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After all the deals he made to get the votes of recalcitrant conservative Republicans, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy has a lot of promises to keep. But one vow the California Republican will have no problem fulfilling is one he made a year ago to boot Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee when the GOP regained control of the House.
He has now reaffirmed that pledge, saying he will remove Omar from the important post, while ejecting California Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from the House Intelligence Committee. The move is in retaliation for the Democrats’ stripping last year of Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) from all committee assignments.
Greene, a newly-elected freshman, had ties to extremists, made inappropriate Holocaust analogies and endorsed a raft of absurd conspiracy theories, including at least one with antisemitic overtones about the Rothschild family and “space lasers.” Gosar had shared an anime-cartoon video with his face superimposed on a character killing another with the head of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) He considered that to be merely satire but AOC’s allies interpreted it as a threat.
At the time, McCarthy was minority leader. He pointed out that it was the practice of the House to allow each party to name which of their members would serve on various committees. But former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was determined to make an example of those GOP outliers. In an unprecedented step, the Democratic majority voted to punish Greene and Gosar at the start of the 117th Congress, which convened in Jan. 2021.
But the bad blood between the parties on the issue of committees began two years earlier. In Jan. 2019, McCarthy took action against one of his own members, Iowa Rep. Steve King, who had a record of making statements about white nationalism and supremacy and asking what was wrong with speaking about these ideas. McCarthy removed King from all committees and then worked to help defeat him in a primary when he sought reelection.
That gave the GOP the high ground in the ensuing argument about Omar, who had just been elected to Congress. Like Greene, Omar entered office with a record of extremist statements, including claims that Israel was “hypnotizing the world” and calling the Jewish state “evil.” She is also a supporter of the antisemitic BDS movement that promotes discrimination against Jews and seeks Israel’s destruction.
If that wasn’t enough, soon after she joined the House, she tweeted that congressional support for Israel was the result of bribes from supporters of the AIPAC lobby, saying, “It’s all about the Benjamins.” She later apologized for her tweets but didn’t back down on her support for BDS or any other part of her anti-Israel agenda.
This prompted calls from both Republicans and Democrats (who were both being slandered by her calumnies) for Omar’s censure. But House progressives rallied around her. In an act of epic gaslighting, they claimed that it was Omar who was being discriminated against because she was a “woman of color,” as well as an immigrant and the first Somali-American member of Congress.
Faced with the prospect of a backlash from her left flank and the Congressional Black Caucus, Pelosi changed course. Instead of a motion of censure against Omar, the Democrats pushed through a meaningless resolution condemning all sorts of hate, including “Islamophobia.”
It was the moral equivalent of answering cries of “black lives matter” with “all lives matter,” something that Democrats consider akin to racism. But the incident proved that as far as Democrats—among them pro-Israel members unhappy about Omar’s open hate—were concerned, identity politics and the playing of the race card were more important than standing up to antisemitism.
Indeed, not only did Omar escape censure, but Pelosi had her picture taken with Omar and other “Squad” members for the cover of Rolling Stone. She also placed Omar on the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, where she could vent her hate for Israel in a place where it was more than just hot air.
Since then, Omar and fellow BDS supporter Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) have used Congress as a bully pulpit for an agenda promoting Jew-hatred. This was especially evident in May 2021, when they, along with other progressives, took to the floor of the House to demonize Israel and defend Hamas while the terrorist group was raining down thousands of missiles and rockets on Israeli cities, towns and villages. Omar subsequently tweeted that American and Israeli “atrocities” were morally equivalent to those of Hamas and the Taliban.
Omar has been condemned by some Jewish Democrats, such as Ted Deutsch and Elaine Luria, for her antisemitism. But Deutsch, who resigned to become head of the American Jewish Committee, and Luria, who was defeated for reelection, are no longer part of a House Democratic caucus where progressives have more clout than ever and the “Squad” has expanded far beyond the original quartet of Omar, Tlaib, AOC and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).
By standing with Omar, Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have effectively normalized antisemitism. McCarthy’s effort to punish her will again test whether they mean what they say when they speak of their opposition to hate.
As was the case with Greene and Gosar last year, it will take a vote by the majority of the House to remove Omar from her perch on the Foreign Relations Committee. Given the GOP’s narrow majority, the fate of Schiff (who repeatedly lied about the hoax he helped promote that former President Donald Trump colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election) and Swalwell (who had an intimate relationship with a Chinese spy) will also be part of the same debate.
Democrats will also answer the list of Omar’s antisemitic statements and actions with their own brand of “whataboutism,” which will involve McCarthy’s recent embrace of Greene, who was an ally during his fight for the speaker’s chair. They’ll bring up other Republicans for censure, as well. One is Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), who lied about just about everything during his campaign for election, including whether he was Jewish.
If every member of Congress or the executive branch had to be censured for lying, however, Washington would soon be emptied of politicians, including Biden, who takes second place to no one when it comes to being a serial fabulist. Moreover, there is an argument to be made that neither party should be engaging in this kind of tit-for-tat punishment.
If the voters think they deserve nothing better than to be represented by such scoundrels, perhaps it’s best if we leave it to them to decide at the ballot box who should sit in Congress or on committees. As the great cynic, journalist H.L. Mencken, wrote, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Nevertheless, if the Democrats are going to play this game, then McCarthy can hardly be blamed for answering in kind. And if House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) isn’t prepared to agree to remove Omar, then the speaker is justified in seeking to oust her.
At stake here is not the broader question of how much extremism or bad behavior Congress should be willing to tolerate in its members. Rather, it is specifically one that will force Democrats to decide what is more important to them.
Is it the fight against antisemitism at a time when Jew-hatred is on the rise around the world? Or is their true allegiance to identity politics and the toxic intersectional myths that allow Omar to paint herself as an oppressed victim, rather than a hatemonger, simply because of the color of her skin?
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.