Ilhan Omar: ‘Exciting’ controversial views on Israel spark debate

Freshman Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is defending her controversial views on Israel as they come under scrutiny in Washington, telling CNN that “it’s not surprising” her positions are generating attention and that she finds it “exciting” to be sparking debate.

“It’s not surprising. I think it is actually exciting because we are finally able to have conversations that we weren’t really willing to,” Omar told CNN on Tuesday. “It is really important for us to get a different lens about what peace in that region could look like and the kind of difficult conversations we need to have about allies.”

Omar along with Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, are indeed changing the conversation on Capitol Hill over the United States’ long-standing relationship with Israel by speaking out critically against the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians.

As they challenge the political status quo over Israel in Washington, Omar and Tlaib are facing intense scrutiny and criticism, in particular from Republicans eager to exploit divisions in the Democratic Party.

Tlaib and Omar have also broken the mold on Capitol Hill by supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The movement is a non-violent activist campaign that aims to put economic and political pressure on Israel over its actions toward Palestinians, including calling for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Omar told CNN that Israel should be held accountable for living up to “the same values that we push for” in the United States as one of its allies.

“Israel is an ally of the United States and I think as much as you would look to your neighbor to your friends to live out the same values as you are, we want to make sure that our allies are living out the same values that we push for here,” she said.

Republicans react critically

In her first month in Congress, Republicans have been quick to criticize Omar, a Somali immigrant who came to the US as a refugee more than two decades ago, for statements she has made regarding Israel.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York, pointed out in a tweet last month that Omar supports the BDS movement and in 2012 made a statement saying that “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Highlighting that statement, Zeldin argued that rather than supporting Israel and countering anti-Semitism, Democrats “are now empowering it.”

The 2012 statement from Omar came in the midst of an eight-day war between Israel and Hamas. Israel said it had to counter attack because of consistent rocket fire from Gaza into civilian areas of Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces said Israel launched at least 1,500 airstrikes on Gaza. The Gaza Ministry of Health said 163 Palestinians were killed and more than 1,000 wounded. Hamas’ military wing, the al Qassam brigade, said it fired 1,573 rockets toward Israel during the hostilities. Six Israelis were killed, and at least 200 wounded.

Omar has since expressed regret for her choice of words,