As Democrats wrestled among themselves over the past week before taking a House vote to broadly condemn bigotry and hatred, I was reminded of what former President Barack Obama said in a fiery speech on the topic last fall.

“We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination,” Obama said at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “And we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers.”

He was referring to President Donald Trump’s seeming inability a year earlier to explicitly condemn a white nationalist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. “How hard can that be,” Obama memorably asked the crowd, “saying that Nazis are bad?”

Indeed, but calling out intentional bigotry is easy compared with the anti-Semitism that many critics perceived in remarks by freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, remarks that left her fellow Democrats deeply divided over how best to respond to them.

Democrats boast the most gender- and ethnically diverse House in U.S. history after November’s election, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi found herself embroiled in the downside of what that diversity means. 

Many in the new bunch, including some senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus, see Omar’s remarks as less problematic than the verbal offenses of, say, Trump.

Or the offenses of certain House Republicans such as Iowa’s serial offender Steve King, who lost his three committee seats in January after he defended the terms “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” during a New York Times interview.

With many Democrats joining Republicans in condemning Omar’s problematic remarks, House Democratic leaders turned to a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. That led to a painful week of arguments behind closed doors. One side wanted a stronger repudiation of Omar. The other defended her remarks as too harsh but not ill-intentioned.

Diversity isn’t for wimps. As I have often written before, what you say in such sensitive matters can matter less than what people hear.

I, too, was upset by Omar’s remarks. I don’t think she’s a bigot but, as with other sensitive topics, its not hard to sound like one when you make strong criticisms in such touchy areas as U.S. policy toward Israel.

Last month, for example, she tweeted that support for Israel by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was “all about the Benjamins baby,” a hip-hop catchphrase for the power of money.

More recently, she said in a Washington panel with fellow Muslim and first-term Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., that “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” “Allegiance?” Overstate much?

She also tweeted in 2012 about “the evil doings of Israel” and how Israel had “hypnotized the world,” again echoing ancient anti-Jewish tropes about dual loyalties and Jews buying political influence. Under pressure from Pelosi and other party leaders, she apologized, but reaffirmed “the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”

She certainly isn’t the first to hold that position. She sounded a lot like New York Times foreign policy expert Tom Friedman, who coincidentally grew up in Omar’s district. He’s a supporter of Israel but a robust critic of AIPAC as “a rubber stamp on the right-wing policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu” that, unfortunately, has helped turn support for Israel into a partisan Republican cause.

But it’s not hard to make legitimate criticism of Israeli politics sound like an attack against Israel and Jews in general, whether you want to or not. Omar, who can be quite gracious and charming in real life, turns into a bit of a liberal troll when she gets on Twitter or behind a lectern. That may excite a crowd that already agrees with her, but it’s a poor way to persuade people to understand her point of view.

Democrats have benefited from their appeals to diversity. But they now face the challenge of managing that diversity, smoothing the rough edges of group differences and unifying those groups around what we share in common. It shouldn’t be that hard.

Contact Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.


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