Alex Vargo: Anti-Semitism in the halls of Congress |
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Alex Vargo: Anti-Semitism in the halls of Congress

Rep. Ilhan Omar listens as Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russ Vought testifies before the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington March 12.

Having grown up in a Jewish family in a nook of Pittsburgh with many other families like ours, I am keenly aware of the anti- Semitism that creeps out from the dark corners of our society from time to time. To think it would hit the halls of Congress, though, is alarming.

In 2017, white supremacist Richard Spencer led a rally in Charlottesville, Va., where hundreds of his followers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” There has been an increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric and action on college campuses across the country as a result of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement — an activist effort to stigmatize and delegitimize the state of Israel.

After the New York University student government passed a resolution supporting BDS, the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life was temporarily closed in response to social media threats from a student who expressed “a desire for Zionists to die.”

These are gross examples of anti-Semitism, but they weren’t committed by people we elect into positions of power. When I started working on Capitol Hill, I never thought we would be debating how to respond to anti-Semitism. The future of health care policy or how to increase job creation, yes. How the U.S. House of Representatives should respond to anti-Semitism? Never.

But since the start of the new Congress in January, we’ve seen several anti-Semitic remarks made by newly elected members. Last month, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., wrote that United States’ support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins, baby.” A few weeks later, she told an audience 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.” Confronted with criticism about the remark from her fellow Democrat Nita Lowey of New York, Omar replied: “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.”

Most anti-Semitic tropes label Jewish people as the root of all evil due to supposed wealth and influence. These tropes lead to scapegoating. The scapegoating leads to violence.

This brings me to three weeks ago. House Democrats were hoping the focus of the week (March 4) could be on their top legislative priority — House Resolution 1, a so-called “anti-corruption” bill. Instead, Democratic leaders were pressured into addressing Omar’s anti- Semitic comments.

This should have been easy to do. After many rounds of edits, Democrats put up for a vote a generalized resolution “condemning hate.” The resolution didn’t mention Omar and it didn’t even solely focus on anti-Semitism — which is what triggered them to write a resolution in the first place.

Political parties are made up of coalitions and various ideologies, so building consensus even within your own ranks isn’t as easy as it may sound. However, if your party has to have an emotional debate on how to respond to anti-Semitism, and ultimately settles on distracting from the issue, your party’s problems are much bigger than you think.

This was a resolution crafted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to protect her own, and credit to her for a “carefully crafted measure.” But it wasn’t an adequate response.

Omar deserves forgiveness. No one is expected to be perfect. And as a 28-year-old congressional staffer, my opinion probably doesn’t mean much, but nonetheless my message to Pelosi is this: There are plenty of ways to respond to hateful rhetoric, and if a simple resolution is the route you choose, then next time get it right.

Western Pennsylvania native Alex Vargo, a 2013 University of Pittsburgh graduate, is legislative director for Republican Rep. Ted Budd of North Carolina’s 13th District.

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