The House GOP has turned progressive leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s weekend comments — in which she called Israel a “racist state” — into a political boon. | Francis Chung/POLITICO
Democrats’ liberal “Squad” members took care to avoid a blowup when they decided to boycott Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s speech to Congress this week. Progressive leader Pramila Jayapal created one anyway.
The House GOP has turned the Washington Democrat’s weekend comments — in which she called Israel a “racist state” — into a week-long political boon, forcing the entire chamber to vote Tuesday as a form of rebuke. The vast majority of Democrats backed the Republican resolution that affirms support for Israel, as many of them remain quietly irked that Jayapal knocked the GOP’s drama out of the spotlight. Some even privately argued that her apology didn’t go far enough.
The measure ultimately passed by a lopsided 412-9 vote, with one lawmaker voting present.
The sudden Democratic dustup illustrates a party still struggling to navigate criticisms of the conservative Israeli government. Jayapal’s misstep was seen as unusual for a progressive who’s been careful to avoid the wrath of the party establishment on the matter, and her remark contrasted sharply with fellow liberals who focused on critiquing Israeli policies. The Squad had learned the hard way that condemning Israel is a delicate dance.
“Our inability to actually be honest about this conversation prevents us from being an ally to advancing human rights and being a good ally as well,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said. She and other Squad members, having learned during the Trump era that U.S.-Israel policy is a political minefield, largely avoided internal blowback with her low-key decision to skip Herzog’s speech.
“There’s always this reaction, to call any leveled critique of Israel — to mischaracterize it as racist or antisemitic,” she added.
Despite the broad support for the GOP resolution, the fallout has still sparked awkward conversations that many Democrats had sought to avoid.
As Jayapal sought to avoid further blowback within her party over her comment, she made calls to several Democrats who planned to sign onto a sharply worded statement about the remark and encouraged them not to, according to four people familiar with the discussions who addressed them on condition of anonymity.
Party leaders didn’t discuss the vote during Tuesday’s closed-door caucus meeting, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and his leadership team didn’t whip their members either way on the GOP measure. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which Jayapal leads, also remained neutral on the vote, though some of its leaders like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) voted against it, denouncing it as “designed by MAGA Republicans to target and shame a colleague, Pramila Jayapal, for comments for which she apologized and clarified.”
The drama has served as a test for Jeffries, who’s otherwise seen little internal turmoil in the party. Multiple Democrats who were angered by Jayapal’s comments said they were impressed by the New Yorker’s swift response; he and his leadership team criticized her comments shortly after she released a lengthy statement to clarify her stance.
Jeffries and Jayapal spoke directly about the controversy, according to a person familiar with the conversation who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. Another person familiar added that senior Democrats were in touch with Jayapal throughout Sunday as she prepared her statement.
Democrats, while remaining in lockstep on domestic policy in recent months, have sometimes stumbled when it comes to projecting unity on foreign affairs. Jayapal and the Progressive Caucus sparked a round of hand-wringing last fall with a poorly-timed letter calling for negotiations with Russia to end the war in Ukraine. The kerfuffle likely contributed to Jayapal’s decision to abandon a potential bid for House Democratic leadership a short time later.
And many in the caucus keenly recall past recriminations between its most left-leaning members and its foreign policy establishment over U.S.-Israel policy. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who steered House Democrats through many of their ugliest intraparty disputes, said that “using terms that are inflammatory, really, it doesn’t really help the situation.”
But Pelosi added that “I have great respect for Congresswoman Jayapal and respect her apology.”
Despite the frustrations, this latest round of controversy is unlikely to affect Jayapal’s standing much in the Progressive Caucus, where she’s serving her last term as chair and received public support from the group’s other leaders.
Some progressives, like Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said liberal leaders needed to keep speaking out about Israel and tough foreign policy questions.
“None of this was made to be easy,” said Bush. “I feel like when we are silent, then that’s how we keep the status quo. When we keep that harm, we don’t see change.”
And Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who’s the only Palestinian American in Congress, said on the House floor: “We are here again policing the words of women of color who dare to speak up about truths, about oppression, it’s just not what we should be doing here in Congress.”
At the same time, others in the Democratic caucus said they wished Jayapal had been more forceful in her clarification of her remarks.
“There’s nothing complex about the question of whether or not Israel is a racist state,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said. “And even though Congresswoman Jayapal attempted to walk back what she meant, in this case, I think she certainly could have been stronger about it.”