McCarthy squeezes Democrats over ‘racist state’ comments about Israel

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks to reporters at the Capitol.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) talks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
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The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a resolution Tuesday declaring that Israel is not a “racist state,” effectively rebuking Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who said Saturday that it was.

The 412-9 vote reaffirmed broad bipartisan support for Israel ahead of Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s planned address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. But the measure — which has no practical effect — also gave Speaker Kevin McCarthy a chance to paint Democrats as divided, embarrass Jayapal and demonstrate his party’s unity after weeks of infighting.

Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a rising leader in her party, apologized for the “racist state” comment on Sunday and went on to vote for the resolution. But nine Democrats opposed the measure.


The resolution contains fewer than 100 words, and makes three central claims: that Israel is not a racist or apartheid state; that Congress rejects antisemitism and xenophobia; and that the U.S. will always “be a staunch supporter” of Israel.

The vote wasn’t that complicated, said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), one of the top Democrats in the House.

“It’s a pretty simple resolution,” he told reporters Tuesday morning. “I don’t disagree with it, so I’m going to vote for it.”

But the vote allowed Republicans to highlight Democrats who are especially critical of Israel. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Summer Lee, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, André Carson, Delia Ramirez and Ayanna Pressley voted against the measure, and Rep. Betty McCollum voted present. Most of the Democrats who voted against the resolution are members of “the Squad,” a group of progressive lawmakers known for being among the most left-wing in the House.

In voting against a resolution that described Israel as not racist, these Democrats were forced in turn to vote against a resolution that condemned antisemitism.

Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress, criticized the resolution in floor remarks Tuesday.


“This week, we’ll hear consistently ... ‘This is bipartisan support here,’” Tlaib said. “Don’t forget, this body, this Congress, supported a South African apartheid regime. It was bipartisan as well.”

Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Bush, Bowman and Omar all have said they will skip Herzog’s address on Wednesday morning. McCarthy has described their decision as antisemitic.

Aguilar said he doesn’t view his caucus as divided on Israel.

“There’s unity in the Democratic caucus,” he said. “I think you’ll see that with strong attendance from our colleagues on the House floor to see the president of Israel address us. I don’t think that there is anything more on that.”

On the House floor Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge) said Republicans’ focus on Jayapal’s comment illustrated a double standard.

“Israel is not a racist or apartheid state,” Sherman said, repeating the language of the resolution. “Congress should and does reject all forms of antisemitism and xenophobia and the United States will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel. But why are we taking this up today?”

Sherman argued the House should have taken up the resolution when Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust denier, was hosted by former President Trump, or when Reps. Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke at a conservative conference hosted by Fuentes.


“We should believe in this resolution every day,” Sherman said. “If we’re going to allocate floor time it should be when Holocaust deniers are honored by our colleagues and the former president of the United States.”

The U.S. relationship with Israel is arguably its strongest foreign commitment, with Israel receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid virtually no-questions-asked. And while that relationship remains “ironclad,” as U.S. officials like to say, under President Biden, there have been a few strains.

Israel’s harshest critics have long accused it of practicing a form of apartheid in its treatment of the Palestinians. Administration officials do not use that term, and some critics attack the administration for not rebuking Israel with sufficient forcefulness, especially when Palestinian civilians are killed in Israeli military anti-terrorism raids or by settlers.

Late last year, Israel seated its most right-wing government in history, with a number of Cabinet members who have voiced support for openly racist anti-Arab policies. Administration officials say they do not intend to interfere with Israel’s domestic politics but have cautioned against some of the more extreme measures under consideration by the Knesset, or Israeli parliament.

These include a major overhaul of the Israeli judicial system that even many Israelis regard as a gutting of the country’s supreme independent institution and the additional construction of Jewish settlements in West Bank land claimed by Palestinians who seek an eventual independent nation.

In rare admonitions, Biden, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other officials have told the Israeli government it should avoid radical steps that flout the will of the public, as the judicial changes apparently would, or that would permanently undermine the formation of a Palestinian state, as additional settlements or de-facto annexation would. The officials pointedly remind Israel to continue to protect the “shared democratic values” it has with Washington.


The U.S. has issued similar warnings to the Palestinian Authority about violence and attacks by Palestinian militants against Israelis, but the criticism of the Israel government is more unusual.

The judicial changes are extremely controversial in Israel. Tens of thousands of Israelis have held massive regular street protests against the government, which is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fixture of Israeli politics who is on trial on corruption charges. American Jews have also been staging demonstrations in the U.S. in support of the Israeli protesters.

Asked whether the White House would like to see strong support for the House resolution, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday Biden would make clear in his meeting with Herzog that the U.S. commitment to Israel is “unwavering and is unshakable” and the two countries share a “special bond.”

Pressed on whether the White House condemned Jayapal’s comments, Jean-Pierre said the administration is “glad she apologized.”

“‘Any time anti-Jewish hatred is said, that is antisemitism. And we find it unacceptable.”

The Biden administration has also taken the unusual step of refusing to meet with at least one member of Netanyahu’s Cabinet: Itamar Ben Gvir, an ultranationalist once convicted of inciting anti-Arab hate whom Netanyahu appointed as national security minister. And until this week, Biden had broken with custom and declined to invite Netanyahu to the White House.

In the West Bank, most of the nearly 3 million Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation. Around a half million Jewish Israelis also live in the West Bank in heavily guarded settlements most of the world considers illegal.


Palestinians who live inside Israel are on paper regarded as equal citizens but human rights groups say these residents are routinely discriminated against or treated as second-class citizens.

As Israeli president, Herzog, the scion of a legendary Israeli family, holds a largely ceremonial post. Under Israel’s parliamentary system, he sets the formation of each government in motion by inviting the political party or coalition that won the most votes in an election to take steps to build a Cabinet. If the parties fail, the president can invite other participants in the election to act.

Herzog has sought to be a mediator in the political turmoil roiling Israel and has attempted to soften Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul. But he has failed thus far to do so.

Asked Tuesday about a proposed bill in the Knesset that would curtail Palestinian activism at universities, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller again emphasized “values” that Israel should respect.

“As a general matter,” Miller told reporters, “the United States government strongly believes that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible, responsive and democratic governance.”