Washington, DC – The United States House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed a resolution proclaiming that Israel is “not a racist or apartheid state”, in a message directed at progressive critics.
The measure passed in a 412-to-nine vote on Tuesday, hours after Israeli President Isaac Herzog met with President Joe Biden at the White House. One lawmaker voted “present”.
The legislation comes in response to comments on Saturday from Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, calling Israel a “racist state”.
Her remarks sparked bipartisan outrage. The congresswoman has subsequently apologised while also stressing that Israel’s “extreme right-wing government has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies”.
Tuesday’s resolution was symbolic, but it showed the increasingly stern approach Israel’s supporters are taking to slam the country’s critics in Congress, who have become more visible and vocal in recent years.
“The United States will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel,” the bill, which was introduced by Republican Congressman August Pfluger, said. It also condemned “all forms of anti-Semitism and xenophobia”.
Palestinian rights advocates expressed anger at the measure on Tuesday, as well as towards Democratic leaders who sided with Republicans to slight their own progressive colleagues.
“Sadly, Congress overwhelmingly passed this resolution, once again landing on the wrong side of history, as the leading and most respected human rights organisations in the world, after extensive research, have labelled Israel as apartheid,” Palestinian-American comedian and activist Amer Zahr told Al Jazeera.
Israel, which receives at least $3.8bn in US aid annually, has been accused by major human rights groups like Amnesty International of committing apartheid against Palestinians.
‘Trying to silence’ Israel’s detractors
The resolution culminates the latest firestorm against people who vocally oppose Israel in the US.
Early in 2020, the Republican majority in the House stripped Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee over accusations of anti-Semitism linked to her past criticism of Israel.
In May, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib similarly faced backlash for hosting an event at the US Capitol commemorating the anniversary of the Nakba, the mass displacement of Palestinians from their homeland during the establishment of Israel.
Later that month, politicians from both major parties piled condemnations on a young Yemeni-American graduate who criticised Israel during her commencement speech at The City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law.
Laura Albast, a Palestinian-American organiser in the Washington, DC area, said the intense opposition has come to be expected.
“As we grow stronger in advocating for Palestinian rights, for Palestinian liberation, so does the opposing side that is oppressing us; it grows more forceful in trying to silence us,” Albast told Al Jazeera.
She questioned why US legislators are taking the time to pass a resolution in favour of a foreign state when the country is facing major crises, including rampant gun violence.
Albast added that the provision denouncing anti-Semitism is a “trap” to paint lawmakers who oppose the measure as racist.
In a debate on the House floor on Tuesday, several members heaped praise on Israel, portraying it as an essential US ally and linking criticism of its government policy to anti-Semitism.
Republican Representative Zach Nunn called Israel a “voice for free people in a world too often tried time and time again by tyrants and terrorists”.
Rashida Tlaib speaks out
Tlaib, a Democratic Congresswoman from Michigan, was the sole member to speak out against the resolution on the House floor on Tuesday.
“I am the only Palestinian American serving in Congress and I have family members all throughout the West Bank — what many people call the illegally occupied territories,” Tlaib said.
“But we’re here again reaffirming Congress’s support for apartheid, policing the words of women of colour who dare to speak up about truths, about oppression. It’s just not what we should be doing here in Congress.”
On Monday, Tlaib became the latest progressive legislator to confirm that she will skip Israeli President Herzog’s speech to Congress.
In solidarity with the Palestinian people and all those who have been harmed by Israel’s apartheid government, I will be boycotting President Herzog’s joint address to Congress.
— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) July 17, 2023
Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman are also set to boycott the address. On Tuesday, Bowman cited human rights abuses, including the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces last year, as the reason behind his decision.
“From Israel to India, we must hold our allies accountable when it comes to human rights violations and the abuses of far-right governments, which is why I will not be attending Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to Congress tomorrow,” Bowman wrote on Twitter.
Herzog, who serves in a largely ceremonial role, is seen as a more moderate figure than far-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Still, critics say he represents the same state, whose basic law considers the right to self-determination “exclusive” to the Jewish people despite ruling over millions of Palestinians in the land.
On Tuesday, James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a think tank, said the House resolution would not change the facts about Israel.
“Memo to Congress: Israel is an Apartheid state. It’s Israel’s racist system of laws & practice that discriminate against Palestinians that defines reality — not how you vote on the nonsensical [Pfluger’s] bill,” he wrote on Twitter.