Rep. Pramila Jayapal walks back criticism of Israel as a ‘racist state’


((JEWISH REVIEW)) — A powerful House Democrat walked back her description of Israel as a “racist state” after she faced backlash from her colleagues and party leadership.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, made the comments on Saturday at Netroots Nation, a progressive conference in Chicago, when faced with pro-Palestinian protesters at a session. 

“As somebody that’s been in the streets and has participated in a lot of demonstrations, I think 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

That statement prompted a response from the leaders of House Democrats, who issued a joint statement the next day that didn’t mention Jayapal by name but disavowed her remarks. A separate letter authored by Jewish Democratic members of Congress, which is still gathering signatures, also decried the comments and reiterated the signatories’ support for Israel and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Israel is not a racist state,” began the letter by Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and three other senior Democratic members of Congress. It cited pledges of democracy and equal rights in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and affirmed the signatories’ support for Israel’s right to exist, though it added, “Certainly, there are individual members of the current Israeli governing coalition with whom we strongly disagree.”

Soon, Jayapal issued a four-paragraph clarification on Twitter, also saying that she meant to criticize Israel’s current government, which includes far-right parties, and not its existence as a state.

“Words do matter and so it is important that I clarify my statement,” she wrote. “I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist. I do, however, believe that 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 dust-up comes days before Israeli President Isaac Herzog is set to address a joint session of Congress, a speech that has already caused fissures among House Democrats. At least four progressive members of Congress who have been outspoken critics of Israel in the past have said they will boycott the speech in protest. 

Jayapal has not said she will boycott the speech, but she is a longtime critic of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and has played a role in recent legislative battles related to the country. In 2021, she took part in a successful push to separate voting on new funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system from the general U.S. defense budget. The move was symbolically significant but did not result in blocking or reducing the funding.

In their letter, seven Jewish House Democrats wrote that Jayapal’s remarks were “unacceptable” and added, “we appreciate her retraction.”

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