Eliot Engel Really Wanted An Anti-Semitism Vote Alone
The House voted overwhelmingly to condemn all forms of bigotry Thursday night, trying to get past the latest furor over comments by freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar that many of her colleagues deemed anti-Semitic.
Democrats in particular wanted to get past this moment, which has riven their caucus, distracted from their broader agenda, and given Republicans something to attack. But listening to Rep. Eliot Engel, the Bronx Congressman who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it was apparent there are still hard feelings that Democrats will have to work through.
To recap, Omar, a freshman from Minnesota and one of two Muslim women in Congress, had apologized once already this year for trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes when she said on Twitter the Israel lobby was so powerful because "it's all about the Benjamins."
Last week she touched on another old saw used against Jews -- that they have some sort of dual loyalty that trumps fealty to their own nation. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she said in a conversation about the previous charges of anti-Semitism and Israel.
The comments sparked demands among Democrats for a vote condemning anti-Semitism, if not Omar directly. One of those who most wanted that vote was Engel. But the left of the party, including many in the black caucus and newer progressive members, pushed back, arguing that there is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing Israel or U.S.-Israel policy. They say that was Omar's intent.
Nancy Pelosi listened, and argued Thursday that Omar was still learning the weight her words have as a lawmaker, and that she does not believe Omar is anti-Semitic. So the vote today also condemned white supremacy and Islamophobia, referencing the Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., and threats against Omar.
More than 400 members ended up voting for the seven-page resolution. But a lot of them were unhappy, especially Engel, who, even as he said he didn't want to single out Omar, did so repeatedly.
"The words spoken by our colleague from Minnesota last week touched a very real, very raw place for me," Engel said. "My desire for the House to go on record again specifically condemning anti-Semitism wasn't a desire to single the gentlewoman out or to stifle debate on U.S. policy toward Israel. But it was a desire and need to say that certain words, no matter who utters them, have no place in our public discourse."
He was clear that he was talking about Omar.
"When a member of our body speaks ... the way the representative from Minnesota spoke, we need to single it out and say, we will not tolerate it," Engel said.
He acknowledged an anti-Islamic backlash that Omar has faced as a reason for broadening the resolution. But it is not what he wanted.
"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 want to say very clearly and very loudly that anti-Semitism will never be tolerated by me, never be 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."
Omar has not apologized in this latest uproar.
Democrats wanted to get past it all in part because not only has it become a distraction and problem in their conference, but Republicans are using it against them.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made sure to highlight the issue in his morning remarks, and confirmed the GOP would continue to use the incident against Democrats.
"I took for granted that ... House Democrats would at least make good on their plans to symbolically condemn anti-Semitism," McConnell said. "I at least assumed a few pages of symbolism was not too much to ask for. But alas, I spoke too soon."
"Apparently, within the Speaker’s new far-left Democrat majority, even a symbolic resolution condemning anti-Semitism seems to be a bridge too far," McConnell said. "Well, I expect I and other members will have more to say on this subject. For today, I just want to let this speak for itself.”
I will not be surprised if Republicans speak with Engel's words, as well. Indeed, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) thanked the Bronx pol for them soon after he spoke. Video of Engel's remarks is below.