Jim Clyburn’s leadership tested as he defends a colleague accused of anti-Semitism

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn was trying to protect a freshman congresswoman accused of making anti-Semitic comments. Over the course of a single day, the South Carolina Democrat saw just how this strategy would play out.

On Thursday morning, hours before the House was set to vote on a resolution indirectly condemning controversial remarks from U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Omar met Clyburn in the Capitol with a hug.

“The most warm embrace I’ve ever gotten up here is the one I just got from Omar,” Clyburn, D-S.C., told McClatchy in an interview shortly after the fact. “She recognizes that I am trying to do everything I can to make her journey here a comfortable one. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

For Clyburn — a member of leadership whose effectiveness depends on his ability to engender trust and respect among colleagues, and whose job is to build consensus among a diverse group of members in a new Democratic majority — the hug could pay dividends.

While most U.S. House Democratic leaders were scrambling this week to save their party from political blowback, Clyburn was distinguishing himself as the leader who would advocate for a compassionate approach to governing.

But by Thursday afternoon, Clyburn’s saw this gambit begin to unfurl, as anti-defamation groups and members of his own party took issue with his defense of Omar.

Clyburn had suggested over the past week that colleagues be empathetic to Omar pointing out she lived through the trauma of a Somali refugee camp in Kenya during her formative adolescent years — very different from the descendants of slaves and relatives of Holocaust survivors who claim intimacy with similar horrors.

“A lot of people in this caucus will talk about slavery. We never experienced slavery. A lot of our people will talk about the Holocaust. You didn’t experience the Holocaust. You may have inherited its legacy and I’ve inherited the legacy of slavery,” said Clyburn, the highest ranking black member of Congress.

“Ilhan Omar lived in a refugee camp. She brings that experience to this body with her. And I think we need to honor and respect that and not beat up on (her).”

After his comments, Clyburn was hit by demands for an apology: From the Anti-Defamation League to former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley.

“I was disappointed,” added House Foreign Affairs Chairman Elliot Engel, D-N.Y., who is Jewish.

Clyburn released a statement later in the day Thursday clarifying he never meant to diminish the legacy of the Holocaust.

“Every student of history, which I consider myself to be, recognizes the Holocaust as a unique atrocity which resulted in the deaths of six million Jews. It should never be minimized; I never have, and I never will,” he said.

But as the House prepared to adopt the resolution in response to Omar’s rhetoric, many Jewish members were left with bad feelings that the measure singled out hateful speech and actions against minorities of all stripes — a compromise Clyburn helped broker.

“I was very disappointed we weren’t able to have a separate resolution that condemns anti-Semitism,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who is Jewish, during floor debate on the measure. “I think it was wrong not to happen.”

Still, the resolution was adopted Thursday afternoon with every single Democrat voting “yes,” a degree of unity that might not have been achievable with a more narrow measure. Twenty-three Republicans voted “no,” including U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., the state’s only delegation member to oppose.

House Democratic leaders were originally eying a resolution that would condemn anti-Semitism. It was to be viewed as a rebuke to Omar, who drew outrage last week when she said elected officials were beholden to Israel because of powerful financial interests. The resolution was also intended to quiet criticism from Republicans that Democrats didn’t care about anti-Semitic rhetoric from within their ranks.

However, Clyburn inserted himself quickly into negotiations over the drafting of the measure, working behind the scenes to ensure it would address all kinds of hate and not just hate for Jews.

In conversations with lawmakers, Clyburn spoke for House leadership in saying a resolution was necessary to quell partisan finger-pointing, and also to serve as a healing gesture to Jewish colleagues personally hurt by Omar’s remarks.

However, Clyburn also spoke on behalf of the Congressional Black Caucus, which worried Omar — a Black Caucus member — was being unfairly targeted as a black Muslim woman.

“Mr. Clyburn is the whip, and the role of the whip is to organize and make sure members are on the same page, and he is playing that role in every way, from the development of the content to making sure everybody is comfortable with how we’re moving forward,” said Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., Thursday morning.

Though Clyburn acknowledged there was “still room for her to learn” about some of the context surrounding her remarks about Israel, Clyburn said he has emphasized that “(Omar’s) experiences are different from everybody else in our caucus.”

In private meetings, Clyburn shared stories of his own visit to a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan, in 2006, an encounter that left him scarred and helped him appreciate Omar’s past.

“I’ll never go to another one, don’t you ever ask to me to go to another one,” Clyburn said he told Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “It was too upsetting to me.”

Clyburn said he also personally wrote ideas for what a resolution should look like that would acknowledge the content of Omar’s statements but also denounce a broad array of hateful speech and actions.

The final product — a resolution “condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and bigotry against minorities” — even includes a reference to the massacre of nine black parishioners by an avowed white supremacist at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church.

“I think we ought to reach people where they are and try to bring them along to where they ought to be, where we think we should be, and that is what I want to do with Ilhan Omar,” Clyburn explained. “I want to help her get to where I think she ought to be and we have to do it in such a way that the journey will be a comfortable one for her. We ought not to make that journey uncomfortable for her, and that is what I want to do with this resolution for her.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.