Ilhan Omar and the Future of the Democratic Party

The recent furor over Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s comments about AIPAC’s influence in Washington offer an early insight into the challenges and opportunities progressives face in forging a left-center coalition within the Democratic Party. First, the opportunities. The 2018 election brought a new “class” into the House of Representatives. Much has been made of the record number of women who were first elected in 2018, and their racial and ethnic diversity. The changing demographics of the House of Representatives is in part due to the political activation of women in the Women’s Marches held across the U.S. in response to Trump’s ascendancy to power in January 2016. It is also due to the slow but real progress Democrats have made organizing communities of color into the electoral process over the last decade.

The challenge of this moment is whether and how these new voices will be welcomed into the Democratic Party. And now, with Ilhan Omar’s comments, the Democrats face their first real test. Because the issue now is no longer whether these voices will be allowed. The new and young Democratic Representatives, exemplified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s bold leadership, have made it clear that they will be heard. The issue now is whether the Democrats will redefine their political goals and methods in a way that recognizes the importance of those who have until now have been genuinely included, especially women of color.

Rep. Omar has been attacked because she criticized AIPAC’s outsized influence over American foreign policy in the Mideast, which it has achieved in part by its enormous lobbying coffers. Omar was called out for anti-Semitism because she worried that Zionists had too much influence and that some American Jews were blindly supportive of Israeli policies no matter what.

You can read a full transcript of her remarks here: https://ips-dc.org/what-did-ilhan-omar-say-heres-the-full-transcript-of-her–to-a-question-about-anti-semitism/.

Many in Congress, some of whom have made anti-Semitic comments themselves, loudly proclaimed that Omar owes Jews an apology for having accused them of wielding money for influence and having a dual allegiance to another nation. But Omar and her defenders, including Ocasio-Cortez and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, responded by asking when would those offended by her remarks condemn Israel’s expansionist ambitions and the violent oppression of Palestinians. By holding her ground, Omar broke open the silence in Washington, the almost universal unwillingness to confront Israeli policies, that AIPAC had enabled. Because Ilhan Omar spoke her truth as a Muslim woman and could not be silenced, the Democrats were forced to change the wording of a resolution condemning anti-Semitism into a resolution specifically condemning anti-Muslim and white supremacist hate speech as well. While the House has condemned anti-Semitism many times, this was the first time it has ever condemned anti-Muslim hate speech and violence.

HERE is the text of the Resolution:https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-resolution/257/text?r=56

The debate over Ilhan Omar’s remarks became a moment for women of color to claim their place in the Democratic Party in a new way. In the 2018 elections, Stacey Abrams proved that a Black woman could run a viable campaign that centered women of color’s experiences without alienating white men and women. In this debate, Omar provided the Democrats with an opportunity to become more inclusive of Muslims without alienating Jews. Many Jews who had demanded an apology supported the House Resolution. And Omar did apologize for inadvertently making comments that echoed anti-Semitic tropes. Indeed, many Republicans, who had been licking their chops at the opportunity to vilify a Muslim, voted for the resolution , which passed 403-27. This debate showed that it is possible to center the concerns of Muslims and Jews, of Blacks and whites, calling out their specific issues in a way that brought people together. In so doing, this Resolution offers a road map for the Democrats. Now that women of color have a seat at the table, they have put the Democratic Party on notice that their interests can no longer be ignored or swept over. And, by compelling the Party leadership to listen to their concerns, these new voices are advancing social justice by showing us how to embrace multiple interests with the firm understanding that our common humanity gives us the capacity to face difference without fear.

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