The push from incoming Democratic Congress members to allow religious headwear on the House and Senate floors is making for some strange bedfellows.
Shortly after winning her election to represent Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, Democrat Ilhan Omar announced that she planned to sponsor a proposal to remove a 181-year-old rule prohibiting any head coverings for members of the House of Representatives.
She is one of two women who will become the first Muslim women to serve in Congress.
“No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice — one protected by the First Amendment,” she tweeted Nov. 17.
The right to wear religious headwear in various public spaces has long been a priority for Orthodox Jewish groups, and Omar’s proposal would allow Jewish lawmakers to wear kippot.
But even though Omar — who wears a headscarf in public — regularly drew ire from conservative Jewish organizations over her support for the boycott, divest and sanction movement targeting Israel and her call for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Orthodox Jewish groups (the most politically conservative Jews, according to surveys) are now backing her proposal.
“While we may deplore many things that Ilhan Omar has said, this is not one of them,” said Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the managing director of the conservative Coalition for Jewish Values. “This is a protection of religious liberty. We’re not in favor of it because of any particular individual or organization, but because it’s something that we want to see respected across society.”
Shortly after she was elected, the Somali-born Omar, who came to the United States at the age of 14 with her mother as refugees, told the website MuslimGirl that she supported the BDS movement. This despite being asked “exactly” where she stood on the issue during a primary debate at a synagogue in August and replying that the movement was “not helpful in getting that two-state solution,” according to Haaretz.
Omar also came under fire from Israel supporters for calling the Jewish state an “apartheid regime” and for tweeting in 2012 that “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
Still, Orthodox advocacy groups like Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union are pledging to support the proposal if it receives opposition when the Democratic-controlled 116th Congress takes power in January. Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is also sponsoring the proposal, which would have to win a majority of votes in the House rules committee and would then go to a vote on the House floor.
“This is a protection of a religious liberty. We’re not in favor because of any particular individual or organization, but because it’s something that we want to see respected across society,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s vice president for federal affairs. “We’ve made common cause with other religious groups and political groups before when we didn’t agree on other issues.”
According to House rules enacted in 1837, “a Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner may not wear a hat or remain by the Clerk’s desk during the call of the roll or the counting of ballots.” Rules also stipulate that “When any Member means to speak, he is to stand up in his place, uncovered.”
But according to Pamela Nadell, an American University historian and author of “America’s Jewish Women,” regardless of who proposes the changes, the rules themselves are anachronistic.
“The 116th Congress is poised to become the most diverse in our history,” she said. “Overturning a rule enacted the year Martin Van Buren became president would signal just how much our nation — and our Congress — has changed since then.”