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Rep. Pramila Jayapal walks back calling Israel a 'racist state'

Dozens of Democrats condemned the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair's remarks. House GOP leaders plan a floor vote on a resolution in support of Israel.
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Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, apologized Sunday for characterizing Israel as a “racist state” over the weekend.

Jayapal's initial comments were quickly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans. More than 40 House Democrats signed a statement condemning them, and a top GOP leader said the House would vote Tuesday on a resolution expressing congressional support for Israel.

Jayapal criticized Israel as she tried to quiet a group holding Palestinian flags at a conference for the progressive Netroots Nation over the weekend.

“Hey guys, can I say something? Can I say something as somebody that’s been in the streets and has participated in a lot of demonstrations?” Jayapal said. “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.

“While you may have arguments with whether or not some of us onstage are fighting hard enough, I do want you to know that there is an organized opposition on the other side, and it isn’t the people that are on this stage,” she added.

Jayapal’s comments were swiftly met with backlash on both sides of the aisle after a video of them was widely circulated on social media.

Jayapal walked back her remarks Sunday, issuing a lengthy statement to clarify them while defending the sentiment behind them. Jayapal said she was trying to “defuse a tense situation” at the conference and offered “my apologies to those who I have hurt with my words.”

“Words do matter and so it is important that I clarify my statement,” Jayapal said. “I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist.

“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,” she added.

In a statement Monday, 43 congressional Democrats condemned Jayapal's remarks.

“We are deeply concerned about Representative Pramila Jayapal’s unacceptable comments regarding our historic, democratic ally Israel, and we appreciate her retraction,” they wrote.

"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 lawmakers added.

The statement was organized by Democratic Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, Greg Landsman of Ohio, Brad Schneider of Illinois, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, Jared Moskowitz of Florida and Kathy Manning of North Carolina.

Republicans also criticized Jayapal's remarks.

Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas, said in a statement that “repeated comments” from Jayapal and other progressive Democrats that denigrated Israel “are unacceptable and disgusting.” He also introduced a resolution Monday expressing support for Israel.

The resolution, introduced with GOP Reps. David Kustoff of Tennessee and Max Miller of Ohio, says that it's the sense of Congress that Israel “is not a racist or apartheid state,” that Congress rejects all forms of antisemitism and xenophobia and that the U.S. “will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel.”

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., confirmed to reporters that the resolution would be put to a vote Tuesday. Israeli President Isaac Herzog is scheduled to visit the White House and deliver an address to Congress during his two-day trip to Washington this week.

House Democratic leaders sought to distance themselves from Jayapal’s remarks in a statement Sunday, saying Israel is “not a racist state.”

“As House Democratic leaders, we strongly support Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people,” wrote House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Democratic Whip Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar and Vice Chair Ted Lieu, both of California.

Still, some Democrats appeared to defend aspects of Jayapal's comments.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said Monday there’s a distinction between criticism of and opposition to Israel, a longtime U.S. ally.

“We’re critical of the U.S. government every day, and we work here,” Bowman, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told NBC News. “Being critical of Israel is not anti-Israel, is definitely not antisemitic. I’m a Black man in America — how the hell can I be antisemitic toward anybody else? I know what it is to suffer and be oppressed and be threatened and killed because of who you are.”