Last weekend, Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who is chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, made a significant political error. She called Israel a “racist state,” instead of simply a state that has racist leaders who treat many of the people under their authority as second-class citizens or worse on account of their ethnic and religious background.
Her rhetorical misstep generated international headlines and rebukes from Democrats and Republicans alike, demonstrating that, no matter how far Israel veers from liberal democratic norms, when it comes to American politics, it’s still protected by a thick lattice of taboos.
Jayapal’s gaffe occurred at Netroots Nation, a progressive conference held in Chicago, where pro-Palestinian activists interrupted a panel she was on. The protesters were targeting Jayapal’s House colleague Jan Schakowsky for refusing to sign onto a bill ensuring that American funding isn’t used in the military detention of Palestinian children. Seeking to placate the demonstrators, Jayapal agreed that Israel is a “racist state” — one of their key contentions — and said that the “Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us.”
Almost as soon as she got off the stage, Jayapal told me on Monday, she realized she shouldn’t have used the phrase “racist state.” Sure enough, she was soon deluged by criticism not just from the right, but from some in her own party.
One group of centrist Democratic lawmakers circulated a draft of a letter blasting her words as “unacceptable” and saying that efforts to “delegitimize and demonize” Israel are “dangerous and antisemitic.” House Democratic leaders declared that “Israel is not a racist state” in a statement of their own that didn’t mention Jayapal but was obviously a response to her comments. On Sunday, Jayapal offered an apology and a clarification, saying, “I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” even though there are “extreme racists” enacting “outright racist policies” in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Jayapal’s clarification was wise: It’s good to be as precise as possible when discussing an issue as fraught and complex as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Her words at Netroots Nation could have been interpreted as ideological opposition to Zionism, which does not reflect Jayapal’s views; like most Democrats, she wants to see a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one. Nevertheless, the ferocity of the backlash was striking, suggesting a brittle political denial about Israel’s increasingly authoritarian, jingoistic turn.
It’s telling that Democratic House leaders referred in their statement to Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which pledges that Israel will “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex.” We can argue about whether that promise was ever compatible with a political project that, in creating a national home for one oppressed and stateless people, made refugees of another. What’s important today, however, is that Israel’s leadership no longer even appears to aspire to this founding ideal.
“Israel is not a state of all its citizens,” Netanyahu wrote in 2019. “According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people — and only it.” He was referring to a 2018 law, which, among other things, downgraded the official status of Arabic, the language of about a fifth of Israel’s population.
Today, there are nearly equal numbers of Jews and Palestinian Arabs living in Israel and the occupied territories. For Palestinians living under occupation, there is no pretense of equal rights: They are subject to regular land seizures and home demolitions and constant restrictions on their freedom of movement. But even Palestinian citizens of Israel face legal as well as social discrimination. Israel’s Palestinian citizens, for example, cannot obtain citizenship for spouses who are from the West Bank or Gaza, dooming thousands of couples to live separately.
Israel’s security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a disciple of the fanatically anti-Arab rabbi Meir Kahane, was once convicted of inciting racism and supporting terrorism. He used to have a photograph of Baruch Goldstein, a settler who massacred 29 Muslim worshipers in 1994, hanging in his living room. Israel’s government is considering creating a security militia under his control.
Of course, a state’s leaders and policies can be bigoted without the state itself being irredeemable. That’s basically Jayapal’s stance, which is why she’s not an anti-Zionist. But the rush to condemn her offhand remarks is not about encouraging linguistic rigor. It’s about raising the political price of speaking about Israel forthrightly. If you believe in liberal ideals, Netanyahu’s government is very hard to defend. It’s easier for Israel’s most stalwart boosters to harp on a critic’s slight misstatement — especially when denunciation of Israel is likely to ramp up ahead of the address by Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, to Congress on Wednesday, which several progressive lawmakers are refusing to attend.
Israel’s most die-hard backers, Jayapal told me, are “feeling that they’ve lost credibility because the Netanyahu government’s policies are so racist, and they want to silence any discussion of any criticism.” She’s right. If Israel’s champions are truly worried about the fallout from accusations of racism, they might act to make them seem less credible.
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