Bernie Sanders leads top Democratic presidential contenders in defense of Ilhan Omar

Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are rallying behind Rep. Ilhan Omar amidst controversy

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 7, 2019 9:20AM (EST)

Ilhan Omar; Bernie Sanders (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Dennis Van Tine)
Ilhan Omar; Bernie Sanders (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Dennis Van Tine)

Three of the top Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020 have come to the defense of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., as she fights accusations of anti-Semitism.

"Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in a statement on Wednesday. "We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. Rather, we must develop an even-handed Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace."

He added, "What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong."

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., expressed similar sentiments shortly after Sanders' statement.

"We all have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all forms of hatred and bigotry, especially as we see a spike in hate crimes in America," Harris explained. "But like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk."

She added, "We should be having a sound, respectful discussion about policy. You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country. I also believe there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism. At the end of the day, we need a two-state solution and a commitment to peace, human rights, and democracy by all leaders in the region ― and a commitment by our country to help achieve that."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., concurred with the broader ideas being conveyed by Sanders and Harris.

"We have a moral duty to combat hateful ideologies in our own country and around the world―and that includes both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia," Warren said. "In a democracy, we can and should have an open, respectful debate about the Middle East that focuses on policy. Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Threats of violence ― like those made against Rep. Omar ― are never acceptable."

The outcry over Omar's comments about pro-Israel advocates "pushing allegiance to a foreign country" has caused a major split in the Democratic Party ranks. Many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as other rank-and-file Democrats, have expressed dismay with how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has responded to the controversy, arguing that they weren't consulted and that Omar is being treated differently than other members of Congress because she is Somali-American, according to Politico. Despite calls for Omar to be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., told CNN on Tuesday night that "I don't know that that would do anything except exacerbate the situation even more."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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