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Top House Democrats reject Rep. Jayapal's comments calling Israel a 'racist state'

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, seen here at the U.S. Capitol on May 31, sparked controversy over the weekend when she referred to Israel as a "racist state."
Anna Moneymaker
Getty Images
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, seen here at the U.S. Capitol on May 31, sparked controversy over the weekend when she referred to Israel as a "racist state."

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, walked back comments over the weekend which sparked backlash among members of her own party, in which she referred to Israel as "a racist state."

Her controversial comments came as she addressed pro-Palestinian protesters who interrupted a Netroots Nation panel discussion in Chicago on Saturday.

"Can I say something as somebody who's been in the streets and participated in a lot of demonstrations?" Jayapal told the crowd. "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 doesn't even feel possible."

The Washington Democrat sought to clarify her comments on Sunday, writing in a statement that she apologizes to "those who I have hurt with my words."

"At a conference, I attempted to defuse a tense situation during a panel where fellow members of Congress were being protested. 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," the statement read.

"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," Jayapal added.

House Democratic leadership responded Sunday.

"Israel is not a racist state," said House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Reps. Katherine Clark, Pete Aguilar and Ted Lieu in a joint statementthat did not mention Jayapal by name.

Jayapal's remarks came days before Israeli President Isaac Herzog is scheduled to address a joint meeting of Congress.

Several House progressive lawmakers, including New York Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, as well as Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, have said they will not attend, citing concerns about human rights.

Herzog is scheduled to meet with President Biden on Tuesday.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.