Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 June 2019

US Congress broadly condemns hate after anti-Semitism dispute

Twenty-three Republicans voted against the measure

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced the vote to condemn anti-Semitism in the House  EPA
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced the vote to condemn anti-Semitism in the House  EPA

The US House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other bigotry on Thursday.

The one-sided, 407-23 vote belied the emotional infighting over how to respond to Democrat Ilhan Omar's recent comments suggesting House supporters of Israel have dual allegiances.

For days, Democrats wrestled with whether or how to punish Ms Omar, arguing over whether one of two Muslim-American women in Congress should be singled out, what other types of bias should be decried and whether the party would tolerate dissenting views on Israel.

Republicans generally joined in the favourable vote, although nearly two-dozen opposed it.

The upheaval was fuelled in part by young, liberal members who have become a face of the newly empowered Democratic majority in the House.

This group is critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, rejecting the conservative leader's approach to Palestinians and other issues.

The group split sharply from Democratic leaders who seemed caught off guard by the support for Ms Omar and unprepared for the debate.

The resolution passed on Thursday condemns anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities "as hateful expressions of intolerance".

Some Democrats complained that Ms Omar's comments had ignited the action, despite no reaction to years of President Donald Trump's racially charged talk.

The seven-page document details a history of recent attacks against Jews and Muslims in the US, condemning all such discrimination as contradictory to "the values and aspirations" of the people of the US.

The vote was delayed for a time on Thursday to include mention of Latinos and address concerns of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The addition came under a section that stated in the end: "White supremacists in the US have exploited and continue to exploit bigotry and weaponise hate for political gain, targeting traditionally persecuted peoples including African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and other people of colour, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and others, with verbal attacks, incitement and violence."

An earlier version focused more narrowly on anti-Semitism.

Speaking before the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she did not believe that Ms Omar understood the "weight of her words" or that they would be perceived by some as anti-Semitic. The resolution does not mention Ms Omar by name.

"It's not about her. It's about these forms of hatred," Ms Pelosi said.

Asked whether the resolution was intended to "police" politicians' words, Ms Pelosi replied: "We are not policing the speech of our members. We are condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy."

Getting this debate right will be crucial for the Democrats in 2020. Israel policy is an issue that is exposing the splits between the party's core voters, its liberal flank and the more centrist Americans in Trump country.

"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," said presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent.

"Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology that must be vigorously opposed in the US and around the world. We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel."

Other Democratic presidential contenders tried to walk a similar line.

"We need to speak out against hate," Californian Senator Kamala Harris said.

But Ms Harris said also believed that "there is a critical difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism".

Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren said: "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."

Ms Warren said threats of violence, including those made against Ms Omar, "are never acceptable."

Many Democrats are able to navigate between their support for Israel and their criticism of Mr Netanyahu.

Some make official visits to Israel and attend the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, a premier event of a prominent lobbying group, coming this month to Washington.

But Ms Omar's talk is making many Democrats uneasy. She sparked a week-long debate in Congress as fellow Democrats said her comments had no place in the party.

She suggested politicians had "allegiance" to Israel, reviving a theme of dual loyalties. It wasn't her first dip into such rhetoric.

Thursday's stand-alone resolution was in part intended to resolve a divide that opened after Ms Omar said Israel's supporters were pushing politicians to take a pledge of "allegiance" to a foreign country.

A Muslim-American, she has been critical of the state in the past and apologised for those previous comments.

But Ms Omar has not apologised for what many in Congress saw as her recent suggestion that Israel's supporters in the US have split loyalties.

And that sparked the divide among Democrats that could stretch into the 2020 election season.

Kirsten Gillibrand of New York called the new version of the resolution appropriate.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion. They are allowed to have free speech in this country," Ms Gillibrand said.

"But we don't need to use anti-Semitic tropes or anti-Muslim tropes to be heard."

Updated: March 8, 2019 04:34 AM

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