Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Ilhan Omar’s words sting at home, threatening to strain ties of Jewish and Somali Minnesotans

Jews and Somalis have been allies in the Twin Cities. Now they fear the freshman representative’s comments will damage their relationship.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)Read moreSalwan Georges / Washington Post

In Minnesota's Twin Cities, Jews and Somali immigrants have been partners for decades.

When Somali refugees arrived in Minnesota, starting in 1993, Jewish leaders saw echoes of their forebears who faced virulent anti-Semitism as newcomers to the state more than a century before. The communities developed strong ties, joining to fight hunger and illiteracy and raising money for one another in response to discrimination and threats of violence.

Then came the election to Congress last year of Ilhan Omar, a Somali immigrant who spent four years in a refugee camp as a child and arrived in Minnesota as a teenager.

An outspoken critic of Israel, Omar has courted controversy with provocative remarks that some say invoke anti-Semitic stereotypes. The pattern has alarmed many Jews, and as Omar faced yet another firestorm last week, community leaders on both sides voiced pain and confusion, fearing that the comments could damage an alliance they have spent years trying to nurture.

Somali community activist Omar Jamal of St. Paul said he is in touch with local Jewish leaders about how the two sides can reaffirm their solidarity at a moment of crisis. He said that he supported Omar's congressional campaign but that her comments are "wrong, period."

"She can solve this problem if she wants to," Jamal said. "This is up to Ilhan Omar. She has really spoken in a very dangerous way, and it's going to be up to her to reach out to people and fix this."

The controversy has roiled the Twin Cities, where Omar, a Democrat, represents Minneapolis and its large Somali-American community, as well as several neighborhoods that have been home to Jews for generations. The liberal and racially diverse 5th Congressional District was previously represented by state Attorney General Keith Ellison, who made history as the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006.

Omar joined the House this year as one of its first two Muslim women, drawing national media attention, as well as ugly and Islamophobic attacks from the right.

She has been both apologetic and defiant as she faces backlash for comments she says were intended to criticize Israel, not Jews.

"I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel," Omar tweeted March 3 in response to critics. "I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks."

This perspective has drawn sympathy from some Jews who oppose Israeli policy in the West Bank and see accusations of anti-Semitism against Omar as politically motivated attacks. But others have doubts about her underlying feelings.

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said he recently told Omar why many Jews are offended when they are accused of dual loyalty, showing her a picture of a cousin who was killed in action during World War II.

About a week later, on Feb. 27, Omar told an audience at a town hall event in Washington that accusations of anti-Semitism were meant to silence her criticism of Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. She said she wanted to talk about "the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country."

"It appalled me," Hunegs said. "It appalled me because we had had at least a one-way discussion in her presence with the picture of my cousin. You have to ask: Did she understand?"

Omar tweeted in 2012 that Israel had "hypnotized the world" about its "evil doings" and in February that support for Israel among members of Congress was "all about the Benjamins," a reference to hundred-dollar bills. She has apologized for both tweets and said she was unaware of the phrases' dark history in reinforcing negative stereotypes about Jews.

Omar and her staff have sat down with Jewish groups and leaders in recent weeks. But that has not quieted concerns among some critics.

"Her words and her communications are anti-Semitic," said state Sen. Ron Latz, a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Latz, who is Jewish, spoke with Omar last year about her 2012 tweet.

"I'm not going to try to judge what's in her heart, but I see the pattern of what she's saying. She clearly learned the attitude and the behavior from somewhere."

Omar declined interview requests from The Post, and her office declined to answer wide-ranging written questions about her views on Israel and the criticism she has received.

Senior aide Jeremy Slevin promised that a forthcoming op-ed piece in an unspecified publication would more fully explain Omar's views, and he pointed to a recent interview in which she endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first time Omar spoke publicly and at length about her views on the conflict was during a 2017 floor speech in the Minnesota House of Representatives, where she served one term representing part of Minneapolis.

Omar invoked the "particular connection" between Muslims and Jews, "one that is fundamentally based on our shared space in history," while discussing a bill related to the movement to boycott Israel.

"I am certainly saddened by the rise of anti-Semitism," she said. "I have been part of a community that has been raising funds to support the Jewish community in this time of need, because as my community is struggling … the Jewish community has been side-by-side fighting with us."

Omar, 37, has said her grandfather taught her about the history of racial oppression in South Africa. She frequently compares Israel with an "apartheid regime."

"I remember my grandfather talking to me about the stories of apartheid South Africa and telling me how that conversation shifted because so many people of conscience … decided that they were going to engage in boycotts of that government," she said in her 2017 floor speech.

Omar's family arrived in the United States when she was 12. For four years, they had lived in the Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya, home to thousands of Somalis who fled the country's bloody civil war.

Latz, the Minnesota state senator, said he understands why Omar's background as a refugee has shaped her views.

"The sense I get is that the Western powers were probably propping up the oppressors in her world as she was growing up," he said. "Anything she would have heard about Israel and Palestine would have been supportive of the Palestinians, many of whom were also living in refugee camps."

Omar has defenders within the local Jewish community, particularly among those who have strong objections to current Israel policy.

"She's not an anti-Semite," said Barry Cohen, a leader with the Twin Cities chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which opposes Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

"The way I look at it, how and why would she necessarily have an understanding of Jewish history and Israeli history in any depth any more than any member of Congress has understanding or knowledge of Somali history or culture? … This is politics in its ugliest form."

On Capitol Hill, the House responded to Omar's comments Thursday by passing a broad measure condemning hatred.

Asked Friday about the controversies, several Somali Americans in Minneapolis came to Omar's defense, particularly in light of a poster discovered this month at the West Virginia Capitol that featured an image of her underneath one of the World Trade Center towers in flames on Sept. 11.

"Ilhan has nothing to do with that. That's not what America stands for," said Abdi Ali, 40, who runs the Barwaaqo Juice and Coffee shop in Minneapolis's Midtown Phillips neighborhood.

Of the criticism Omar faces, Ali said: "I think Ilhan is a soft target because of her background — being Muslim, black, immigrant."

Jamal, the Somali community activist, said Omar's use of allegedly anti-Semitic stereotypes does not reflect his community's view of Jews. He wrote a column in 2014 urging Somali Americans to reject anti-Semitism.

"Of course, she has every right to offer opinions about the state of Israel, but I think this was beyond that and I think we completely disagree with it," he said.

The Washington Post Rachael Bade in Washington and Alexandra Baumhardt in Minneapolis contributed to this article.