Somali-born Muslim-American Congress candidate wants to ‘instill hope in people’

Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar once called Israel an ‘apartheid regime’ but more recently came out against the BDS movement and affirmed her belief in Jewish state’s right to exist

Democrat Ilhan Omar, the US's first Somali-American legislator who won her party's congressional primary, August 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Jeff Baenen)
Democrat Ilhan Omar, the US's first Somali-American legislator who won her party's congressional primary, August 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Jeff Baenen)

The past 10 weeks have been a whirl for Ilhan Omar, who suddenly went from being famous for becoming the country’s first Somali-American state legislator to being a likely shoo-in for the first Somali-American congresswoman and one of the first two Muslim women in the US House of Representatives.

“It’s been a really interesting rush,” Omar, who once called Israel an “apartheid regime” but more recently came out against the boycott Israel movement, said in an interview with The Associated Press. She and her rivals had to mount instant campaigns when US Rep. Keith Ellison suddenly decided to leave Minneapolis-area seat to run for state attorney general. She quickly organized a team to nail down the Democratic endorsement to succeed him, then won a six-way primary Tuesday with a strong 48 percent plurality. “You get what you organize for,” she said.

Only Democrats have represented the 5th District since 1963, so Omar is expected to easily win the general election. Still, she said she’s not taking it for granted, and want to generate heavy turnout in the district to help boost statewide Democratic candidates.

Minneapolis Representative Ilhan Omar delivers a speech at the 162nd General Assembly of BIE, in Paris, on November 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

For now Omar, 35, is pausing to focus on getting her three children ready to go back to school. She said she’ll figure out everything else about going to Washington later.

Omar’s family fled Somalia’s civil war when she was 8. She spent her childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp and immigrated to the United States at age 12. As a progressive activist who was elected to the Minnesota Legislature in the same year that Donald Trump was elected president, she said she has worked since then to organize resistance to “destructive and divisive” Trump administration policies.

“I think my job now is to instill hope in people so that they have the strength to continue to resist and to continue to believe that there is an opportunity for us, for the first time, to really talk about the kind of nation we should be and the kind of nation that we deserve,” she said.

Omar said 5th District voters are young, so funding for education and college affordability will be a priority for her. She wants to get on the Agriculture Committee, even though she comes from an urban district, so she can promote food security for poor communities. Immigration and criminal justice reform will also be priorities. But she also wants to use her legislative experience to work for federal budgets that include investments in people and communities.

“I look forward to being a voice of reason in fighting for transparent and accountable budgets,” she said.

Omar said people want congressional leaders with “moral clarity and courage” to confront not only Trump’s administration but Congress itself, to eliminate corporate influence.

She would not say whether that means she’ll support or oppose Nancy Pelosi for re-election as the House Democratic leader. Several other Democratic candidates have said they won’t.

Omar’s tweets about Israel have earned her notoriety in the pro-Israel community. In 2012, she said that Israel had “hypnotized the world” to ignore its “evil doings.” Defending that tweet earlier this year, she said on the same platform that calling attention to the “Israeli Apartheid regime” was not anti-Semitic.

Speaking last week at a candidates’ forum at the Beth El synagogue, she affirmed her belief in Israel’s right to exist and she said she opposed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

“It is going to be important for us to recognize Israel’s place in the Middle East and the Jewish people’s rightful place within that region,” she said, according to a report by a local site, tc jewfolk.

In this November 6, 2008 photo, Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat, is photographed outside the Michigan Capitol in Lansing, Michigan. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

“I believe right now with the BDS movement, it’s not helpful in getting that two-state solution,” said Omar. “I think the particular purpose for [BDS] is to make sure that there is pressure, and I think that pressure really is counteractive. Because in order for us to have a process of getting to a two-state solution, people have to be willing to come to the table and have a conversation about how that is going to be possible and I think that stops the dialogue.”

Omar and former Michigan state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American who recently won a Detroit-area Democratic primary and is running unopposed in November, are expected to become the first two Muslim women in Congress. Omar said she thinks Americans should be excited about this “because it is a direct response to the politics of fear and scarcity that the president and his administration push.”

“Truly this is a nation that sees itself as one that instills hope and is really about allowing people to pursue their dreams,” she said.

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