Pushing Back

House Democratic leaders reject Jayapal’s remarks: ‘Israel is not a racist state’

Separately, seven lawmakers have so far joined a statement on the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair’s remarks about Israel

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Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) questions U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as he testifies before the House Judicary Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on April 28, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

The House Democratic leadership team, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Katherine Clark (D-MA), Pete Aguilar (D-CA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA), in a joint statement issued on Sunday evening rejected comments by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) describing Israel as a “racist state.”

Jayapal, speaking at the Netroots Nation conference in Chicago on Saturday, said, “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.” Jayapal’s remarks came in response to chants from pro-Palestinian protesters who interrupted the event.

“Israel is not a racist state,” the Democratic leaders said. “As House Democratic leaders, we strongly support Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people.”

“Certainly, there are individual members of the current Israeli governing coalition with whom we strongly disagree. That is also the case with respect to some on the other side of the aisle who we serve with in the United States Congress,” they continue. “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.”

They also stated that they “look forward to welcoming Israeli President Isaac Herzog” for his speech before a joint session of Congress this week. At least four Democrats are expected to boycott Herzog’s speech. Lieu is a CPC member, the first to publicly distance himself from Jayapal’s comments.

Jayapal walked back her remarks on Sunday evening, stating, “I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist. I do, however, believe that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] 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 said that she was attempting to “defuse a tense situation” and was “on a very human level… responding to the deep pain and hopelessness for Palestinians and their diaspora communities when it comes to this debate, and I in no way intended to deny the deep pain and hurt of Israelis and their Jewish diaspora community.”

Separately, seven pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers have signed onto a draft statement saying they are “deeply concerned about” Jayapal’s  “unacceptable comments about our historic, democratic ally Israel.”

The statement, which was still circulating for additional signatories as of Sunday evening, has been signed so far by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Greg Landsman (D-OH), Brad Schneider (D-IL), Dean Phillips (D-MN), Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) and Kathy Manning (D-NC). A draft was obtained by Jewish Insider

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism provides as an example of antisemitism, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” 

In the joint statement, the lawmakers said they “appreciate [Jayapal’s] retraction.”

They continued, “Regardless of extremist views from groups aligned with either party, efforts to rewrite history and question the Jewish State’s right to exist, or our historic bipartisan relationship, will never succeed in Congress. We remain committed to peace between Israel and the Palestinians to establish two-states that exist side-by-side in peace, prosperity, and mutual security.”

They also state that they “will never allow anti-Zionist voices that embolden antisemitism to hijack the Democratic Party and country” and that “efforts to delegitimize and demonize [Israel] are not only dangerous and antisemitic, but they also undermine America’s national security.”

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement that Jayapal’s initial comments were “rashly inaccurate” and “reckless,” adding that ADL “welcome[s] Rep. Jayapal’s clarification.”

“We see again and again how hostile rhetoric can spawn hateful actions, so we would hope that an elected official at her level would choose her words far more carefully,” Greenblatt said. “While we vehemently disagree with many of Rep. Jayapal’s characterizations of Israel and its policies, we share her hope of an ultimate two-state solution to the conflict.”

Greenblatt also offered to travel to Israel with Jayapal “to share with her a diverse, vibrant country where Jews, Muslims, Christians and Bahais; Arabs and Israelis; gay and straight; and essentially people of all ethnicities, faiths and persuasions are living and working side by side.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, which has endorsed Jayapal, praised her walk-back statement.

“Thank you @RepJayapal. You are staking out a thoughtful space on a tough issue,” Ben-Ami tweeted. “You’re defending @janschakowsky, expressing your support for the state of Israel and voicing important critiques of its government’s policies. Twitter may not value nuance but the world needs it.”

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