WASHINGTON: Ilhan Omar (left) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during a rally with fellow Democrats on the East Steps of the US Capitol on Friday. — AFP

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump blasted Democrats as “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish” Friday after they passed a congressional measure opposing hate speech in general instead of specifically condemning alleged anti-Semitic comments by a Muslim congresswoman. His remarks follow days of tense debates in Congress addressing sensitive questions about national allegiance, discriminatory tropes aimed at Jews, and accusations of show votes that failed to call out a member for controversial comments.

“I thought yesterday’s vote by the House was disgraceful,” Trump said at the White House. The resolution was originally intended to deliver a direct rebuke of anti-Semitism following comments by a Muslim Democratic congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, that were deemed anti-Semitic and offensive by many colleagues. But after blowback from progressives, it was revised to broadly condemn discrimination against Muslims and other minorities as well.

Trump seized on the shift, injecting a new angle of attack as he readies a 2020 re-election bid and fellow Republicans seek to claw back ground they lost in the House in last year’s midterms. “The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party, they’ve become an anti-Jewish party,” he said. The issue has caused a deep rift. Some Democrats wanted to include language condemning other forms of bigotry, and expressed concerns about singling out Omar. The resolution, which made no mention of Omar, ultimately passed 407 to 23. Republicans who voted against it complained it had been watered down.

The debate made clear that Democrats’ growing diversity in Congress – in ethnicity, religion, gender, age and ideology – has created new challenges for the party. Among those is policy about Israel. Omar, a Somali refugee who resettled in Minnesota, had sparked fiery debate with her repeated criticisms of Israel and how a powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington exerts influence on US politicians. “I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone,” Omar tweeted. “Our nation is having a difficult conversation.”
But Democrats insisted Trump was out of bounds to suggest their party was anti-Jewish. “Mr President, you have redefined chutzpah,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who like Trump is from New York. “As illustrated by history and yesterday’s overwhelming vote to condemn anti-Semitism, there is strong support for Israel and the Jewish faith among Democrats,” congresswoman Elaine Luria, a military veteran who is Jewish, told AFP.

The debate comes amid a rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the United States. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 58 percent increase in such incidents between 2016 and 2017. In October a gunman killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the deadliest attack ever on Jews in America. Trump proclaims himself as Israel’s closest ally, having moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and forged a close alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Trump and other Republicans have also courted controversy with the Jewish community, and have been accused of trafficking in age-old tropes about money that anti-Semites have used to attack Jews for centuries. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015 during his presidential campaign, Trump said “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money”. “But that’s okay,” he went on. “You want to control your own politician.”

Trump drew outrage in 2016 with a tweet showing his rival Hillary Clinton and a Star of David with the word “corrupt” superimposed over stacks of $100 bills. And his closing 2016 campaign ad contained alarming messaging, with images of prominent financial figures George Soros and Janet Yellen, both Jewish, as Trump speaks of “those who control the levers of power in Washington”. As president, Trump sparked a firestorm by saying there were “very fine people on both sides” at a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, where demonstrators chanted “Jews will not replace us”.

Of the 535 members of the US House and Senate, 35 are Jewish, including just two Republicans, according to the non-partisan American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. Pew Research Center says that among Jewish voters in the 2018 midterms, 79 percent supported Democratic candidates.

Many Democrats said House leaders were cowed by a Republican effort to divert attention from bigotry within their own ranks and that Omar is being held to a different standard. “Unfortunately, I think the Democratic leadership here has made what I think is a pretty serious mistake in caving to this pressure,” said Democratic strategist Peter Daou, who has advised Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.

The disagreement began after Omar, in an appearance at a Washington book store, said she feared that statements she and fellow Representative Rashida Tlaib made about foreign policy and the pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) would be viewed as anti-Semitic because they are Muslim. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it’s OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA (National Rifle Association), of fossil fuel industries or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policies?” Omar said.

Omar, in a joint statement issued after Thursday’s vote with Tlaib and Representative Andre Carson, a Democrat from Indiana, said “we are tremendously proud to be part of a body that has put forth a condemnation of all forms of bigotry”. Representative Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, told reporters on Wednesday that Omar “embodies a vile, hate-filled, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel bigotry.” Trump on Twitter on Wednesday called the Democratic response “shameful”.

Cheney, complaining that the House should have “rebuked” Omar by name and removed her from the Foreign Affairs Committee, voted against the resolution. Other Republicans who voted no, such as Chris Collins of New York, said the bill was not “strong enough in support of Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East.” Republican Representative Steve King, who was condemned by the House in January for questioning why white supremacy is considered offensive, voted present.

Young, progressive House newcomers like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and several Democratic presidential candidates, however, came to Omar’s defense. Senator Bernie Sanders said in a statement that “we must not … equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government.” Senator Elizabeth Warren said “branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse.” Senator Kamala Harris said she was concerned about Omar’s safety.

Daou, the Democratic strategist, said a political double standard was at play, pointing to a recent tweet from Republican Representative Jim Jordan that used a dollar sign for a letter in the name of Democratic donor Tom Steyer, who is Jewish. “Why is it that a white, male Republican can largely get away with the same thing and this massive outcry happened over a Muslim, progressive woman of color? That’s something we have to grapple with,” Daou said. – Agencies