Just moments before yesterday’s 5 p.m. filing deadline, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison declared his candidacy for Minnesota attorney general, marking a somewhat abrupt end—or possibly just a multi-year pause—to the congressional career of one of the leading progressives in American politics.
A little over a year ago, Ellison was nearly elected head of the Democratic National Committee, and he’s been a standard-bearer for Democrats who believe the party’s alleged centrism helped pave the way for Donald Trump’s election. Ellison is still deputy chair of the DNC, and it seems impossible that someone of his stature won’t return to national electoral politics at some point in the near future, maybe when Al Franken’s former Senate seat is up in 2020. For the time being, one of Ellison’s last major acts as a congressman will be the surprise creation of a 10-week snap primary to fill one of his party’s highest-profile vacancies, amid an election season that’s seen the Democrats’ chances of retaking the House of Representatives steadily decline.
One potential candidate who may replace Ellison is Minnesota state rep. Ilhan Omar, the nation’s first Somali-American lawmaker and a declared candidate for the August 14th vote. Although Ellison secured the endorsement of pro-Israel stalwart Chuck Schumer during his run for DNC chair, the Minnesotan was one of the House’s most reliable critics of the Jewish state, and also advocated for the restoration of diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran. If elected, Omar appears likely to continue Ellison’s approach to Israel, if not intensify it.
In late 2012, amid Israel’s week-long military operation targeting Hamas’ long-range missile caches in the Gaza Strip, Omar, then a child-nutrition outreach coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Education, tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Twitter-wise (as well as life-wise), 2012 is ancient history, which is why it’s notable Omar defended the tweet on May 31, when another Twitter user resurfaced her 2012 post: “Drawing attention to the apartheid Israeli regime is far from hating Jews. You are a hateful sad man, I pray to Allah you get the help you need and find happiness.” In Omar’s mind, equating Israel with “evil” and accusing the country of having a creepily metaphysical ability to impose itself on the entire world counts as legitimate criticism. In a follow-up tweet, Omar appeared to mock the idea that anyone could read anti-Semitic tropes into her earlier tweets.
In fairness, the tweets were written in a time when Omar was merely a state senator rather than a congressional candidate—up until yesterday afternoon, nearly everyone expected Ellison would stay in his seat and cruise to re-election. Omar’s congressional campaign is just a few hours old. She hasn’t put out a position paper on Israel or any other topic, and it’s impossible to project a congressional record based on a handful of tweets. Still, Omar spoke forcefully against Minnesota’s anti-BDS law on the floor of the state Senate and once suggested that the University of Minnesota should divest from State of Israel bonds. Omar has perhaps been unguarded in how she’s tweeted about Israel and been oblivious to the conspiratorial echoes in her rhetoric around the issue. But in an eight-way primary that includes the former speaker of the Minnesota House of Delegates, it’s a topic that is sure to come up again.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.