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Speaker Ocasio-Cortez

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House leaders seem to be afraid of their radical backbenchers.


Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and  Representative Ilhan Omar (R), Democrat of Minnesota, in Washington, DC, February 7.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and Representative Ilhan Omar (R), Democrat of Minnesota, in Washington, DC


Don’t be surprised if either Paul Ryan or John Boehner has put in an empathy call to current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week. The former Republican House Speakers know all about willful backbenchers, and Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez make the GOP Freedom Caucus look like powder puffs.


This week’s amazing House revolt involves a leadership attempt to discipline Ms. Omar for her latest “vile, anti-Semitic slur,” as Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel described the comments she made at a public forum last week. Referring to the U.S.-Israel relationship, Ms. Omar said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

After New York Democrat Nita Lowey also criticized her remark, Ms. Omar doubled down, writing “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.” Accusing American Jews of putting allegiance to the Jewish state above loyalty to America is an anti-Semitic classic.


This came a mere two weeks after House leaders leaned on Ms. Omar, who is Muslim, to apologize for earlier remarks that indulged in anti-Semitic tropes. So this time House leaders went further and decided to draft a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism that was supposed to get a vote on the House floor on Wednesday. The draft language didn’t mention Ms. Omar by name, but it did at least condemn smears such as “accusing Jews of dual loyalty.”


But then came the backlash from the progressive left. “We need to have equity in our outrage,” said Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley. “Islamaphobia needs to be included in this. We need to denounce all forms of hate.”


Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said she supported Ms. Omar and alerted her 3.43 million Twitterfollowers: “One of the things that is hurtful about the extent to which reprimand is sought of Ilhan is that no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about Latinx + other communities (during the shutdown, a GOP member yelled ‘Go back to Puerto Rico!’ on the floor).”


House leaders promptly backed down. They postponed the floor vote on their resolution and on Wednesday were rewriting it to denounce not merely anti-Semitism but “hatred” of all kinds including “Islamaphobia.”


An exercise that began with trying to distance Democrats from an anti-Semitic slur has evolved into a display of political cowardice that equates smears against Jews that have a horrific historical meaning with generalized “hate.” Thus does a specific hatred get consumed, and trivialized, in today’s Democratic identity politics. And Ms. Omar can keep her Foreign Affairs Committee seat.


The most important question after this moral fiasco may be who’s really the Speaker of the House—Ms. Pelosi, or the young radicals led by Ms. Ocasio-Cortez?


Appeared in the March 7, 2019, print edition.

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