‘Gone Off a Cliff’: Dems Grapple with Anti-Semitism Ahead of Israeli President’s Visit

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July 18, 2023

Democratic leaders are rushing to combat accusations of anti-Semitism after a slew of anti-Israel comments from members of the party raised the stakes on a planned Democratic boycott of Israeli president Isaac Herzog’s address to Congress.

At least four members of the Democratic Party’s progressive "Squad" announced they would boycott Herzog’s address to Congress this Wednesday. The group includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.), Cori Bush (D., Mo.), and Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.). Omar and fellow progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.) drew widespread scrutiny over the weekend for criticizing Israel, which Jayapal slammed as a "racist state."

Herzog’s visit comes days after President Joe Biden denounced Israel’s governing coalition as "extremist." Until Monday, when Biden spoke to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone and made plans to meet with him in person, the two had not talked in months, and Biden's invitation to Herzog, who has been a critic of Israeli judicial reforms backed by Netanyahu, was viewed as a rebuke. It was also a move that some Jewish community leaders say has emboldened Israel-bashing within the Democratic Party.

"The Biden administration has created an atmosphere that is literally anti-Israel, that doesn’t respect democracy," former Democratic New York assemblyman Dov Hikind told the Washington Free Beacon. "When the prime minister is not invited to the White House, which is a tradition going back decades and decades and decades, what message does that send? That gave a green light to these [anti-Israel] radicals."

Speaking at the left-wing Netroots Nation conference Saturday, Omar called for voters to elect to Congress "Palestinian people who have now experienced occupation and displacement for 75 years." At the same event, Jayapal, the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she was "fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state."

Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was also accused of anti-Semitism over the weekend after he said there was "an argument that [COVID-19] is ethnically targeted" to have a greater impact on white and black people and a lower impact on Chinese and Jewish people.

The American Jewish Committee said Kennedy’s claim "reflects some of the most abhorrent antisemitic conspiracy theories throughout history and contributes to today’s dangerous rise of antisemitism."

After facing backlash from Jewish community leaders—who noted that her remarks fall under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism—Jayapal tried to dial back her comments slightly. In a statement, she said she was referring to the "outright racist policies" of the Israeli government and does not believe that "the idea of Israel as a nation is racist."

But in her apology, Jayapal reiterated her opposition to conservative Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, writing: "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."

The apology did not go nearly far enough for mainstream Jewish Democrats, who are circulating a letter calling for the expulsion of "anti-Zionist voices" from the party, according to a copy of the missive obtained Sunday evening by Axios.

"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 America’s national security," the signatories wrote. The letter stopped short of calling Jayapal’s statements anti-Semitic.

Biden has been increasingly vocal with his criticism of Israel as well. In a July 9 interview with CNN, he labeled Netanyahu’s government "one of the most extremist" of all time, and called on the Israeli leader to "move toward moderation." The White House also appeared to support anti-Netanyahu protests in Israel last week, saying it "urge[s] authorities in Israel to protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly"—a comment that the administration has not made about protests in other countries, such as France, and which carries the implication that Netanyahu’s government is undemocratic.

Biden reiterated these concerns in his Monday call to Netanyahu, during which he also "expressed concern" about Israeli settlements, according to the White House.

Republicans have seized on Democrats’ internecine conflict in advance of Herzog’s trip, set to mark 75 years of Israeli independence. Republican presidential hopefuls Mike Pence and Nikki Haley both condemned the boycott. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), who has repeatedly clashed with anti-Israel Democrats, told reporters on Friday that "anti-Semitism shouldn’t be anywhere, and especially shouldn’t be inside Congress."

Hikind, a longtime Democratic politician in New York, said the increasing animosity against Israel from Biden and top Democratic leaders has crossed the line—and pushed him to register as a Republican for the first time.

"That’s not because things are perfect in the Republican Party, they’re not," said Hikind. "But the Democratic Party, forget it, they’ve gone off a cliff."

Update July 18, 11:00 a.m.: This post has been updated to correct Dov Hikind’s position. He was a New York state assemblyman, not a New York City councilman.