House Progressives Leader Apologizes For Israel Comments

Jacob Fischler, Georgia Recorder

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat and the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, apologized Sunday for saying at a progressive activist conference a day prior that Israel is “a racist state.”

Jayapal’s impromptu response to pro-Palestine protesters at the Netroots Nation conference in Chicago sparked backlash from members of both parties on Capitol Hill as lawmakers prepare to host Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday.

In a four-paragraph statement Sunday that addressed “a tense situation during a panel where fellow members of Congress were being protested,” Jayapal walked back her remarks.

She said that Israel is not inherently racist, but that the government of longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pursued racist policies. She supports a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, she said.

“I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” she said Sunday. “I do, however, believe that Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies and that there are extreme racists driving that policy within the leadership of the current government.”

She added an apology near the end of the statement.

“I offer my apologies to those who I have hurt with my words, and offer this clarification,” she said.

Appearing on stage Saturday, Jayapal addressed a group of protesters who’d interrupted a panel she was on with Illinois Democrats Jan Schakowsky and Jesús “Chuy” García.

“I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us, that it does not even feel possible,” she told the protesters.

“While you may have arguments with whether or not some of us onstage are fighting hard enough, I do want you to know that there is an organized opposition on the other side, and it isn’t the people that are on this stage.”

Democrats distance from remarks

statement Sunday by the top four House Democratic leaders began: “Israel is not a racist state.”

“Certainly, there are individual members of the current Israeli governing coalition with whom we strongly disagree,” the Democratic leaders said in the statement, released within hours of Jayapal’s apology. “Government officials come and go. The special relationship between the United States and Israel will endure. We are determined to make sure support for Israel in the Congress remains strongly bipartisan.”

A group of House Democrats, including Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, Greg Landsman of Ohio, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, Jared Moskowitz of Florida, Kathy Manning of North Carolina and Brad Schneider of Illinois, drafted a letter Sunday calling Jayapal’s comments “unacceptable” and appreciating her retraction.

“Israel is the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people and efforts to delegitimize and demonize it are not only dangerous and antisemitic, but they also undermine America’s national security,” the draft from the group of Jewish members read.

A spokesman for Gottheimer did not return a message Monday, but his official account retweeted a report that shared the draft in full and named him as an author.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Florida Democrat who is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, co-chair of the bipartisan Women, Peace, and Security Caucus and member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees State Department and foreign operations spending, endorsed the statement from party leaders.

“I agree with @HouseDemocrats in their rejection of any description of Israel as racist,” she wrote on Twitter. “I support Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people & I’m committed to a robust two-state solution where Israel and the Palestinian people can live in peace and prosperity.”

Rashida Tlaib, a progressive Democrat from Michigan and the second Palestinian-American member of Congress, appeared to back Jayapal in a Twitter post Monday.

“The Israeli government is committing the crime of apartheid,” she said, citing the United Nations, and nonprofit organizations Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. “Apartheid is a racist system of oppression.”

Schakowsky and Garcia have not commented. Both are listed as among the 100 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus that Jayapal leads.

Republicans pounce

A few Republicans also condemned Jayapal’s statement.

Asked Monday if he would seek any action against Jayapal, Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries should sanction Jayapal.

“This isn’t the first person in the Democratic (caucus) that has continued to make antisemitic comments,” the California Republican said. “The only time that action has ever been taken is when we’ve had to take the action. I think this is a role for the leader, Hakeem (Jeffries, of New York), to prove that, no they are not antisemitic.”

“Despite what the Far Left has said, Israel is not a racist state,” Alabama Republican Jerry Carl, a member of the foreign operations spending panel, tweeted. “I am proud to stand with Israel, and look forward to welcoming the Israeli President to Washington this week.”

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, sent a campaign email Monday promoting her record of supporting Israel.

Interest groups split

The influential advocacy group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC, criticized Jayapal on Twitter.

“Israel is a U.S. ally with an open, free and diverse society comprised of Jews, Muslims, Christians and people from across the world who vote and participate in its democracy as equal citizens,” the group posted on Sunday.  Jayapal “should be embracing our democratic ally as a model, not demonizing it.”

The group also criticized the more liberal Israel advocacy group, J Street, for supporting Jayapal. J Street identifies itself as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy” group but rankles AIPAC by supporting more liberal Democrats who are critical of Israel’s government.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, tweeted a defense of Jayapal on Monday that criticized the current Israeli government.

“The dust-up over @RepJayapal’s use of the word ‘racist’ misses the point,” he wrote. “The threat to Israel’s future isn’t adjectives progressives use to describe Israel’s govt & policies. It’s the Netanyahu govt’s actions putting Israel’s Jewish & democratic nature at risk.”

Over his more than 15 years leading Israel since 1996, Netanyahu has sought to expand Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, a policy opposed by Palestinian leaders.

Herzog is scheduled to visit the White House on Tuesday and address Congress Wednesday.

A few of the most liberal House Democrats, including Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Cori Bush of Missouri, have said they will not attend the address as a protest.

On Monday, President Joe Biden also invited Netanyahu to meet in the U.S. in the fall, the first invitation since the Israeli leader re-entered office in December 2022.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at Monday’s White House briefing that the invitation was not an indication that the administration endorsed Netanyahu’s recent overhaul of the Israeli judicial branch, which was seen as an effort to consolidate his power, or other actions the Israeli government has taken.

“You shouldn’t take away from the fact that they had a conversation today and that they’ll meet again in the fall that we have less concerns over these judicial reforms, or less concerns over some of the extremist activities and behavior by some members of the Netenyahu Cabinet,” Kirby said. “What we have found to be a useful process here is dialogue and diplomacy.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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