Democrats push back on Rep. Jayapal’s description of Israel as ‘racist state’

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. Photo Twitter @RepJayapal

A group of Democrats are circulating a draft letter among their colleagues in which they express deep concern about “unacceptable” comments made over the weekend by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in which she characterized Israel as a “racist state.”

“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 Democrats said in the letter. “We will never allow anti-Zionist voices that embolden antisemitism to hijack the Democratic Party and country.”

As of Sunday night, the letter had seven signatories, all Democrats who are Jewish: Reps. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), Greg Landsman (Ohio), Brad Schneider (Ill.), Dean Phillips (Minn.), Jared Moskowitz (Fla.) and Kathy E. Manning (N.C.).

The top three House Democrats – Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and Reps. Katherine M. Clark (Mass.) and Pete Aguilar (Calif.) – also released a joint statement Sunday night saying that “Israel is not a racist state.” It did not mention Jayapal by name.

Jayapal sparked the controversy on Saturday while addressing pro-Palestinian protesters who interrupted a panel discussion at the Netroots Nation conference in Chicago.

“As somebody who’s been in the streets and participated in a lot of demonstrations, 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 said.

Jayapal sought to clarify her remarks on Sunday, saying in a lengthy statement that she does not “believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist” and offering an apology to “those who I have hurt with my words.”

She added: “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.”

The controversy comes ahead of a scheduled address to a joint meeting of Congress this week by Israeli President Isaac Herzog. Several liberal Democratic lawmakers – including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) and Cori Bush (Mo.) – have said they will not attend, citing concerns about human rights. Herzog also is scheduled to meet with President Biden at the White House on Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested Jeffries, the Democratic leader in the House, take action against Jayapal.”I think this is a role for the leader, Hakeem, to prove that, no, they’re not antisemitic and they cannot allow their members to continue to say what they have said in the past.”

In her statement Sunday, Jayapal said that she was trying to defuse a “tense situation” on Saturday and that she has always worked toward “a two-state solution that allows both Israelis and Palestinians to live freely, safely, and with self-determination alongside each other.”

“I also know that the many policies of the current Israeli government, including rampant settlement expansion, make it extremely difficult for Palestinians, who simply want the same rights as their Israeli neighbors, to believe such a solution is possible,” she added.

In their draft letter, the fellow Democrats pushing back against Jayapal’s Saturday comments touted the value of Israel as a U.S. ally.

“Israel remains the only vibrant, progressive, and inclusive democracy in the region,” they wrote. “Arab parties serve in the Knesset, women serve at the highest levels of the military, and the country remains an oasis for LGBTQ+ people in a region hostile toward the community. Pluralism flourishes in Israel.”



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