Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib And AOC: 3 US Congresswomen Boycotting PM Modi’s Address Have Chequered Pasts

At least three prominent progressive Democrats from the so-called “Squad” are boycotting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to a joint session of the United States Congress on Thursday.

Lawmakers Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will not attend the event, alleging that the “Modi-led union government in India has repressed religious minorities”.

But these three Congresswomen themselves have courted controversies in public life on several occasions.

Ilhan Omar

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is a Democratic representative of Minnesota’s 5th congressional district in the House of Representatives. She is also a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Omar serves as whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has advocated for a $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, student loan debt forgiveness, the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

A frequent critic of Israel, Omar supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and has denounced its settlement policy and military campaigns in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as what she describes as the influence of pro-Israel lobbies in American politics.

In February 2023, the House voted to remove Omar from her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, citing past comments she had made about Israel and concerns over her objectivity.

In 2018, Republican state representative Steve Drazkowski claimed that Omar used campaign funds to pay a divorce lawyer, and that her acceptance of speaking fees from public colleges violated Minnesota House rules. Omar responded that the attorney’s fees were not personal but campaign-related. She also offered to return the speaking fees. Drazkowski later accused Omar of improperly using campaign funds for personal travel to Estonia and places in the U.S. Omar’s campaign rejected the accusations as politically motivated and accused Drazkowski of using public funds to harass a Muslim candidate.

In June 2019, Minnesota campaign finance officials ruled that Omar had to pay back $3,500 that she had spent on out-of-state travel and tax filing in violation of state law, plus a $500 fine. The Campaign Finance Board’s investigation also found that in 2014 and 2015 Omar had jointly filed taxes with a man she was not legally married to.

In a March 2019 Politico interview, Omar criticised Barack Obama’s “caging of kids” along the Mexican border. She accused Politico of distorting her comments and said that she had been “saying how [President] Trump is different from Obama, and why we should focus on policy not politics,” adding, “One is human, the other is really not.”

On April 11, 2019, the front page of the New York Post carried an image of the World Trade Center burning following the September 11 terrorist attacks and a quote from a speech Omar gave the previous month. The headline was, “REP. ILHAN OMAR: 9/11 WAS ‘SOME PEOPLE DID SOMETHING'”. The Post was quoting a speech Omar had given at a recent Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) meeting. In the speech, she said, “CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us [Muslims in the U.S.] were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

In August 2019, Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib were banned from entering Israel, a reversal from the July 2019 statement by Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer that “any member of Congress” would be allowed in. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attributed the ban to Israeli law preventing the entry of people who call for a boycott of Israel (as Omar and Tlaib had done with their support for BDS).

In October 2019, Omar received flak for challenging journalist Aarti Tikoo Singh’s defence of the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir. Singh testified at the US House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Human Rights in South Asia on October 22, 2019, describing India’s lockdown in Kashmir as a necessary measure to avoid civilian casualties and to take J&K on the path of prosperity. Singh also defended the revocation of Article 370 sections of the Indian Constitution by the government, effectively ending Kashmir’s special status. Singh, a victim of terror herself, said Kashmiri Muslims were more terrorised by Pakistan-sponsored jihadists. Omar, however, accused Singh of using her platform as a journalist to “whitewash India’s crimes in Kashmir”.

In April 2022, Omar visited Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and met former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. India criticised the move, while the White House distanced itself from Omar’s visit, saying it was in her personal capacity.

Rashida Tlaib

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is a Democratic representative of Michigan’s 12th District in the House of Representatives. She made history in 2018 by becoming the first Muslim woman to ever serve in the Michigan Legislature and the first woman of Palestinian descent in Congress.

On November 14, 2019, the House Ethics Committee announced that it was investigating whether Tlaib used congressional campaign money for personal expenses in violation of House rules. In August 2020, the committee directed Tlaib to reimburse her campaign $10,800, maintaining that she has an “obligation to act in accordance with the strict technical requirements of federal campaign laws and regulations, including the restrictions on personal use of campaign funds”.

Tlaib has said she opposed providing aid to a “Netanyahu Israel” and supported the Palestinian right of return and a one-state solution. In 2018, J Street withdrew its endorsement of Tlaib due to her support for a one-state solution, stating that she had misled it about her views on the issue during her primary campaign. Responding to criticism, Tlaib said she believed a two-state solution under Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was not possible without harming the Israeli people.

On August 15, 2019, Israel announced that Tlaib and her colleague Ilhan Omar would be denied entry into the country. Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, according to reports, said Israel would not “allow those who deny our right to exist in this world to enter” and called it a “very justified decision.”

In December 2020, Tlaib deleted a retweet she had posted a few days earlier, on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, containing the phrase “From the River to the Sea” – a nationalist Palestinian slogan associated with calls for Israel’s elimination in the past.

On September 23, 2021, Tlaib called Israel an “apartheid state” on the House floor during a debate over funding for Iron Dome. Representative Ted Deutch retorted by accusing Tlaib of antisemitism.

In February 2021, Tlaib participated in a so-called ‘Kashmir Solidarity Day’ webinar sponsored by Justice for All, the activist arm of the Chicago-based multimedia company Sound Vision. Sound Vision, according to reports is an offshoot of the proselytising group, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, popularly known by her initials AOC, is a democratic member representing New York’s 14th congressional district in the House of Representatives. Taking office at age 29, she is the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress, and also enjoys a massive social media presence.

In May 2018, Ocasio-Cortez criticised the Israel Defense Forces’ use of deadly force against Palestinians participating in the 2018 Gaza border protests, calling it a “massacre” in a tweet. In a July 2018 interview, she said she was “a proponent of a two-state solution” and called Israel’s presence in the West Bank an “occupation of Palestine”. After being asked to elaborate, she responded that she was not “the expert on geopolitics on this issue”. Her use of the term “occupation” received criticism from a number of pro-Israel groups and commentators.

In June 2019, Ocasio-Cortez compared the detention centres for undocumented immigrants under the Trump administration at the Mexico–United States border to “concentration camps”. Some academics supported her while others criticised her, saying it showed disrespect for Holocaust victims. In response to the criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, Ocasio-Cortez said they had conflated concentration camps (“the mass detention of civilians without trial”) with death camps.

In early July 2019, two lawsuits were filed against her for blocking Joey Salads and Dov Hikind on Twitter in light of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that it was a violation of the First Amendment for President Trump to block people on Twitter. On November 4, 2019, it was announced that they settled the lawsuit with Ocasio-Cortez issuing a statement apologising for the Twitter block.

In September 2021, the American Accountability Foundation filed an ethics complaint against Ocasio-Cortez for attending the Met Gala that year. The AAF claimed that her attendance amounted to accepting an illegal gift since her estimated $35,000 ticket was paid for by Condé Nast, a for-profit company, not a charity. The event itself is a charitable fundraiser.

On September 23, 2021, Ocasio-Cortez abruptly changed her vote from “no” to “present” on a bill providing $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, citing the “hateful targeting” she had received surrounding the bill. She apologised for her vote after receiving criticism on social media from some supporters of Israel and Palestine, but maintained her opposition to the bill due to Israel’s “persistent human rights abuses against the Palestinian people”.

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