WASHINGTON – Rep. Ilhan Omar insisted Friday that she is not anti-Semitic, and that she regrets a tweet that was widely condemned for perpetuating Jewish stereotypes because it undermined her own attempts to foster cultural harmony.
“I know what intolerance looks like,” the Minnesota Democrat said in her first interview since she drew public criticism for a tweet that suggested a financial motive behind U.S. political support for Israel. “The thing that has been hurtful about this whole process for me is knowing that I could be someone who could use language that causes hurt to others.”
It’s been a high-profile, stormy first six weeks in Congress for Omar, who made history in January as the first Somali-American member of Congress.
Several other tweets also set off controversy. And even in the days since the latest flap, Omar again drew attention for aggressively questioning Trump administration envoy Elliott Abrams, suggesting he had supported Central American policy that led to genocide. She was among a small number of Democrats who voted against the government funding compromise on Thursday, citing what they called the “hateful policies, priorities, and rhetoric” of Trump’s White House.
But it was a tweet last Sunday she intended to describe why politicians support Israel — “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” — that led to the biggest blowback. “It’s All About the Benjamins” is the title of a 1997 Puff Daddy song that includes a derisive reference to Jews. Critics on the right and left quickly denounced Omar for spreading what many including Speaker Nancy Pelosi called an “anti-Semitic trope.”
Asked Friday if she realized the anti-Semitic connotation, Omar replied: “Absolutely not.” She said she knew she’d misstepped when friends and allies reached out. “I got some calls,” she said.
Pelosi’s public rebuke, following a private meeting between the two, was a sharp blow. Many other high-profile Democrats followed suit.
“The learning curve for a member of Congress is pretty steep,” said Mike Erlandson, a chief of staff to the late Martin Sabo, one of Omar’s predecessors in Minnesota’s Fifth District. Congress operates largely on relationships and the ability to trust your political allies, he said.
Omar’s tweet served as ammunition for her many conservative and Republican critics. In the days since, GOP groups have produced a flood of critical news releases, many seeking to tie other Democratic politicians to the controversy.
Critics also point to a tweet from Omar in 2012 that many viewed as anti-Semitic. She also angered some with her support for the movement known as boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
“At a certain point in time, things do have a pattern,” said former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, now a Washington lobbyist and the national chairman of the board of directors for the Republican Jewish Coalition. He thinks Omar will struggle to be productive in Washington. “Not every member of Congress is effective,” he said.
In the days following the blowup, Omar shifted into private damage control, meeting with a series of Jewish House Democrats and talking to leaders of Minnesota Jewish groups to apologize. Next week, she’ll meet with a group of Jewish constituents in Minnesota.
“It’s about ... thinking through what it looks like to build a strong family that is able to withstand anti-Semitism, withstand Islamophobia, all the hate that we’ve collectively been fighting against,” Omar said.
Carin Mrotz, the executive director of St. Paul-based Jewish Community Action, said she “took some hits” for accepting Omar’s apology.
“We’ve been calling out this kind of language in politics for a long time, so the fact that we actually got an apology — that’s the way this should happen,” said Mrotz, who considers Omar a friend.
Mrotz said she doesn’t think Omar is anti-Semitic and views her tweet as “emblematic of how cultural oppression creeps into all our language.” She noted that she and other Minnesota faith leaders publicly called out some Republican candidates in Minnesota before the last election for what they saw as anti-Semitic rhetoric, to no response.
Abdul Ahmed, a Somali immigrant and Democratic activist from Coon Rapids, said he was troubled by Omar’s tweet because, he said, Minnesota’s Jewish community has done much to help its Somali community acclimate.
“I think she has to understand her power. I don’t know if she’s quite to the point where she realizes that everything she says really matters,” Ahmed said. He thinks she can transcend the controversy, and that she needs to: “She has inspired our children. They have someone to look up to.”
Omar has more than 592,000 Twitter followers. Several of her defenders suggested she reconsider the way she uses social media.
“My hope is we’ll see a change in, perhaps, digital disposition,” said U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, another Minnesota Democrat who met privately with Omar on Monday.
Said Mrotz: “Don’t have every conversation on Twitter. That’s generally good advice for all humans.”
Omar said Twitter’s not the problem.
“As much as I’ve worked to make people culturally fluent in dealing with Muslims and refugees and immigrants, it’s also important that I work to be just as fluent with people who don’t share my identity,” Omar said. “If I’m not, then it’s a disservice to the titles we have, the positions of influence we are in.”