MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
House Democrats took the unusual step today of denouncing one of their own, freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The Minnesota Democrat is one of the first two Muslim women elected to serve in Congress. She's facing scrutiny for comments that both her allies and her critics consider anti-Semitic.
In a statement today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top leaders asserted Democrats' support for Israel and pressured Omar to apologize. NPR's Susan Davis joins us from the Capitol. Hi there.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there.
KELLY: What prompted this rebuke from House Democratic leaders?
DAVIS: So Congresswoman Omar is part of this young, really diverse freshman class of lawmakers who are really active and often very provocative on social media, particularly on Twitter. And over the weekend, on Sunday, she retweeted the journalist Glenn Greenwald. And Greenwald had been, in his tweet, attacking House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy because he has, in the past, also criticized Omar.
Now, Omar retweeted Greenwald with the comment, it's all about the Benjamins, baby. And when someone on Twitter responded to her and said, what do you mean by that, she just responded, AIPAC, which is of course the pro-Israel lobby here in Washington.
These two comments combined were widely kind of viewed as playing on these tropes and conspiracy theories about Jewish money and influence in politics. And these comments were enough for House Democrats to really start joining in to condemn her comments and call for her to apologize.
KELLY: And tell me more about those calls. How did this all unfold?
DAVIS: So it started earlier in the morning, where two Jewish House Democrats, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Elaine Luria of Virginia, they started circulating what's known as a Dear Colleague letter, asking other lawmakers to join them in asking their party leaders to condemn Omar's remarks. Other very prominent Democrats, people like House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, the House Ethics Committee chairman, Ted Deutch, also issued statements of their own condemning her tweets.
Ultimately, Democratic leaders did point out a joint statement. It was led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and included the top five leaders in the House. The leaders reaffirmed their own support for the state of Israel. They also made the point that they support, in their words, legitimate criticism of Israel's policies. But they said Omar's language used anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations. And they called on her to apologize.
KELLY: And do we expect her to apologize? How is she responding?
DAVIS: She did apologize - again, on Twitter - as of this afternoon. In a statement, she acknowledged that anti-Semitism is real. She expressed gratitude for, quote, "Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes." She added, "my intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole." She said she unequivocally apologizes for the remarks.
However, in this exact statement, she did reiterate that she does plan to continue to speak up about what she called the problematic role of lobbyists in politics. That includes AIPAC. She also equated it with the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. She says it's gone on too long, and must - we must be willing to address it.
This is a point that she and some of her defenders have been trying to make in this debate, that there is a distinction between criticizing the policies of the Israeli government and anti-Semitism. The political reality here is that she just hasn't done a very good job of making that distinction in her statements. And it wasn't good enough for Democrats.
KELLY: So does the apology today do enough to quiet her critics and end this? Or are we likely to see this controversy continue to bubble along if she's going to keep speaking out about lobbyists, AIPAC and others?
DAVIS: So even before these tweets over the weekend, she has been targeted by congressional Republicans who have been looking at past things she's tweeted, including a 2012 tweet - this is before she was elected to Congress - in which she had stated that, quote, "Israel hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel."
Republicans have done things like protest her assignment to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said today that Republicans may still try to rebuke her on the House floor. They're considering a resolution that condemns anti-Semitism and her specifically.
DAVIS: It's written by Lee Zeldin, who's one of two Jewish Republicans in the House.
KELLY: That's NPR's Sue Davis. Thanks Sue.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
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