STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What's a legitimate way to criticize Israel, a way that is not anti-Semitic? Whatever is the proper way, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar admits she did not manage it. She apologized for messages on Twitter suggesting that U.S. support for Israel was all about the Benjamins - about money - which sounded to many like a racist stereotype of Jews. The many, many lawmakers who criticized Omar included her fellow Democrat Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, who's on the line.
Congressman, good morning.
JOSH GOTTHEIMER: Morning. Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: Congresswoman Omar says in her apology, among other things, we should think through criticism, and I unequivocally apologize. Is that enough?
GOTTHEIMER: I think, certainly, that was a very important step. You know, the comments that were made were hurtful and divisive. And I'm very glad that, you know, we took this important step. And of course many of us came together to criticize it and say, we cannot use age-old anti-Semitic tropes when we have discussions about these issues. We can disagree on policy, but you certainly can't use divisive and anti-Semitic language.
INSKEEP: Well, it's interesting. She obviously does have a policy disagreement. And she, in the same apology, tries to rephrase it a little bit and adds at the end of the apology, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC or the NRA. Now AIPAC - we should explain for those who don't know. That's the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is very well-known. Is its presence in U.S. politics problematic?
GOTTHEIMER: I think many of us have very strong views about the importance of the American-Israel relationship, both to our security and, of course, the security of the region. To try to divert attention from an anti-Semitic trope by bringing up other issues I find, frankly, a little offensive. But you know, we have our views because we have our views. And I think there's many folks out there and many groups out there that agree that we need to support the American-Israel relationship.
INSKEEP: You regard yourself as a supporter of Israel, I guess, we should say.
GOTTHEIMER: I do. Of course. I think it's - and by the way, there's been bipartisan support for Israel going back to its founding and for good reason. Right? It's important to America's national security. It's a fighter of terror in the region against Hamas and Hezbollah and others and - obviously very important to our security in the region.
INSKEEP: It sounds like you disagree, then, that there is undue influence by AIPAC, which is the group that Omar named, or any other Jewish group in lobbying for Israel in the United States. Is that what you're saying?
GOTTHEIMER: Of course I believe that. I think that, you know, those - I find it, frankly, as I said, offensive. You know, there's those of us who have our strong opinions about the relationship. And then people on the outside, of course, have their opinions as well. To claim that anybody, you know, frankly, controls anyone's vote here, I think, is really off-putting.
INSKEEP: Should she be punished in some way as some are demanding?
GOTTHEIMER: I think that's up to others, you know? I'll just tell you what I thought was very important yesterday, is that we came together - there's been several comments in the last month; this is not the first one. Several of us came together and wrote to our leadership, saying, we've got to talk about this in the Democratic caucus; and we have to come out strongly against it. And frankly, that's what happened swiftly. I think that's the right thing. Our leadership came out against it. Obviously, the representative apologized. And to me, that's exactly the kind of steps we should be taking. You know, we cannot for a second let anyone believe it's OK to use anti-Semitic tropes and to use divisive language. And I think we have to be vigilant.
INSKEEP: OK. So however she criticized Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship, it's widely agreed it was the wrong way. But as you know, they're...
GOTTHEIMER: Right. Again, you have every right to - we're going to disagree on policy.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the policy very briefly because there are...
INSKEEP: ...A lot of Americans, including a lot of your fellow Democrats, who say they are concerned about Israeli policies, that Israelis have governed millions of Palestinians for more than 50 years who can't vote for the government that has most of the power, that there's not a peace settlement. What is a fair way to criticize Israeli policies on those issues?
GOTTHEIMER: Well, as you said, if we had 20 minutes, we could start this conversation.
GOTTHEIMER: I think - right? - I think what is very important is that we know many of the policies in place are because of the history of, frankly, Palestinian terror, whether, you know, it's Hamas or Hezbollah. You know, there's been years of - there's, as you know, payment lists literally that Palestinians pay to those who blow themselves up to kill Israelis. So many of the policies in place are there for, of course, the security of the region and also to fight back against rockets and others that are firing at Israelis from terrorists.
So you know, the - but the other key is, for us, it's the democracy in the region. It's the oldest democracy that's operating that protects people in that region. And frankly, it's critical to our security. And that's really the most important thing as a U.S. congressman, is to worry about protecting America. And that is why that relationship is key. Of course, it's also historic homeland to the Jewish people. After the Holocaust, was the place where we could go for security. But again, America's security is essential because of our relationship there.
INSKEEP: Congressman, thanks for the time - really appreciate it.
GOTTHEIMER: It was great to talk to you.
INSKEEP: Democrat Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. NPR's Kelsey Snell was listening in. Kelsey, what did you hear there?
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Well, I think that he touched on something that I - that we've been hearing from Democrats in general, is that they wanted their leadership to come in and say something and to step in and take a stance here. And we did see congressional leaders - Democratic leaders, they did rebuke Omar for her comments. So I think it'll be interesting to see how the Democrats move forward from here because it sounds like, from the congressman's point of view, that they're ready to see how - you know, how the conversation evolves.
INSKEEP: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks.
SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.