During a raucous conference of progressive bloggers in Chicago, Seattle Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., on Saturday described Israel as “a racist state,” prompting a statement of rebuke and rebuttal from Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
Jayapal sought to walk back her remark in a statement on Sunday but did not take very many steps. “I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” she said, but went on to condemn the “extreme right wing” coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for pursuing “discriminatory and outright racist policies, and that there are extreme racists driving that policy.”
Jayapal is chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which includes about 100 of the 213 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Like Jayapal, most represent safe districts and include “The Squad” of such left-activist representatives as Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, who was voted off the House Foreign Affairs Committee this year for alleged anti-Israel statements.
The scene Saturday was Netroots Nation, a three-day nationwide conference of progressives. A regular at Netroots, Jayapal chaired one of two panels featuring progressive insurgents in Congress. Introducing the panel, black progressive activist (and yoga teacher) Reggie Hubbard received a loud ovation saying: “At this moment, we stand in solidarity with Palestine.”
Well into the panel, as Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, spoke demonstrators interrupted proceedings, waving flags and chanting: “Israel is a fascist state.”
“I’m your ally . . . know your allies,” responded Schakowsky, who is Jewish. “I am absolutely opposed to the kind of violence against the Palestinians that is happening right now.”
Jayapal went further. “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.”
Disruptions are nothing new at Netroots Nation. At the 2015 conference, in Las Vegas, chanting “Black Lives Matter” demonstrators crowded the stage just as Sen. Bernie Sanders was speaking of the high unemployment rate among African American and minority young people.
But Jayapal’s remark generated instant blowback. Seven Democratic House members, who are Jewish – and come from competitive districts – drafted a letter with a blunt message: “We will never allow anti-Zionist voices that embolden anti-Semitism to hijack the Democratic Party and country.” They did note and appreciate Jayapal’s “clarifying statement.”
A tough statement came later Sunday. It was signed by House Democratic leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and his leadership team of Reps. Katherine Clark, D-Massachusetts, Pete Aguilar, D-Ca, and Ted Lieu, D-Ca. Lieu is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“Israel is not a racist state,” said the party brass. “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. Government officials come and go. The special relationship between the United States and Israel will endure. We are strongly determined to make sure support for Israel in the Congress remains strongly bipartisan.”
The president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, is coming to Washington, D.C., this week to mark the 75th anniversary of the Jewish state. He is slated to visit the White House, which issued a statement saying: “President Biden will reaffirm the ironclad commitment of the United States to Israel’s security.”
Herzog is also scheduled to address Congress. Senate and House Democratic leaders will be in attendance, but not The Squad. For her part, Jayapal told CNN on Friday that she is not inclined to attend, adding: “I think this is not a good time for that to happen.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti Defamation League, in a statement, described Jayapal’s statement as “rashly inaccurate” and “reckless,” but welcomed her “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,” he added.
Greenblatt extended an olive branch, offering to travel with Jayapal to Israel and “share with her a diverse, vibrant country where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Bahais, Arabs and Israelis, gay and straight” are living and working side by side.
For her part, Jayapal said she was seeking to “defuse a tense situation” at Netroots Nation and “responding to the deep pain and hopelessness for Palestinians and their diaspora communities when it comes to this debate.”
Ultimately, it was Regggie Hubbard who calmed things down in Chicago, taking the microphone from the congressional panel and saying: “This ain’t progress, y’all. We all need to respect the First Amendment but we need to respect one another.”