejoining the House Intelligence Committee once the GOP took control of the chamber in January. While appointments to the intelligence panel are the prerogative of the speaker, the action on Omar required a House vote.

Several Republicans skeptical of removing Omar wanted “due process” for lawmakers who face removal. McCarthy said he told them he would work with Democrats on creating a due process system, but acknowledged it’s still a work in progress.

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