Congressman Hank Johnson thought he was going to speak to a group of Quakers, not opponents of Israel’s existence, when he talked about his recent trip to the West Bank and compared the settlement process to the work of termites July 25.
That explanation for how he joined a discussion titled “Progressive for Palestine: Is the US Ready to Rethink Policy on Israel?” on the opening day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia was part of an hour-long interview the DeKalb County Democrat granted the Atlanta Jewish Times on Wednesday, Aug. 3, as part of his effort to repair relations with the Jewish community.
The fifth-term congressman from Georgia’s 4th District said he didn’t know that the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee and its co-host for the session, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and are largely composed of members who would rather see one Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea than Israel and Palestine coexisting.
“We’ve worked with the Quakers on a number of other issues, and they invited me to speak,” Johnson said in his Lithonia district office. “Quakers are peace advocates. They advocate for peace. Now I did not sense any one-state-solution people. Certainly, they may have been there, but I did not sense that it was a one-state-solution crowd. My assumption was that people want peace based on a two-state solution.”
Johnson said he opposes BDS and is committed to a two-state solution “despite how hopeless it might look. Even if the whole land is occupied by Israeli settlements, I’ll still be in favor of a two-state solution because there’ll be a way that we can work it out.”
It was his attempt to compare the growth of West Bank settlements to the work of termites July 25 that drew the wrath of the Jewish community and made Johnson the poster boy for Republican efforts to win over Jewish voters.
“Rep. Johnson’s remarks were very unfortunate and unacceptable. I accept the fact that he has apologized, bearing in mind that words of this nature have deep significance in this region,” Ambassador Judith Varnai Shorer, Israel’s consul general to the Southeast, said in a statement. She has not talked with Johnson or his office since the incident.
“It was an ignorant remark. And now that I know about the history of insects, animals and things like that to describe Jewish people, I’m mortified by my use of the term, not referring to people, but referring to the settlement process,” Johnson said in the AJT interview. “It just got way too close. It was inappropriate, ignorant, insensitive, and it offended and hurt a lot people. So my apologies — can’t extend them enough to the people who are my friends.”
His view of the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was influenced by a May trip with four other members of Congress sponsored by the Humpty Dumpty Institute. Johnson said the lawmakers spent no time in Israel and were denied permission to tour Gaza, so they heard only the perspective of West Bank Palestinians such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat.
“They were showing it to us from their viewpoint,” Johnson said, so the delegation didn’t talk about the lone-wolf terrorist attacks that have killed 40 Israelis and injured more than 500 the past 11 months. “We did get insight about how Palestinian young people are being killed by Israeli security forces and settlers, and in their view, these are wholly unjustified killings that occur regularly, with frequency and with impunity. I will say that nothing justifies violence, and I’m a man of peace myself, so I don’t support the use of violence by Palestinians or by Israelis against Palestinians which is unjustified.”
In Philadelphia, Johnson seemed to blame Israeli oppression of the Palestinians for global terrorism, and in the interview he said the lack of a Palestinian state is a “driving force for much of the violence that we see emanating from that region.”
“I’m not trying to blame terrorism on the lack of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he later clarified. “I did not intend to convey that impression or that suggestion. But it’s clear that the growth of terrorism is aided and abetted by the frustration born out of the establishment of the state of Israel and the failure to solve the issue of a Palestinian state.”
Johnson again raised concerns about Israeli training for American police and a possible connection between the militarization of U.S. police forces and the Israeli approach toward maintaining control over Palestinians in the West Bank. But he acknowledged a need to learn about the Israeli training.
His outreach to Jewish organizations and individuals to make apologies also has given him a chance at education.
When he met with American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta Chapter on Tuesday, Aug. 2, AJC Atlanta Regional Director Dov Wilker put the “termites” comment in the context of the three types of anti-Semitism current in Europe — from right-wing nationalists, Muslim extremists and far-left activists.
“There’s definitely progress and understanding. I think he will be much more careful about the language that he uses,” Wilker said, although he doesn’t expect Johnson’s opinion of the settlements to change.
Look for much more from this interview in the Aug. 12 AJT.