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Ilhan Omar’s committee removal was a long time coming

Her ouster from the Foreign Affairs committee isn’t surprising, given the case her fellow Democrats previously made regarding her antisemitic comments.

House Republicans voted Thursday to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from the influential Foreign Affairs Committee. Surveying the Democratic reaction to the vote, you could be forgiven for assuming Republicans had set a dangerous precedent and exposed their inherent racism. But the truth is that Omar deserved to go and that the process that produced that outcome has become an unremarkable one.

From center-left media outlets to Democratic partisans, restraint was cast aside in the effort to defend Omar. “One of the disgusting legacies after 9/11 has been the targeting and racism against Muslim Americans throughout the United States of America,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., insisted in a speech on the House floor castigating Republicans, “and this is an extension of that legacy.” She added that the Republican vote would constitute “incitement of violence against women of color.”

Omar’s ejection from a single committee isn’t unprecedented or even extraordinary.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., agreed. Was Omar targeted for retribution because of “the way that she looks”? he asked. Or was it because of her “religious practices”? It can’t be that Republicans were honest about their stated rationale, because, Meeks maintains, they would never do this to one of their own. That was the conclusion of House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., too. The GOP, he said, is applying a “double, triple, quadruple and beyond standard” to Omar.

The center-left opinion landscape is just as unconflicted about what it witnessed Thursday. “House Republicans removed Rep. Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday because she is a Black, Muslim woman,” Mother Jones writer Pema Levy bluntly asserted. At The New York Times, Peter Beinart argued that Omar’s only sin is asking “uncomfortable questions” about her country. For example, Beinart wrote, during a Foreign Affairs hearing about China’s abuses of its Uyghur population, Omar used her perch to point out that the U.S. had itself imprisoned 22 Uyghurs at Guantánamo Bay and that China’s president had reportedly cited “America’s ‘war on terror' as a justification for his own crackdown.” (It does say something that “only Ms. Omar” posited a dubious moral equivalency between the congressionally authorized imprisonment of battlefield combatants and the Chinese Communist Party’s vicious, well-documented campaign of ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, but not what Beinart thinks it says.)

Omar also appears to believe that her committee posts are a matter of existential importance for America’s minority population. “This debate today is about who gets to be an American,” Omar lectured her colleagues. “What opinions do we get to have, do we have to have, to be counted as Americans?” 

But Omar’s ejection from a single committee isn’t unprecedented or even extraordinary. Republicans weren’t motivated to do it by their own bigotry but in response to Omar’s. Moreover, they don’t have to argue grand theories about human frailties and partisan power dynamics to make the case against Omar’s malignancy. They need only review her record.

When it was revealed that Omar had said that “Israel has hypnotized the world” in 2012 amid a bout of conflict between Israeli forces and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, she was accused of advancing the antisemitic trope of the mesmeric Jew. Far from being reflexively condemned by the quarters of American polite opinion, Omar was gently corrected and given ample opportunity to learn from her mistakes. She conceded her critics’ points, apologized and promised to do better. But she didn’t live up to her commitment.  

The decibel level at which Democrats are arguing in Omar’s favor is designed to convince you that a grave injustice is being done to her.

Omar ignited another controversy when she said support of Israel from U.S. politicians was “all about the Benjamins, baby.” Here, Omar had invoked another antisemitic trope, the idea that moneyed Jews purchase the loyalties they enjoy. But once again, she apologized and thanked her critics for the education.

It was only her third antisemitism scandal, one for which she flamboyantly refused to apologize, that got her into real trouble. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar told an audience while indicting her fellow members of Congress. Omar had somehow stumbled upon a third antisemitic trope — the dual-loyalty canard.

When she vehemently defended her comments, she forced her fellow Democrats’ hands — sort of. Democratic leadership introduced a resolution condemning Omar’s remarks, but after a bitter debate in the caucus, it settled on a resolution condemning hate in its varied forms — what critics rightly deemed an “all hate matters” resolution. In defending Omar against the GOP this week, Jeffries conceded that Omar “made mistakes” and “used antisemitic tropes” but said they were “unequivocally condemned by House Democrats.” House Democrats did no such thing. But in pretending that they had, Jeffries was admitting they should have.

As for precedent, Omar’s defenders are on even weaker ground.

Before Republicans voted along party lines to oust Omar, some expressed reservations about the basis for it. But even those members, like Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana, conceded that it was Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who “took unprecedented actions” to remove Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar from their committee posts. Prior to the 117th Congress, the majority party typically accepted the minority party’s recommendations for committees, and even staunch critics of Greene’s and Gosar’s often inappropriate conduct warned of this new precedent’s dangers. “Democrats may regret when Republicans regain the majority,” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., told her colleagues when Greene and Gosar were removed.

Contrary to Meeks, Republicans have policed their own on occasion. In 2018, for example, the House GOP leadership ejected Rep. Steve King of Iowa from all of his committee assignments after he wondered aloud why the term “white supremacist” is considered a slur. And like Omar, who has repeatedly and unashamedly advertised her intention to apply her worldview to the conduct of foreign affairs, Republicans had reason to believe King’s bigotry would color his policy preferences.

At no point did it occur to anyone that being deemed too bigoted to serve on committees called King’s very citizenship into question. Republicans can and should be criticized for having stomached King’s many racially provocative comments before the one that cost him his career, but Republicans’ late is better than Democrats’ never.

The decibel level at which Democrats are arguing in Omar’s favor is designed to convince you that a grave injustice is being done to her. But the relevant precedents, Omar’s conduct and the case her fellow Democrats made against her betrays the theater of it all.