WASHINGTON — Freshman congresswoman Ilhan Omar said the United States should castigate Israel just like it does Iran in an interview this week, in which she also said that she “almost chuckles” when Israel is referred to as a democracy.
Omar, a Somali-born refugee from Ethiopia, is part of a new wave of freshmen Democrats ascending the US Capitol after the 2018 midterm elections in which Democrats gained 40 seats in the House. Along with Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib, the first two Muslim women in Congress, she supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, is already known as one of the Jewish state’s most vigorous critics on Capitol Hill and her latest remarks came two weeks after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed her to the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees US foreign policy and foreign aid.
During a taped interview with Zainab Salbi on Yahoo News’ “Through Her Eyes,” Omar was asked about her views on Israel. Beyond her backing for the BDS movement, she once tweeted during the 2014 Israel-Hamas war that Israel had “hypnotized the world,” although she recently apologized.
“I want to talk about Israel because it has been a point of contention,” Salbi said. “How can America work productively towards a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians in your opinion?”
Omar responded by saying the United States has historically favored Israel in the conflict.
“By having an equal approach to dealing with both,” she told Salbi. “Most of the things that have been aggravating to me is that we have had a policy that makes one superior to the other. And we mask it with a conversation about justice and a two-state solution. When you have policies that clearly prioritize one over the other.”
When Salbi asked her to clarify, she went on to criticize Israel’s controversial nation-state law passed last year — implying that Washington should not be such an unequivocal supporter of a state that, critics say, implemented a law that effectively discriminates non-Jewish religious minorities in Israel.
“I mean just our relationship with the Israeli government and the Israeli state,” Omar said. “And so when I see Israel institute laws that recognize it as a Jewish state and does not recognize the other religions that are living in it and we still uphold it as a democracy in the Middle East, I almost chuckle because I know that if … we see that in any other society, we would criticize it.”
“We would call it out,” she went on. “We do that to Iran, to any other place that sort of upholds its religion. And I see that now in Saudi Arabia and so I am aggravated truly in those contradictions.”
Israel passed the law, which was sponsored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, in July. It drew vehement criticisms from Jews in Israel and abroad for appearing to relegate Arabic to non-official language status, promoting the status of the Jewish religion in legal matters, and not specifying equal rights for all Israeli citizens. Others have defended it as codification of longstanding agreed-upon facts about Israel’s identity, and noted that existing legislation provides for equal rights.
A new pro-Israel group for Democrats founded this week by Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic pollster, criticized’s Omar’s equating Israel and Iran as “absurd.”
“Israel is a democracy where the rights of minorities are protected. In Israel authority rests with the parliament, in which the Joint (Arab) List is the third largest party, and with the courts, which are presided over by judges who are both Arab and Jewish,” Mellman, CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel, said in a statement.
“Iran is a theocracy in which full and final power rests with a religious figure, the Supreme Leader. Iran has also been identified by both Democratic and Republican administrations as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”
Mellman’s group was created at a time when a number of young Democrats in the party are adopting more antagonistic approaches to Israel. DMI, which has a number of big-name Democrats attached to it, aims to maintain Democratic support for Israel in this new environment.
“Especially at a time when our president lies daily, Democratic Members of Congress have a special responsibility to know the facts before they speak, and to tell the American people the truth,” Mellman said. “In this instance Congresswoman Omar failed on both counts.”