Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris defend Ilhan Omar amid controversy over Israel comments

Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris on Wednesday defended Rep. Ilhan Omar against the backlash to her comments slamming pro-Israel groups and politicians, which have been called anti-Semitic.

Sanders, who is Jewish, said criticism of Omar and efforts to get her taken off the House Foreign Affairs Committee, primarily from House Republicans, are aimed at stopping a discussion about American’s foreign policy toward Israel.

“What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate,” the Vermont independent said in a statement. “That’s wrong.”

In her own statement, Harris called out all instances of bigotry and expressed concern that the focus on Omar “may put her at risk.”

“We all have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all forms of hatred and bigotry,” the California Democrat said.

“But like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk,” she added.

Last month, Omar faced criticism for tweets insinuating that the pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee was effectively buying off US politicians. The Minnesota Democrat subsequently apologized after demands from Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and other members of House Democratic leadership, who urged that anti-Semitism be called out “without exception.”

And last week at an event at a Washington bookstore, Omar implied that pro-Israel lawmakers are under a “political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” She argued that critics labeling her an anti-Semite looked to silence a necessary conversation.

Sanders has been among the likely 2020 contenders most willing to denounce the Israeli government over its treatment of the Palestinians.

He also differentiated between promoting anti-Semitism and criticizing Israel as a state.

“Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology, which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world,” Sanders said. “We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. Rather, we must develop an evenhanded Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace.”

The senators’ remarks come as House lawmakers prepare to vote this week on a resolution prompted by Omar’s comments that condemns anti-Semitism and was updated Tuesday to also condemn Islamophobia.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel said Tuesday that he does not want Omar removed from her seat on the committee because of her recent comments, despite previously calling for her to apologize in a fiery statement.

“I don’t throw names around,” the New York Democrat responded when asked by CNN’s Erin Burnett whether Omar was an anti-Semite. “I think the remarks she made have been very troubling.”

“You hope that people get elected to office and they grow,” he added.

By Caroline Kelly and Gregory Krieg, CNN

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