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House passes resolution condemning anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

The lengthy measure condemns many forms of hatred and discrimination against many minority groups.
Image: Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., sits with fellow Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee during a bill markup in Washington on March 6, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — The House passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred on Thursday following days of debate over comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., that some lawmakers said were anti-Semitic.

The vote was 427 in favor, with 23 against and one member, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, voting "present." The 23 lawmakers who opposed the resolution were all Republicans, many of whom wanted a measure that focused solely on anti-Semitism.

Passage of the measure capped off a tumultuous week within the House Democratic caucus: Amid a sharp split among Democrats, an initial plan for a resolution that focused on anti-Semitism was broadened to include language against Islamophobia — Omar is a Muslim — and hatred of many minority groups.

The measure also cited recent death threats against Jewish and Muslim members of Congress and noted that "white supremacists in the United States have exploited and continue to exploit bigotry and weaponize hate for political gain."

“Today is historic on many fronts," Omar herself said in a statement following the vote, marking her first comment on the resolution. “...We are tremendously proud to be part of a body that has put forth a condemnation of all forms of bigotry including anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacy."

"At a time when extremism is on the rise, we must explicitly denounce religious intolerance of all kinds and acknowledge the pain felt by all communities. Our nation is having a difficult conversation and we believe this is great progress,” she added.

The vote capped off a tumultuous week on the Hill, where what began as a fresh effort to pass a simple mid-week measure broadly condemning anti-Semitism in the wake of Omar's latest controversial comments on Israel policy — her suggestion last week that U.S. supporters of Israel had "allegiance to a foreign country" — quickly evolved into a sprawling debate and expanding resolution exposing deep fault lines in the Democratic caucus.

Ahead of the vote, members from both sides of the aisle expressed frustration on the House floor with the measure, while a number of Democrats who played a key role in negotiating the resolution's text defended it.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who is Jewish and serves as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on which Omar serves, said that he would vote in favor of the resolution, but said that Omar's remarks from last week "touched a very real, very raw place for me."

"I wish we had had a separate resolution about anti-Semitism. I think we deserved it. I think it was wrong not to have it," Engel said. "I don't think we should mix everything. But I want to say very clearly and very loudly: anti-Semitism will never be tolerated by me, never tolerated by this body and no member of Congress should be making anti-Semitic statements. No member of Congress should be saying hurtful things and then not apologizing for them."

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., another Jewish lawmaker, noted that Omar had not apologized for her most recent controversial comments.

"Even if you gave that member every benefit of the doubt — that she had no idea what she was doing — why now wouldn't she be apologizing?" he asked. "I don’t believe she is naive. I believe she knows exactly what she is doing."

The resolution expresses Congress’s rejection of “all attempts to weaponize words and sow discord and division,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who dismissed the idea that the debate over how to respond to Omar’s remarks had led to deep divisions within the Democratic caucus.

“Make no mistake — our caucus is unified, but unity does not mean unanimity. We are the most diverse caucus in the history of Congress. We are a true reflection of who and what America is.”

The seven-page resolution, the text of which was released and then updated again Thursday afternoon, condemns "anti-Semitism as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values and aspirations that define the people of the United States" and "anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contrary to the values and aspirations of the United States."

The updated language broadened a section on groups targeted by white supremacists to include Latinos, Asian Americans, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, immigrants and the LGBTQ community.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Thursday that Omar’s comments had “deeply and correctly unsettled American Jewish communities because [the] allegation is simply put: that American Jews who support Israel are not loyal to this country.”

“The accusation that Jews bear dual allegiance because of support for Israel and concerns for its safety are false and they are also hurtful,” said Hoyer, who also condemned the Islamophobic attacks against Omar.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said ahead of the vote that she was confident that Omar's words were not based on any anti-Semitic attitude that she personally has, but that the freshman lawmaker "didn't have a full appreciation of how they landed."

"These words have a history and a cultural impact that may have been unknown to her," Pelosi said. Asked if Omar should apologize, the speaker said, "It's up to her to explain, but I do not believe that she understood the full weight of the words."

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who is Jewish and serves as a co-chair of an anti-Semitism task force in Congress, expressed dismay on the House floor Thursday over the shift of the resolution from its initial focus on anti-Semitism alone.

"When a colleague invokes classic anti-Semitic lies, three times, then this body must condemn that anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is worthy of being taken seriously on its own. It's worthy of being singularly called out," he said. "It feels like we're only able to call the use of anti-Semitic language by a colleague of ours, any colleague of ours, if we're addressing all forms of hatred, and it feels like we can't say it's anti-Semitism unless everyone agrees it's anti-Semitism."

But other Democrats — including several newly elected lawmakers — had pushed back on the need for a new measure specifically addressing anti-Jewish sentiment. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, said Wednesday that any additional resolution along those lines should also include language taking a firm stand against other forms of discrimination: "we have already done an anti-Semitism resolution, and if we need to do another one we certainly can, but we want it to be as inclusive as possible.”

The Congressional Black Caucus had also been leading the objections to the original draft resolution.

Clyburn defended Omar on Wednesday, arguing that her life experience as a Somali refugee is more "personal" than that of many Jews.

"I’m serious about that. There are people who tell me, 'Well, my parents are Holocaust survivors. My parents did this.' It’s more personal with her," Clyburn said. "I've talked to her, and I can tell you she is living through a lot of pain."

In a follow-up tweet Thursday, Clyburn said he was not downplaying the Holocaust. "Every student of history, which I consider myself to be, recognizes the Holocaust as a unique atrocity which resulted in the deaths of six million Jews. It should never be minimized; I never have, and I never will."