Before New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio heads to South Carolina this weekend, fueling increased speculation about a possible 2020 presidential campaign, he weighed in Thursday on a debate roiling Democrats in Washington, D.C.—specifically his reaction to recent comments made by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
Speaking at an event in D.C. last Wednesday, 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. And I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby.” Omar has said she is talking about groups that lobby on behalf of Israel
On Thursday, de Blasio offered a sharp rebuke.
“Let me be really clear, suggesting that support for Israel means that you are beholden to a foreign power is absolutely unacceptable. And it’s illogical too,” the mayor said stressing his strong support for Israel’s right to exist. He added, “I happen to be Italian-American, I’ve never heard any one suggest that because of my pride in my ancestral homeland, I am beholden to a foreign government.”
Omar, serving her first term, is one of only two Muslim women in Congress. Her questions about the influence of those lobbying on behalf of Israel have been subject to ongoing scrutiny. Most recently, comments she made at an event in D.C. drew the ire of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Three of the leading Democratic presidential candidates defended Omar. Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren each issued statements condemning anti-Semitism but also pushing back on the threats of violence and Islamophobia they said Omar faces.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has also been outspoken in her support for Omar.
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). https://t.co/MwrRN4v4DG
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 5, 2019
While de Blasio is often more closely aligned with Democratic progressives, and once said Rep. Ocasio-Cortez came from his wing of the party, his view of Omar’s comments reflected his long-held views on Israel and his connection to Jewish voters in Brooklyn, stretching from his days in the City Council and Public Advocate’s office through to his mayoralty.
As Public Advocate, de Blasio created the Iran Watchlist, an online campaign that targeted car companies that did business with Iran. The launch coincided with the Auto Show at the Javits Center. The list was a joint effort with a coalition of Jewish groups that were focused on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
In the first year of his mayoralty, de Blasio gave a speech at an event for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC which was closed to the press, Politico reported at the time. He concluded the speech by saying City Hall would always be open to AIPAC.
"When you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and I'll answer it happily 'cause that's my job,” he said.
In his comments on Tuesday, de Blasio compared the anti-Semitism he perceived in Omar’s comments with the anti-Catholic sentiment present when John F. Kennedy ran for president.
“There was a rampant discussion in this country whether he would be beholden to the Pope. It was anti-Catholic, it was inappropriate, it was offensive, and our country learned from that episode. We have to learn from this episode,” de Blasio said.
He then offered his advice to Omar for a way forward: “if she doesn’t mean to offend, she should sit down with Jewish communities and hear the pain that they experience, hear what has been done to them over not just decades, but centuries, and recognize we need fight anti-Semitism with the same energy we fight sexism, racism, or Islamophobia, or anti-LGBT bias. It all goes together.”
Other powerful New York Democrats have also called on Omar to apologize, including the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, along with Reps. Nita Lowey, Chair of the Appropriations Committee and Jerrold Nadler, Chair of the Judiciary Committee.
Late Thursday, the House passed a Democratic-backed resolution condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and other forms of bigotry. The vote was 407-23, with only Republicans voting against the measure.