As protesters with Palestinian flags disrupted a Saturday keynote with several members of Congress at the Netroots Nation conference, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) sought to placate the Israel critics.
“I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state!” she said.
The Washington Democrat, who has urged the White House to snub the widely-accepted definition of antisemitism and who voted against honoring Israel’s 75th anniversary, was speaking at the Netroots Nation conference in Chicago. The event bills itself as the progressive movement’s largest annual convention.
Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, moderated the discussion with Jayapal and Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Jesús García (D-Ill.). He asked the trio what it thought of the younger generation of “incredible” leaders, Reps. Summer Lee (D-Pa.), Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.), Greg Casar (D-Texas), Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who had just addressed the audience.
Introducing the session, Reggie Hubbard of Active Peace Yoga said to much applause: “In this moment, we stand in solidarity with Palestine.” In Omar’s remarks, the member of the so-called “Squad” said that the Palestinian people “have now experienced occupation and displacement for 75 years.”
As Jayapal turned things over to Schakowsky, protesters stood up, chanted and bore Palestinian flags. “I’m your ally,” Schakowsky appeared to say.
“Thank you,” García said. “We hear you, and we feel you.”
The protesters quieted down until it was Schakowsky’s turn again. As she began to talk, up went the flags and the chanting resumed.
“I want to be very clear,” Moulitsas said, rising to his feet. “Jan Schakowsky is a supporter of a negotiated, two-state solution.” After some boos from the crowd, he added, “I know there is a group of you that don’t believe that. I encourage everybody else in this room to look up Jan Schakowsky on her website.”
As the protesters continued, Schakowsky stood and burnished her credentials.
“I am one of the highest-ranking Jewish members of Congress. Have been one of the most outspoken voices for justice for the Palestinians and currently a vocal critic of this current administration in the State of Israel,” she said. “Don’t go after your allies.”
As the protests continued, she told her co-panelists, “Maybe I should just walk off, guys.”
She opted to stay, but it took many more minutes of negotiations, some yoga breathing and a sounding of a gong (to “clear the room” and “proceed in peace”) before the program got back on track.
On Sunday, David Friedman, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, tweeted in response to Jayapal’s statement about “fighting” to make it clear that Israel is racist, “I’ve been fighting to make it clear that Jayapal is a racist congresswoman.”
Later in the day, Jayapal issued a “statement on Israel comments,” in which she stated that her comments came while trying “to defuse a tense situation during a panel where fellow members of Congress were being protested.” She claimed she meant to attack Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, rather than the State of Israel.
“Words do matter, and so it is important that I clarify my statement. I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” she stated. “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.” I believe it is incumbent on all of us who are striving to make our world a more just and equitable place to call out and condemn these policies and this current Netanyahu government’s role in furthering them.”
“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,” she added, “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.”