Here’s what you need to know about the Ilhan Omar controversy

US Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota
US Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Here’s a quick rundown on the Ilhan Omar controversy that is brewing in Washington:

Who is Ilhan Omar?

Omar is a freshman representative from Minnesota. A former Minnesota state legislator, she is a 37-year-old Somali-American who was swept into office in November’s “blue wave” of Democrats. She is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

What’s the controversy about?

Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, and other Republicans were already attacking Omar and fellow Representative Rashida Tlaib, the other Muslim woman in Congress, accusing them of anti-Semitism, the Washington Post reported. The Republicans have focused on past comments by the two women — and Omar apologized last month for remarks she tweeted. But both congresswomen have also fired back, saying critics are trying to conflate their policy views on Israel with hatred, the Post reported.


With that in the background, things heated up with two terse tweet responses Sunday night in which Omar suggested that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel interest group, paid members of Congress to support that country.

How much criticism has she gotten?

Democrats, who had previously been reluctant to criticize Omar, joined in after Sunday’s tweets. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the entire House leadership issued a statement on Monday saying that “legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share. But Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive.” They called for an immediate apology for the “hurtful comments.” Pelosi also said she had spoken with Omar and said they “agreed that we must use this moment to move forward as we reject anti-Semitism in all forms.”

What does Omar say?

Within hours, Omar issued a statement, saying, “I unequivocally apologize.” She said, “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.” At the same time, she said, “I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.” She said in a tweet she was “listening and learning, but standing strong.”


What’s the big picture?

The New York Times reported earlier this month that criticisms of Omar and Tlaib had exposed a generation gap in the Democratic party between older, staunch supporters of Israel and young liberals who are willing to accuse the Israeli government of abusing human rights and who are demanding progress toward a Palestinian state. The Post reported that the GOP is trying to paint itself as the better defender of Israel and to increase its appeal to traditionally Democratic Jewish voters, at a time that dozens of liberal Democrats have been critical of Israeli policy.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.