In Congress, Democrats’ Rift Over Israel Flares on Eve of Herzog Visit


After a leading progressive called Israel “a racist state,” Democratic leaders criticized the statement. But a planned boycott of the Israeli president’s speech by liberals underscored tensions.

An increasingly deep divide among Democrats in Congress about how strongly — or even whether — to support Israel has reared its head on the eve of a visit by the nation’s president to Washington, as progressives openly condemn the Jewish state and others toil to reconcile their backing for the country with disdain for its current government.

The rift burst into public view over the weekend when Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said at a conference of the liberal Netroots Nation that Israel “is a racist state,” leading to a swift condemnation from House Democratic leaders that prompted her to walk back the comment. Now Republicans, working to exploit the discord roiling Democrats, plan to keep the infighting in the spotlight by holding a vote on Tuesday proclaiming that Israel is not a racist or apartheid state and condemning antisemitism.

The resolution does not mention Ms. Jayapal by name, but it was inspired by her comment and is plainly drafted to drive a wedge among Democrats, putting critics of Israel on the left in the position of either disavowing their views about the government’s actions or refusing to condemn antisemitism.

The divisions were already expected to be on vivid display this week, as a group of left-wing Democrats plans to boycott an address to a joint session of Congress by President Isaac Herzog of Israel in protest of Israel’s policies, and in the wake of President Biden’s invitation on Monday for Mr. Netanyahu to visit the United States.

But they have escalated in the run-up to Mr. Herzog’s arrival and following Ms. Jayapal’s comment. The top four House Democratic leaders rushed on Sunday to issue a public statement declaring that “Israel is not a racist state.” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the minority leader, and his top deputies said their “commitment to a safe and secure Israel as an invaluable partner, ally and beacon of democracy in the Middle East is ironclad.”

By Monday evening, a group of more than 40 Democrats from across the ideological spectrum, led by Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, released a letter denouncing Ms. Jayapal’s statement as “unacceptable” and strongly suggesting it was antisemitic.

“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 group wrote.

But while Ms. Jayapal has backtracked on her comment, she has not disavowed the sentiment that prompted it.

“I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” she said on Sunday. But she added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “extreme right-wing government has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies.”

Other progressives in Congress came to her defense. Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress, defended Ms. Jayapal’s comments on Monday in a Twitter post in which she said, “The Israeli government is committing the crime of apartheid,” adding: “Apartheid is a racist system of oppression.”

The bitter back-and-forth illustrated a long-simmering and intensifying conflict inside the Democratic Party over whether the Israeli government’s rightward turn — seen in both its treatment of Palestinians and its efforts to impose judicial changes widely criticized as undemocratic — should force the United States to rethink elements of the alliance with Israel.

A growing group of progressive lawmakers has become increasingly vocal in condemning Israel for its policies, often drawing charges of antisemitism from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who have long shied away from virtually any criticism of the Jewish state, beyond narrow disagreements over policy.

“Any time one offers a critique of Israel, you’re likely to be called antisemitic or anti-Israel, which is not true,” Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York, one of the Democrats planning to boycott Mr. Herzog’s speech, said on Monday. “It’s important to hold them accountable, so they can become better, so we can continue to be allies.”

Republicans, who have fully embraced Israel’s government even as it threatens to change fundamental elements of its democratic system, are working to capitalize on the Democratic split.

“This isn’t the first person in the Democratic conference that has continued to make antisemitic comments,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy said of Ms. Jayapal on Monday, telling reporters that Mr. Jeffries should “take action” against members of his party who speak ill of Israel.

Last week, Mr. McCarthy told reporters that protesting Mr. Herzog’s speech was an antisemitic act.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “I think antisemitism shouldn’t be anywhere, especially inside Congress.”

Ms. Tlaib and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Missouri, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, all Democrats, are also planning to skip Mr. Herzog’s speech Wednesday morning. Ms. Jayapal has not said whether she will attend, though she told reporters last week that it was “not a good time” for Mr. Herzog to be addressing Congress.

“We should not be inviting the president of Israel — a government who under its current prime minister barred the first two Muslim women elected to Congress from visiting the country — to give a joint address to Congress,” Ms. Omar said in a tweet explaining her reasons for not attending. In 2019, the Israeli government blocked Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib from visiting the country, citing their support for boycotting Israel.

Some of those planning a boycott of the speech have come under fire for antisemitic utterances in the past. In February, the House voted to strip Ms. Omar of her committee assignments, as punishment for her comment that pro-Israel groups are “all about the Benjamins, baby” — which was seen as invoking an antisemitic trope about Jews using money to control the world — and for likening “atrocities” carried out by the Israeli military to terrorist attacks committed by the Taliban and Hamas.

Democrats defended her against the censure, noting that Ms. Omar had apologized in both cases, while pointing out that Republicans had not meted out similar punishment to those in their party accused of making antisemitic remarks and associating with Holocaust deniers.

President Isaac Herzog of Israel will speak to a joint session of Congress on Monday.Pool photo by Jacob King

In recent weeks, the Israeli government has taken major steps to crack down on armed Palestinian fighters, launching the largest air attack on the West Bank in nearly two decades and killing at least 12 people in an assault centered on the tightly settled Jenin refugee camp, which is home to thousands of civilians. That assault comes as Mr. Netanyahu’s government pushes to construct more Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as limit the power and independence of Israel’s courts, prompting nationwide protests and a warning from Mr. Herzog that the situation could devolve into civil war.

The developments have rankled Democrats, including Mr. Biden, who recently criticized Israel’s current government as “one of the most extremist” since the 1970s. But for the most part, leading congressional Democrats have sought to downplay, if not outright muzzle, those sentiments in their own ranks.

Mr. Jeffries traveled to Israel this spring to meet with Mr. Netanyahu and declare his solidarity with Israel, and on Sunday, the statement he put out with other party leaders sidestepped any detailed discussion of the issues, saying only that there were members of the Israeli coalition government “with whom we strongly disagree.”

“Government officials come and go. The special relationship between the United States and Israel will endure,” the statement said. “We are determined to make sure support for Israel in the Congress remains strongly bipartisan.”

But even among mainstream Democrats, that task is becoming more challenging. This spring, a group of leading Jewish Democrats in Congress noted with disappointment a decision by Republicans not to make reference to Palestinians or the two-state solution in a House resolution commemorating the 75th anniversary of the modern state of Israel. In a joint statement, Representatives Jerrold Nadler of New York, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and several others said they had “appreciated when previous acknowledgments of milestones” upheld the tradition to “affirm U.S. policy of supporting a two-state solution.”

That did not go far enough, however, for progressive Democrats, who have been frustrated with Republicans for seemingly turning their back on the idea of a Palestinian state and with Democratic leaders for not fighting that shift.

“We are getting further and further away from the ability to actually legitimately talk about a two-state solution with security and self-determination for both the Palestinian people and the Israeli people,” Ms. Jayapal told reporters at the Capitol last week.


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