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New Congressional Tensions Flare Over Israel
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New Congressional Tensions Flare Over Israel

Infighting among Democrats accompanies President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Washington.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal attends a news conference on June 15, 2023. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to Congress Wednesday morning is underscoring ongoing internal divisions over the Democratic party’s position on Israel. 

The latest tussle began after Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Progressive Caucus, called Israel a “racist state” over the weekend at a conference interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters. “We have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy,” she said.

Members of her own party called the comments “unacceptable” in a letter signed by 43 House Democrats. “Israel is the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people,” the letter reads. “We will never allow anti-Zionist voices that embolden antisemitism to hijack the Democratic Party and country.”

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and the top two members of his team quickly released a statement Sunday night declaring that “Israel is not a racist state,” though without naming Jayapal specifically. “As House Democratic leaders, we strongly support Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people,” it added.

Jayapal walked back her remarks. “I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” she commented, but also criticized the current Israeli government as extreme and said it had engaged in “outright racist policies.”

House Republicans are responding too. On Monday Speaker Kevin McCarthy introduced a terse, one-page resolution stating that Israel is “not a racist or apartheid state,” and that Congress “rejects all forms of antisemitism and xenophobia.” It also affirms the United States’ support for Israel as an ally.

“If the Democrats want to believe they do not have a conference that continues to make antisemitic remarks, they need to do something about it,” McCarthy told reporters Monday.

“I expect a large number of Democrats to vote for it,” Rep. Pete Aguilar, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters at a press conference Tuesday morning.

Herzog, in Washington to recognize the 75th anniversary of the state of Israel, is meeting with President Joe Biden Tuesday and hopes to improve U.S.-Israel relations.

Some Democrats have ramped up their criticism of Israel in recent years. In 2021 a group of Democrats pulled military aid for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system from a short-term government funding bill over a progressive uprising—though they later passed it separately. 

Several progressive members of Congress said before Jayapal’s comments they planned to boycott Herzog’s address, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Jamal Bowman of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Cori Bush of Missouri.

GOP Rep. August Pfluger of Texas, sponsor of Republican resolution against anti-semitism, told The Dispatch Monday night that it was “concerning, but not surprising,” that some Democrats were boycotting the speech: “They’ve made their views very clear on Israel.”

Other Republicans also critiqued the tensions in the Democratic party over the issue. “I think it’s absurd we’re even having to discuss the idea of boycotting one of our allies,” GOP Rep. Cory Mills of Florida, tells The Dispatch, though he still thinks it a minority position.

“I’ve been concerned about the far left losing support for Israel for a long time,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw tells The Dispatch. But, “for all the people boycotting it, for all the kind of anti-Israel rhetoric, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s still very strong bipartisan support for Israel.”

On Tuesday, Pfluger says the vote will be an indicator of where lawmakers stand: “This should be an easy vote. This should be a 435 to zero vote.”

On the Floor

The House on Tuesday will consider legislation expressing support for Israel in an eleventh hour addition to the floor schedule. It will also consider five resolutions on ending presidential declared emergencies that resulted in U.S. sanctions of leaders in conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The House will also begin considering a bill banning federal funding for public schools and colleges that use buildings to shelter or house recent immigrants who crossed into the United States illegally. The House will also consider a five year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. You can follow what the House will consider here.

The Senate will take up its version of the 2024 NDAA defense bill. The Senate will also consider various nominations. You can keep up with floor activity through the week here.

Key Hearings

  • The House Armed Services Cyber subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday on the barriers the Department of Defense faces in “adopting and deploying artificial intelligence” as well as on what risks adversarial artificial intelligence presents. Information here
  • The House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday featuring IRS whistleblowers who will testify on the committee’s ongoing investigation in the Biden family. Information here.
  • Also Wednesday, the House Administration Committee will hold a hearing with United States Capitol Police Inspector General Ron Russo. Information and livestream here.
  • The China select committee will hold a hearing Thursday on the Biden administration’s China strategy featuring testimony from three Biden officials. Information and livestream here.
  • Also Thursday, the subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government will hold a hearing examining “the role of the federal government in censoring Americans.” The hearing will feature Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a Breitbart journalist, and the special assistant to Louisiana’s attorney general. Information and livestream here.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a markup Thursday considering legislation requiring the Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct, including codifying standards for when justices would have to recuse themselves from certain cases.

Of Note

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.