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Congresswoman's comments on Israel prompt broader condemnation of 'hatred'

WASHINGTON – First she said on Twitter that U.S. support for Israel was "all about the Benjamins," the $100 bills, thereby conjuring up centuries of tropes associating Jews with money.

Then, after apologizing, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and the first Somali refugee elected to Congress, told a Jewish colleague on Twitter: “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee."

And after that, Omar attended a panel discussion where she said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country."

And with those three quotes, Omar upset Jews nationwide — including in Buffalo — while creating a rift among House Democrats over how to reprimand the first-term Muslim congresswoman, or whether it was even right to do so at all.

House Democrats finally settled on a loosely worded resolution that condemned both anti-Semitism and bias against Muslims. That measure passed on Thursday in a 407-23 vote.

In voting for that resolution, the new House Democratic majority aimed to extinguish an issue that threatened to overwhelm the party's agenda — and, Democrats hope, calm a media firestorm.

"I think that the resolution, which I will support, condemns hatred generally and hate speech," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat. "It's something that, you know, transcends any ethnic and religious lines, and it tries to reestablish a moral code that people should live by."

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At the same time, though, the all-encompassing resolution did nothing to placate some angry Jewish-Americans who felt that Omar called into question their very loyalty as Americans.

"We are having this debate because of the language of one of our colleagues — language that suggests Jews like me who serve in the United States in Congress and whose father earned a Purple Heart fighting the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge, that we are not loyal Americans," Rep. Ted Deutch a Florida Democrat, said on the House floor Thursday. "Why are we unable to singularly condemn anti-Semitism?"

On the contrary, the resolution condemns anti-Semitism, bias against Muslims and bigotry against minorities "as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contrary to the values and aspirations of the United States."

Democrats settled on that broadly worded measure after the party's younger and more progressive House members voiced their concerns about a narrower resolution against anti-Semitism that could be seen as directly aimed at reprimanding Omar.

"Where are the resolutions against homophobic statements?" Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx Democrat, tweeted in response to the original resolution. "For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he'll 'send Obama home to Kenya'?"

However, the new, broader measure does take aim at what truly offended some American Jews: Omar's implied suggestion that some Jews have, in essence, pledged allegiance to Israel.

"Accusations of dual loyalty generally have an insidious and pernicious history," the resolution said.

Ted Steinberg, co-chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Buffalo Jewish Federation, agreed, noting that anti-Semites have long accused Jews of not being fully invested in the nations in which they lived.

"The idea was that Jews were kind of a nation unto themselves, who wormed their way into these other nations but didn't really owe allegiance to them," Steinberg said. "Jews feel very strongly that that's not the case. We are Americans in every way."

Steinberg said that while it's certainly fair to criticize Israel, "in recent years, especially, criticism of Israel has been used as a screen for anti-Semitic protests, and people have become very sensitive to that."

Not surprisingly, though, Imam Yahye Y. Omar of the Bilal Mosque on Buffalo's West Side had a different take on the Somali congresswoman's comments

"She's not anti-Semitic," said the imam, who, like the congresswoman, is a Somali refugee.  "But she is criticizing (Israel), which everybody has the right to do."

Asked if he agreed with Rep. Omar, Imam Omar — who is not related to the congresswoman — demurred.

"I'm not a politician," he said. "I'm an imam."

Buffalo has a substantial population of Somali refugees, and many took pride in the election of a Somali congresswoman, the imam said. But that's not all that Imam Omar and other Somali refugees are proud of.

After enduring much suffering in a war-torn nation, "you have to be so proud to be an American, to be a citizen, to help those who are supporting us as a neighbor," said Omar, the former chairman of the Imam Council of Western New York.

For his part, Higgins noted that Rep. Omar had apologized for many of her comments He suggested that Congress should accept her apology.

"I think the members of the House are sensitive because the media makes a big issue of this," Higgins said. "I think they feel as though they have to respond in kind. These members are being asked to comment, and, you know, they are strong defenders of Israel, as we as a nation are."

Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, noted that one of his closest friends in Congress — Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat — was offended by Omar's remarks.Reed said Omar's comments are a sign of a new extremism on the left wing of the Democratic Party.

"There's a vocal minority in their party that is rising up its voice, and because that extremism is not being stood up to, you see kind of this dilution of what should be a united loud voice, attacking anti-Semitism."

Rep. Chris Collins, of Clarence, was among the 23 Republicans who voted against the resolution.

“This does show deep cracks within the Democrat conference between those that have a socialist agenda and those that are more pragmatic in their outlook," he said. "My guess is this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg House Democrats face.”

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