Jul 19, 2023

Today's debate: Pramila Jaypal's comments on Israel.

Today's debate: Pramila Jaypal's comments on Israel.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (right) alongside Rep. Ilhan Omar (left). Both have been under fire for their comments regarding Israel. Image: Lorie Shaull / Wikicommons

Rep. Jayapal said Israel is a "racist state."

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Today, we're covering Rep. Pramila Jayapal's comments on Israel and the reaction to them. Plus, a reader question about third parties.

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Quick hits.

  1. U.S. service member Travis King is in North Korean custody after crossing the border from South Korea. King joined a tour of the Demilitarized Zone while being escorted back to the U.S. to face disciplinary action, which he left to intentionally cross into North Korea. (The news)
  2. Russia has reportedly pooled over 100,000 troops near Ukraine's northeastern border. (The troops)
  3. 16 people were charged by Michigan's attorney general in the alleged fake elector scheme designed to overturn the state's results in the 2020 election. (The charges
  4. Iowa's six-week abortion ban, which had just been signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), was struck down by a federal judge. (The ruling)
  5. The federal judge presiding over former President Trump's alleged mishandling of classified documents seemed skeptical of his request to delay the trial until after the 2024 election. (The proceedings)  

Today's topic.

Israel and Rep. Pramila Jayapal. On Sunday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, apologized for calling Israel a "racist state." Jayapal's comments came during a conference for progressive activist organization Netroots Nation over the weekend. A group of protesters holding Palestinian flags were talking over her, criticizing her House colleague Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) for refusing to sign a bill that ensures American funding isn't used in the detention of Palestinian children. In an effort to respond and quiet them down, Jayapal said the following:

“Hey guys, can I say something? Can I say something as somebody that’s been in the streets and has participated in a lot of demonstrations?” Jayapal said. “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... While you may have arguments with whether or not some of us onstage are fighting hard enough, I do want you to know that there is an organized opposition on the other side, and it isn’t the people that are on this stage."

The comments were quickly condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike after a video of Jayapal’s response went viral. More than 40 House Democrats signed a statement condemning her comments, and some Republicans even suggested she step down as chair of the progressive caucus.

In response, Jayapal issued a lengthy statement in which she explained she was trying to defuse a situation and apologized for anyone who was hurt by her words. However, she also largely stood by the sentiment behind her comments.

“I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist," she said. "I do, however, believe that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] 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."

For President Biden, the comments came at an inopportune time; Israeli President Isaac Herzog was in Washington D.C. on Tuesday to meet with Biden and will be addressing Congress on Wednesday. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Cori Bush (D-MO) have already said they will boycott the address.The meeting comes as Israel is embroiled in domestic turmoil over Netanyahu's proposed legal reforms (we covered those protests in March).

On Tuesday, House Republicans put forward a resolution to reaffirm United States support for Israel, an implicit rebuke of Rep. Jayapal. 

Today, we’re going to break down some reactions from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left have said the backlash to Jayapal is a hysterical overreaction, and defend her right to criticize Israel.
  • Some argue that while Israel may not be a racist state, its government has a racism problem.
  • Others argue it is Republicans who hold the radical position on Israel.

In The New Republic, Prem Thakker said Democrats were locked in the "stupidest fight about whether Israel is racist."

"A Democrat criticizes Israel for its human rights abuses against Palestinians, and the political establishment in both parties jumps on them like sharks. Sound familiar?" Thakker asked. "Representative Pramila Jayapal was the latest victim of the pattern after she called Israel—a state that has committed decades of human rights abuses, engaged in land dispossession and home demolition, upheld separate systems of law, and maintained a militarized police state against Palestinians—a 'racist state.'"

"The Israeli government itself has said its main guiding policy is that 'the Jewish people have an exclusive and indisputable right to all areas of the Land of Israel'—something one may call state-sponsored discrimination or, indeed, racism," Thakker wrote. "Organizations from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International have condemned Israel for its racism, human rights abuses, and systems of apartheid. The kinds of organizations the mainstream press and political establishment routinely extol. And yet, when it comes to Israel, any politician who frankly echoes such concerns is immediately attacked."

In The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg called the Democrats’ response a "hysterical overreaction."

Jayapal made a "significant political error," Goldberg said. "She called Israel a 'racist state,' instead of simply a state that has racist leaders who treat many of the people under their authority as second-class citizens or worse on account of their ethnic and religious background." It's a reminder that "no matter how far Israel veers from liberal democratic norms," in America it is "still protected by a thick lattice of taboos." Jayapal was wise to clarify her words, as they "could have been interpreted as ideological opposition to Zionism, which does not reflect Jayapal’s views; like most Democrats, she wants to see a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one."

"Today, there are nearly equal numbers of Jews and Palestinian Arabs living in Israel and the occupied territories," Goldberg said. "For Palestinians living under occupation, there is no pretense of equal rights: They are subject to regular land seizures and home demolitions and constant restrictions on their freedom of movement. But even Palestinian citizens of Israel face legal as well as social discrimination. Israel’s Palestinian citizens, for example, cannot obtain citizenship for spouses who are from the West Bank or Gaza, dooming thousands of couples to live separately."

In The Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor said it is Republicans, not Democrats, who are radical on Israel.

"The view that the Israeli state is racist is an assessment arguably supported by the world’s two most prominent human rights organizations — Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which both now define the status quo of Israeli rule over the Palestinians in the occupied territories, as well as discriminatory policies against Palestinian citizens of Israel, as akin to apartheid," Tharoor said. "Nevertheless, Jayapal found herself on the backfoot, with a cavalcade of denunciations aimed at her and the handful of liberal lawmakers who spoke up in her defense. On Tuesday, Republicans in the House forced a vote on a pro-Israel resolution that affirmed the United States’ staunch support for the country and declared that it 'is not a racist or apartheid state.'"

"The irony is that Jayapal, who supports a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians and opposes the expansion of Israeli settlements, represents what’s becoming a more mainstream position, certainly among Democratic voters," he wrote. "But Republican lawmakers in Washington have seemingly yoked their agenda to the far-right Israeli settler movement and influential right-wing pro-Israel groups in the United States... the GOP mainstream has long soured on the two-state solution and can’t countenance any talk of rights for millions of Palestinians living under military occupation because they aren’t even willing to recognize the fact of the occupation."

What the right is saying.

  • The right has criticized Jayapal, saying the Democratic party is becoming more and more anti-Israel.
  • Many argue that her comments aren't just offensive, but wrong.
  • Some say her positions on Israel and India expose her hypocrisy.

National Review's editors said the "boycott Israel movement" has come to Congress.

"As the base of the Democratic Party has become increasingly hostile toward Israel, its leaders have sought to draw a distinction between opposing specific policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and opposing the nation of Israel itself. But it’s getting harder and harder for that distinction to hold," the editors said. At least five progressive Democrats will boycott Isaac Herzog's speech. "Jayapal released a half-hearted apology, trying to frame her comments as really meant for Netanyahu." But the clarification amounted to "the 'idea' of Israel isn’t racist in theory, but it is in practice."

"Democrats will continue to downplay these developments, as President Biden will do when he meets with Herzog this week," the editors said. "But it’s becoming more challenging to put the genie back in the bottle... In 2013, Democrats said they sympathized more with Israelis [than Palestinians] 55 percent to 19 percent. When the question was asked this year, 49 percent of Democrats said they sympathized with the Palestinians, compared with just 38 percent who said Israelis... Though Democratic leaders will sweep Jayapal’s comments under the rug and dismiss the Squad as a small and insignificant group within the House, it’s hard to ignore the broader anti-Israel trend within the party."

In Washington Examiner, Jack Elbaum said Jayapal’s “statements are simply wrong."

"Is it true that Israel is a ‘racist’ state? Well, the short answer is no. In Israel, all citizens have full civil and political rights. Consequently, Arab-Israelis vote in elections and their parties currently hold 10 seats in Israel’s parliament. A few years ago, an Arab party was a part of the ruling coalition, and one of Israel’s supreme court justices is an Arab Muslim. Since 2011, thanks to government programs, Arab representation in Israeli universities has risen by more than 75%, bringing the proportion quite close to their proportion of the total population."

"In these universities, and in the workforce, Jews and Arabs learn and work side-by-side. It may feel pointless to even say any of this, but the idea Israel is literally an apartheid state practicing American-style Jim Crow is not uncommon," Elbaum said. "Additionally, survey data show that when countries are ranked by the proportion of their citizens that either 1) do not want to be neighbors with somebody of a different race or 2) have witnessed racism, Israel does not make the list. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the list is filled with all of the countries that surround Israel, such as Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine — which has the second-highest percentage of residents that prefer not to live next to somebody of a different race."

In The Media Line, Rabbi Abraham Cooper called out Jayapal's alleged hypocrisy.

Just three weeks ago, "Jayapal went to great lengths to explain why she would, in fact, meet India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Washington, including at his June 9 speech before another joint Senate and House of Representatives meeting," Rabbi Cooper said. "It is no secret that Prime Minister Modi is a deeply controversial figure. Until 2014, he was denied a visa to the US for 'severe violations of religious freedom.' He leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and has been accused of tolerating and encouraging anti-Muslim views and policies."

Jayapal, who was born in India, said despite these problems, it was "vital for her to attend Modi’s speech and his other US events. Modi’s visit, she explained, was a 'critical moment for engagement' between 'flawed democracies.' Fair enough," Cooper said. "Like India, however, Israel is also a flawed democracy. It has its problems, just like other democracies worldwide. Congresswoman Jayapal chose to 'critically engage' with the flawed democracy she has personal ties with but to shun interaction with the flawed democracy that Jewish Americans, along with many others, feel strongly about."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I come to this issue with some obvious biases.
  • Defending Israel from allegations of being a "racist state" is easier than defending its immoral actions.
  • Rep. Jayapal's beliefs actually seem pretty moderate for people on the left. 

Unsurprisingly, I doubt I'll be able to give a broadly satisfying takeaway on one of the world’s most complicated and controversial geopolitical issues in a few hundred words. Additionally, I think it’s necessary to call out my own biases anytime I cover Israel: I’m a Jew, I went on birthright, I lived in a yeshiva in Israel, and my feelings on Israel as a state and the Palestinian conflict more broadly are very complicated. But I think there are a few points worth making here.

For starters, I think Jayapal was wrong to describe Israel as a "racist state" the same way she'd be wrong to describe the U.S. or India as "racist states." Israel's government definitely has issues with racism, which we'll get to in a moment. The arguments from Goldberg (under "What the left is saying") and Elbaum (under "What the right is saying") can and should both co-exist in people's minds.

As Goldberg notes, Israel's 1948 Declaration of Independence promises to "uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex." This goal is inherently more difficult when the state that holds it was created specifically to be a home of one stateless people, who by and large have the same religion, and may only be possible by turning many others into refugees. But, as Goldberg also notes, Israel's most prominent leader today does not even subscribe to this idea enshrined in its constitution: "Israel is not a state of all its citizens," Netanyahu said in 2019. "According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people — and only it."

Self-evidently, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do not have the same rights as citizens in Israel. And within Israel, Palestinian citizens are deprived of some major privileges, like getting citizenship for spouses in the West Bank. That is to say nothing of the societal racism they face, which is significant. It's also true that there seem to be more and more ethnic nationalists within Israel’s government, like Itamar Ben-Gvir, the security minister who has embraced the explicit anti-Arab racism of his mentor Meir Kahane. Israeli "racism" doesn’t look like the controversies we get from U.S. politicians, like a member of Congress using the word "colored" instead of the expression "person of color." Racism in Israel looks like Ben-Gvir exalting a mass murderer of Arabs.

And yet, at the same time, Elbaum is right that all citizens in Israel have full civil and political rights under the law. Arab-Israelis vote, have seats in parliament, sit on the Supreme Court, go to universities, and work side-by-side with Israeli Jews. There is also empirical data, like the surveys Elbaum references, that show Israel is surrounded by states whose citizens are much more intolerant of other races than are Israelis.

The important point here is that this whole thing is a bit of a head fake. It's easy to defend Israel from the criticism that it is a "racist state" because the citizens of Israel are treated (mostly) equally under the law. But what Israel does to its own citizens isn’t the central controversy for its critics — it’s Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and the way it continues expanding its own borders. It is much harder to look at Israel’s extremist wing in its government alongside its state-sanctioned oppression in the Palestinian territories and then claim that the Israeli government does not have issues with discrimination. It has and it does.

We should be able to acknowledge that without wrongly pretending Israel is the most racist or immoral country on earth, and without pretending it always acts morally.

To that end, so much of this really is a hyperventilating freakout over very little. As far as I can tell, Jayapal holds fairly standard left-of-center views on Israel: She is critical of its right-wing government, she supports a two-state solution, and she thinks Israel is the strongman occupier of the surrounding Palestinian territories.

The news cycle over her comments does a much better job illustrating how off-limits harsh criticism of Israel still is than illustrating her sincerely held beliefs on what Israel is and should strive to be. As Goldberg wrote, "A state’s leaders and policies can be bigoted without the state itself being irredeemable. That’s basically Jayapal’s stance."

Come join me.

In case you somehow missed it, our guests for the first-ever Tangle event are locked in. We've got some of the biggest court commentators in the game: Mark Joseph Stern, a liberal columnist from Slate, Henry Olsen, a longtime conservative columnist from The Washington Post, and Anastasia Boden, a libertarian-minded columnist from the Cato Institute.

Three legal experts. Three different perspectives. All on stage. All discussing this Supreme Court term and the state of the court more broadly (which also happens to be, in part, the subject of today's newsletter).

Not only will this be the first meeting of the Tangle community, but it's also going to be an informative, fun night, with opportunities to ask questions to our guests (or me) in person. What are you waiting for? Tickets here.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I appreciate your comments on third parties. I would vote for any relevant third party, BUT am I mistaken when I say that a third party is irrelevant if it can not garner more than 1/2 of the electoral college? I believe that if one party can not get 1/2 plus 1 of the electoral college, then the House and Senate decide on the President and Vice President. If that is the case, NO serious Democrat or Republican would vote for a non-party member. Under present rules it would be almost impossible to elect someone for the White House that is not part of the inept 2 Party System.

— Bruce, from Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tangle: You're correct; if no presidential candidate receives a majority of the electoral college vote, the outcome of the election is decided by the Senate and the House. While I wouldn't say that any third party that fails to get that number is “irrelevant,” you do raise an interesting point — if an election is sent to a Congress filled with Democrats and Republicans to decide the winner, then that wouldn't bode well for the third party.

And that point leads into one of the stronger criticisms I've come across about third parties: They have almost no impact on local and state elections. This criticism actually contains two other, more specific criticisms. First, this lack of performance locally shows no real platform or political philosophy that has traction amongst politically engaged Americans. Second, due to this lack of engagement, any third-party presidential candidate amounts to no more than an attention-seeking spoiler.

While I think these are strong criticisms, I think they apply more to how third parties operate rather than if they should. As I've written before, more ideological diversity in our democracy is a good thing. The Green and Libertarian Parties have been pretty well known for decades now, so it seems to me that if they would focus more on local or small-state races where the electorate is sympathetic to their platforms, then they could build more of a base. And if they have a strong base, they can win some seats in Congress. And if they win significant seats in Congress, they would have a chance to win a presidential election with under 270 electoral votes.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Scammers are using Google search results to target desperate travelers trying to rebook canceled flights. The "malvertising" is a growing problem for search engines, with travelers hoping to avoid long lines at kiosks taking to their phones, giving scammers the opportunity to get their credit card information. “We do not tolerate this misleading activity, and are constantly monitoring and evolving our platforms to combat fraud and create a safe environment for users and businesses,” Google released a statement to The Washington Post. “Our teams have already begun reverting the inaccuracies, suspending the malicious accounts involved, and applying additional protections to prevent further abuse.” Scammers changing the contact information of major companies aren’t just targeting airlines, but other travel-related companies like car rental agencies. The Washington Post has the story, and tips on how to spot the scammers. 


  • 67%. The percentage of Americans who view the Israeli people favorably, according to Pew.
  • 48%. The percentage of Americans who view the Israeli government favorably.
  • 52%. The percentage of Americans who view the Palestinian people favorably.
  • 28%. The percentage of Americans who view the Palestinian government favorably.
  • 20%. The percentage of Israeli Jews ages 18-34 who now support a two-state solution, according to the United States Institute of Peace.
  • 93%. The percentage of Palestinians who reject Israel's claims of historic, national connection to the land.
  • 68%. The percentage of Israeli Jews who reject Palestine's claims of historic, national connection to the land.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we covered Biden's meeting with Mohammed Bin Salman.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was for the unidentified “floating” object.
  • Try again: Of the 720 Tangle readers who responded to our poll about whether the Supreme Court should adopt stricter ethical standards, 43% said that Congress should create stricter standards, but would support a different bill than Sen. Whitehouse's. 10% said they should, and supported the bill. 28% said they did not think Congress should write stricter standards for the court, but would support a different bill that defines those standards. 18% said Congress should not pass any bill to define the court's ethical standards.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Predicting the United States' starting 11 in the upcoming World Cup.
  • Take the poll. Do you believe the state of Israel has a problem with racism? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Food insecurity is a growing concern in many places across the country, and the Denver area is no exception. "We are seeing more need now than we ever have before. This is hitting the Food Bank of the Rockies’ budget hard," said Aditi Desai, Chief Marketing Officer at Food Bank of the Rockies. But Denver, along with many other American cities, is receiving a helping hand from a philanthropist traveling across the country this summer: Taylor Swift. Throughout her Eras tour, Swift has been donating to food banks in cities where she’s performing, taking time recently before her two sold-out Colorado shows to donate enough to the Denver food bank to allow it to purchase 75,000 meals. "We’ve been able to meet the increased demand thanks to the generosity of individuals like Taylor Swift," Desai said. "Her gift will help fuel our work across the Rockies and allow us to distribute more food to our communities." KUSA has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.