Democratic party fissures on display as Jayapal walks back Israel criticism

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  July 17, 2023

Isaac Herzog’s upcoming trip to Washington is highlighting the growing rift within the Democratic party over Israel, and the fissures were on display this weekend as Rep. Pramila Jayapal walked back comments describing Israel as a racist state.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog upcoming trip to Washington is highlighting the growing rift within the Democratic party over Israel, and the fissures were on display this past weekend after the Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair had to walk back comments referring to Israel as a racist country.

On Saturday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) asserted that Israel is a “racist state” as part of a panel at the annual Netroots Nation conference on Saturday.

“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,” Jayapal told a group of protesters who disrupted the event chanting “Free Palestine.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who was also on the panel, has been targeted by local activists over the fact she has not signed onto HR 2590, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) historic bill to end U.S. support for Israel’s detention of Palestinian children.

By Sunday, Jayapal was walking back the statement and released a statement clarifying her comments.

“I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” reads the statement. “I do, however, believe that [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.”

“I in no way intended to deny the deep pain and hurt of Israelis and their Jewish Diaspora community that still reels from the trauma of pogroms and persecution, the Holocaust, and continuing anti-Semitism and hate violence that is rampant today,” she added.

Pro-Israel groups and lawmakers had immediately smeared Jayapal for her comments Saturday. “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,” tweeted the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “Rep Jayapal should be embracing our democratic ally as a model, not demonizing it.”

“I’ve been fighting to make it clear that Jayapal is a racist congresswoman,” wrote former U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic Whip Katherine Clark, Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar and Vice Chair Ted Lieu put out a statement expressing their commitment to Israel. It doesn’t address Jayapal directly, but takes aim at her comments.

“Israel is not a racist state,” it reads. “As a Jewish and Democratic nation, Israel was founded 75 years ago on the principle of complete equality of social and political rights for all of its citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex, as codified in its Declaration of Independence.”

A group of Jewish Democrats, including Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), and Brad Schneider (D-IL) is also circulating a letter condemning Jayapal. “We will never allow anti-Zionist voices that embolden antisemitism to hijack the Democratic Party and country,” it declares.

The day after Jayapal released the statement Rep. Rashida (D-MI) (the only Palestinian member of Congress) tweeted, “The Israeli government is committing the crime of apartheid according to the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and BTselem (the largest human rights organization in Israel). Apartheid is a racist system of oppression.”

Herzog boycott

The Jayapal controversy comes amid a wider rift over Israel developing within the Democratic party. This week Israeli President Isaac Herzog is traveling to Washington to address a joint session of Congress, and several Democrats have already announced they will be skipping the speech.

“The Israeli government is responsible for enforcing an apartheid state and rampantly abusing the rights of Palestinians,” tweeted Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) last week. “Congress should not be giving a platform to the President of a country that shows no respect for human rights. I will not be attending his joint address.”

“There is no way in hell I am attending the joint session address from a President whose country has banned me and denied Rashida Tlaib the ability to see her grandma,” wrote Rep. Ilhan Omar in a Twitter thread.

“Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address comes on behalf of the most right wing government in Israel’s history, at a time when the government is openly promising to ‘crush’ Palestinian hopes of statehood—essentially putting a nail in the coffin of peace and a two-state solution,” she continued.

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) also announced that wouldn’t be attending. “I don’t think Israel has gone far enough in protecting and uplifting Palestinian rights and Palestinian lives,” said Bowman.

While some progressive Democrats vowed to skip the speech, pro-Israel members of the party asserted their support for the visit. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) said he looked forward to welcoming Herzog with “open arms” and called him a “force for good in Israeli society.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) called Omar’s thread a “political stunt” that damages the U.S.-Israel relationship” and weakens “America’s security at home and abroad.”

“I think it’s terrible,” Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC) told Jewish Insider. “I think they ought to listen to what he has to say. If you’re not willing to listen to the president, who is trying to achieve the right thing for his country — why close yourself off?”

The boycott was also condemned by pro-Israel groups. “I’m proud to be traveling to DC next week to join bipartisan Congressional leaders in welcoming President Isaac Herzog who has tirelessly championed Israel’s democracy, advanced peace with its neighbors & promoted a strong US-Israel alliance,” tweeted Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. “Boycotting his address is not a protest against Israeli gov’t policies – it’s an affront to the Jewish state, its democratic institutions & its people.”

While the majority of Democratic lawmakers remain strong supporters of Israel, the voters who elect them have notably shifted in the opposite direction. A University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll from earlier this year found that 44% of Democrats effectively agree with Jayapal’s initial assertion and believe that Israel is a “state with segregation similar to apartheid.”

A Gallup poll from March found that 56% of Democrats view Israel favorably, a huge drop from 63% in 2022. That same survey showed 49% of Democrats sympathize with Palestinians, compared to just 38% who said they sympathize with Israelis. It was the first time that more Democrats have sympathized with Palestinians than Israelis since Gallup began conducting the annual poll in 2001.

Fifty-eight Democratic lawmakers boycotted Netanyahu’s 2015 address to Congress amid the Obama administration’s push for an Iran nuclear deal.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss