Top House Democrats are rebuking Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal’s comments from earlier this weekend that “Israel is a racist state,” which she sought to walk back on Sunday.
“Israel is not a racist state,” House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic Whip Katherine Clark, Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar and Vice Chair Ted Lieu said in a statement that did not mention the progressive leader by name.
A draft statement signed by a handful of other House Democrats and circulating among lawmakers’ offices on Sunday expresses “deep concern” over what it calls Jayapal’s “unacceptable” comments, adding, “We will never allow anti-Zionist voices that embolden antisemitism to hijack the Democratic Party and country.”
Their pushback comes ahead of Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint meeting of Congress later this week, which some progressives have said they’ll skip, citing concerns about human rights. House progressives have been vocal about their opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the US sponsorship of Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.
Jayapal, a Washington State Democrat, said “Israel is a racist state” on Saturday while addressing pro-Palestine protesters who interrupted a panel discussion at the Netroots Nation conference in Chicago.
“As somebody who’s been in the streets and participated in a lot of demonstrations, 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 told protesters chanting “Free Palestine.”
Jayapal sought to clarify her remarks in a Sunday afternoon statement, saying that she does “not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” while offering an apology “to those who I have hurt with my words.”
She went on to call out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “extreme right-wing government,” which she said she believes “has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies.”
But her initial remark – made after protesters yelled “Israel is a racist state” during a panel she was participating in with Illinois progressive Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Jesús “Chuy” García – struck a nerve with some members of her own party.
Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who has signed the statement circulating among Democratic lawmakers, told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Sunday that not only was Jayapal’s statement “hurtful and harmful, it was wholly inaccurate and insensitive. I’m thankful that she retracted it.”
The Florida Democrat added that Jayapal had spoken to a number of Jewish members of Congress on Sunday “and that is in part, I think, what resulted in the retraction and apology.”
“We need to make sure we continue to work together,” Wasserman Schultz said. “But we all have to be careful about what we say in the heat of the moment, and I think she learned that the hard way.”
CNN reached out to Jayapal earlier Sunday before she released her statement.
In her statement, the congressman reiterated her commitment to “a two-state solution that allows both Israelis and Palestinians to live freely, safely, and with self-determination alongside each other.”
And she explained her earlier comment by saying, in part, “On a very human level, I was also responding to the deep pain and hopelessness that exists for Palestinians and their diaspora communities when it comes to this debate, but I in no way intended to deny the deep pain and hurt of Israelis and their Jewish diaspora community that still reels from the trauma of pogroms and persecution, the Holocaust, and continuing anti-semitism and hate violence that is rampant today.”
The draft statement from some Democrats nodded to antisemitism and also invoked American national security.
“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 Americas’s national security,” the lawmakers write.
House Democratic leadership also touted Israel as “an invaluable partner.”
“Our commitment to a safe and secure Israel as an invaluable partner, ally and beacon of democracy in the Middle East is ironclad,” the leaders wrote in their own statement. “We look forward to welcoming Israeli President Isaac Herzog to the United States House of Representatives this week.”
Jayapal said Friday she doesn’t believe she will attend Herzog’s speech Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “I don’t think I am. I haven’t fully decided.”
“I think this is not a good time for that to happen,” Jayapal told CNN’s Manu Raju when asked if Speaker Kevin McCarthy had made a mistake in inviting Herzog.
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri have all said they will not attend.
Democratic leadership has been supportive of Herzog’s visit, with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York extending the invitation last year. “I look forward to welcoming him with open arms,” Jeffries, a New York Democrat, said at a news conference last week, calling Herzog “a force for good in Israeli society.”
Herzog will visit the White House on Tuesday. “As Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, the visit will highlight our enduring partnership and friendship. President (Joe) Biden will reaffirm the ironclad commitment of the United States to Israel’s security,” the White House said in a statement.
“President Biden will stress the importance of our shared democratic values, and discuss ways to advance equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and security for Palestinians and Israelis,” the statement continued.
Netanyahu has not been invited to Washington by the Biden administration since taking office again in December last year, amid a raft of policy differences between the two governments.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Haley Talbot, Melanie Zanona and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.