Why does Ilhan Omar attract so much Republican ire?
House Republicans voted to remove Representative Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday in response to remarks she has made about Israel which many viewed as antisemitic.
Republicans have accused Ms Omar, a progressive lawmaker from Minnesota, of antisemitism for her criticism of Israel, which they say disqualifies her from serving on the committee.
But Democrats have accused Republicans of something more sinsister in their effort to boot Ms Omar from the committee. Ms Omar was one of the the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and was a former refugee from Somalia.
Ms Omar for her part defended herself in an impassioned speech before the vote.
“This is about who gets to be an American, what opinions do we get to have, do we have to have to be counted as Americans,” she said. “There is this idea that you are suspect if you are an immigrant, or if you are from certain parts of the world or a certain skin tone or a Muslim.”
The criticism for Ms Omar began in 2019, shortly after her swearing in. After then-Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy led the charge to remove then-Representative Steve King of Iowa from his committees for racist remarks, he said he wanted to take measures to sanction Ms Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan for their criticisms of Israel.
In response, Ms Omar tweeted that “It’s all about the Benjamins baby”. Republicans and even some Democrats criticised her remarks as antisemitic as they bore resemblance to the myths of Jewish people using money to control or influence governments.
Ms Omar later apologised and the House passed a resolution condemning antisemitism and Islamophobia “as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contrary to the values and aspirations of the United States.”
Still, many Republicans believe that her comments are still antisemitic and disqualifying.
“I just think the antisemitic comments have been made in the past and their position, what she said about Israel,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas told The Independent ahead of the vote. “The Foreign Affairs Committees is very, its bipartisan pro-Israel.”
After the vote on Thursday, some Republicans told The Independent the vote was a response to Democrats previously voting to oust GOP members.
“It wasn’t my decision to have the vote but, you know, she voted to remove Republicans from committees, so you reap what you sow,” Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado told The Independent on Thursday after the vote.
But some Democrats, including many Jewish Democrats such as Adam Schiff, Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota defended Ms Omar.
Representative Ruben Gallego told The Independent it was a testament to Mr McCarthy’s weak leadership.
“That it’s got no leadership, no spine to stand up to his own people and he’s just basically targeting Black women for political gain,” he said.
Republicans’ anger about removing Ms Omar began in earnest in 2021. In the beginning of that Congress, the House, including all Democrats and 11 Republicans, voted to remove Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from her committees for promoting conspiracy theories and racist remarks she made before she entered Congress.
At the time, then House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy criticised the move.
“You'll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” he said, and pledged that Republicans had a “long list” of Democratic targets.
Similarly, the House voted to censure Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona and to remove him from his committees after he posted a video of the anime Attack on Titan wherein a character with his head photoshopped on killed a character with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s head photoshopped.
Mr McCarthy pledged that he would remove Democrats like Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell of California off the House Intelligence Committee and Ms Omar off the Foreign Affairs Committee.
All three Democrats gained a wider profile for their role in opposing former president Donald Trump at the time. Mr Schiff and Mr Swalwell were impeachment managers in each of Mr Trump’s impeachment cases – with Mr Schiff serving as the lead manager in his first impeachment and Mr Swalwell being a manager on the second impeachment.
But Ms Omar has receive special ire as a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf and as a member of the Squad, a coterie of progressive Democrats that includes Ms Omar, Ms Tlaib, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri.
Mr Bowman, the sole male member of the Squad, told The Independent that Republicans targeted Ms Omar for her race and ethnicity.
“You know, Ilhan’s a threat to Kevin McCarthy not because she's an antisemite. She's not at all. It’s because he's not a real man, a real leader. She is,” he said.
On Thursday ahead of the full House vote, Ms Omar delivered a heartfelt speech on how her identity as an American is informed by her childhood spent as a refugee.
“I am an American. An American who was sent here by her constituents to represent them in Congress. A refugee who survived the horrors of a civil war. Someone who spent her childhood in a refugee camp,” she said.
“Is anyone surprised that I am being targeted,” she also said. “Is anyone surprised that I am somehow deemed unworthy to speak about American foreign policy
“Frankly it is expected. When you push power, power pushes back. Representation matters. Continuing to expand our ideas of who is American and who can partake in the American experiment is a good thing.”
Earlier this month, Speaker McCarthy made good on the first part of his promise, removing Mr Schiff and Mr Swalwell from the Intelligence Committee, since the speaker of the House has unilateral power to deny members on the Intelligence Committee.
But Republicans would need to put a vote to remove Ms Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee to a full floor vote.
“She has made antisemitic comments. I think those that's undisputable,” Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska told The Independent, adding that Congress previously didn’t remove members of Congress from committees until Ms Pelosi did so in the 117th Congress.
“But at some point, we got to say, let's stop it and let's shake hands and go back to when we've always done it,” he said.
However, Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democrat who sponsored the legislation to remove Ms Greene from her committees, said there was a clear difference.
“If you threaten ... violence against a colleague that warrants the House, we're removing you from committees,” she told The Independent. “We wouldn't have any members of committees if every time someone vehemently disagreed with something someone said that we decided we're no longer able to serve on committees.”
Ms Wasserman Schultz, who is Jewish and an ardent supporter of Israel, said this did not mean she endorsed Ms Omar’s remarks.
“I thought they were offensive and antisemitic at the time,” she said. “But if we remove people from communities every time we think what they say is offensive, then none of us will end up on committees eventually.”
For her part, Ms Greene, who was reinstated onto her committees, has said it’s important to remove Ms Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee in the interest of national security.
“And when we have a member of Congress that has a clear basic negative and maybe hated, hatred attitude towards Israel, our great ally and friends, that's pretty dangerous,” she told The Independent. She also drew a contrast between Ms Omar being removed versus when she was removed since Ms Greene lost all of her committee assignments.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez, Ms Omar’s close friend and fellow Squad member, defended Ms Omar and said it was retaliation after Democrats removed Mr Gosar after he threatened her life.
“It’s horrifying,” she told The Independent. “And not only hypocritical but I believe it’s also bigoted. I believe she's being targeted because of her identity.”
In her floor speech, Ms Omar said she would continue speaking even though she will not be on the committee.
“My voice and leadership will not be diminished if I am not on this committee for one term,” she said. “My voice will get louder and stronger and my leadership will be celebrated around the world as it has been.”