JCRC Blog – What Representative Jan Schakowsky Doesn’t Understand

By Linda Geller-Schwartz
Chair, Jewish Community Relations Council
Published August 31, 2023

In mid-July of this year, progressive activists gathered at the Netroots Nation Conference in Chicago. The meeting will be remembered for a very ugly incident when Representative Pamila Jayapal (D), attempting to quiet members of the audience who were shouting down Representative Jan Schakowsky (D), asserted that “we have been fighting to make clear that Israel is a racist state…”  Within a day, Rep. Jayapal issued the inevitable “clarification” and rationalization of her statement (but not a retraction), which was followed by dozens of her fellow Democrats in Congress forcefully denouncing her remarks. A few days later, Israeli President Isaac Herzog gave a formal address to the U.S. Congress emphasizing the close, strong and enduring bonds between Israel and the United States.  His remarks were enthusiastically applauded.    

Yet, the vision I am left with from those events is that of Rep. Schakowsky standing sheepishly on the Conference stage, pleading with the Netroots audience to let her be heard. She said: “I want to say something to all of you. Know your allies. I am one of the highest-ranking Jewish members of Congress.” She seemed mystified that the protesters didn’t see her as a friend who also wanted justice for the Palestinians. Two days later she issued a statement: “I have always supported the existence of a Jewish and democratic state of Israel… and understand the crucial need for a strong Jewish state. And for my entire career, I have vocally supported justice for Palestinians, an end to the occupation, and a two-state solution guaranteeing the rights of all.”

Rep. Schakowsky simply doesn’t get it.  “Occupation” for the vocal protesters in that audience does not refer to the West Bank, it means the whole of Israel “from the River to the Sea.” Their goal is not a “Two State Solution,” made up of a Jewish and democratic Israel and a separate Palestinian state, on a divided territory. When they say “Free Palestine,” they want one majority Palestinian state in the whole territory of the current Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. The last thing they are interested in is a strong Jewish state.

And the protestors are not just a tiny, fringe group. They are the product of an increasingly widespread narrative that led directly to Rep. Schakowsky’s humiliating encounter. Usually, activists who want to isolate and silence someone who seeks justice for both Israelis and Palestinians, refuse to openly admit this is what they intend. They hide their anti-Israel animus behind a warped analysis of human rights. However, in November 2021, at the American Muslims for Palestine Conference, Zahra Billoo, Executive Director of CAIR in San Francisco dropped the pretense and openly demanded: “Know who is on your side”… and know who are “your enemies.” According to Ms. Billoo, the enemies include the ADL, the Jewish Federations, the Zionist synagogues, the Hillel chapters on college campuses. In fact, she insists that all Zionist organizations should be on the enemies list, including the foreign policy organizations who want a two-state solution. She called the “two-state solution” a “joke” and beseeched the rapt audience to “Oppose the vehement fascists, but oppose the polite Zionists too.” 

So, is it any wonder that Rep. Schakowsky was shouted down with “Free Free Palestine” and “Israel is a Racist State”? She is not regarded as an ally. She is seen simply as another Zionist Jew. The only way she could be regarded as an ally by the protesters, was if she openly denounced the existence of a Jewish democratic state and worked for its elimination. What was on display at the Conference was unvarnished antisemitism.

In the past, Rep. Schakowsky has actively opposed the acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism which makes it clear that delegitimization and demonization of Israel is a form of antisemitism. The IHRA, unlike the Nexus definition which she prefers, recognizes that anti-Zionism is almost always antisemitism. 

I think Rep. Schakowsky needs to have a long, hard think about what happened to her, as a Jew, on that stage at the Netroots Conference and whether it is time for her to become a vocal supporter for the implementation of the IHRA definition, so that we can fight all forms of antisemitism in this country and abroad more effectively.

Antisemitism assumes many shapes in today’s world. In order to recognize and understand its various manifestations, Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) created a presentation called Antisemitism Today. We invite you to reach out to JCRC to request this presentation for you and your networks. It provides a clear understanding of the IHRA definition and how it is an important tool in recognizing and combatting antisemitism. A second JCRC presentation, Decoding the Narrative, explains the nature of the antisemitic language directed at Israel and identifies the strategies behind this narrative.

To bring these important presentations to your gated community, social club, professional group or organization, please contact:

Josephine Gon
Executive Director, Community Affairs
josephine.gon@jewishpalmbeach.org or 561.242.6686