Ilhan Omar Is Winning

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It’s easy to imagine a time ten years ago, or even five years ago, when the recent controversy surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments on AIPAC and Israel’s unrivaled influence in American politics would have been the death knell for her career. And indeed, when senior lawmakers from her own party openly attacked her to the point where the House Democratic leadership planned a resolution condemning anti-Semitism that was indirectly aimed at her, it looked like the same story was going to play out again.

But then something entirely different happened. Many on the left came out in strong support of Omar’s statement, which, despite being aimed at all lawmakers, has been characterized as anti-Semitic not just by pro-Israel Democrats but by the GOP. Yes, the same GOP which took sixteen years to hand consequences down to Steve King for being a fascist, whose House Minority Leader tweeted something far more anti-Semitic than anything Omar has, and whose House Minority Whip—a man once reportedly described himself as “David Duke without the baggage”—recently appeared to accuse Omar of being susceptible to espionage.

At the same time, the very real threats to Omar’s life became even more obvious when a poster comparing Omar to the September 11th attacks was put up at the West Virginia State Capitol during a GOP celebration. Democratic leaders added Islamophobia to the anti-Semitism resolution, but by the time Wednesday rolled around, many Democrats—including many from the Congressional Black Caucus—had seen enough, and started loudly calling on their leaders to back off. Then, Sen. Bernie Sanders—a 2020 candidate who would be the first Jewish president if elected—issued a statement in support of Omar, which was then quickly followed by statements from fellow senators and 2020 candidates Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.


Now, Nancy Pelosi—whose intrinsic ability to read and manage her caucus has been one of the hallmarks of her leadership—finds the situation spinning out of her control. Politico reported on Thursday morning that she has been reduced to “asking some of her closest allies what exactly she should do” about Omar. You know the rules of the game have begun to change when Nancy Pelosi is so publicly unsure of how to proceed.

It’s not hysterical to say that this whole controversy seems to have turned American politics upside down. It was less than four months ago, for example, that Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill was fired from his role at CNN as a commentator for making a speech critical of Israel at the United Nations in which he made reference to a “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” which the National Council of Young Israel called a “senseless promotion of violence against Israel.” Afterwards, the chair of Temple’s board slammed Hill and said that “people wanted to fire him right away,” although the college’s board of trustees ultimately declined to punish Hill.

Now, just a few months later, Omar has exposed major cracks in the bipartisan, pro-Israel alliance that has existed virtually unchallenged in Washington for decades. In fact, the Overton window for what “challenging” the relationship looked like was so far to the right that it meant support for the Iran deal, or a UN Security Council resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

At the same time that Omar—a freshman lawmaker—has helped to upend the debate over Israel, this episode has fully exposed the GOP’s opportunism in a way that should have been done a long time ago. The ghosts of ACORN and the Shirley Sherrod firing and Van Jones’ resignation and all of the other instances of Democrats indulging the Republican Party’s faux outrage—as well as all of the horrible shit the GOP has let Donald Trump get away with—has produced a faction of the Democratic Party that’s simply not taking this shit anymore.


“We’ve individually and collectively already responded to the fact that we oppose all ‘-isms’ that do not treat people in this country fairly and justly,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman reportedly said during a House Democratic Caucus meeting on Wednesday. “To continue to engage in this discussion is simply an opportunity to give both the media and Republicans distractions from our agenda. We’ve got important work to do.”

By virtue of her identity—a Somali-American, a Muslim woman, and a former war refugee—Ilhan Omar was always going to be a transformational figure in American politics. But two months into her first term in Congress, Omar has opened up a sincere debate—not just about the United States’ full-throated support of Israel, but the taboo of questioning it, as well as who gets to question it. And while Omar’s fight isn’t done by a long shot—she could easily face a primary challenge in 2020—she’s made more of an impact in two months than some lawmakers have in an entire career.


Update, 11:04 AM: House Democratic leaders reportedly announced this morning that the House would vote on a resolution today.


CNN reports that at least two influential black Congresswomen, senior Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters and Congressional Black Caucus chair Karen Bass, hadn’t seen a copy of the resolution when it was annnounced.