Congressman Hank Johnson apologized Monday, July 25, after seeming to call Israelis settling the West Bank “termites.”
Speaking in Philadelphia that day at a roundtable discussion called “Progressive for Palestine: Is the US Ready to Rethink Policy on Israel?” Johnson criticized Israeli seizures of Palestinian land since 1948. He said the expanding occupation is “like termites that can get into a residence and eat it up before you know you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself.”
As word of the Lithonia Democrat’s comments spread, including a Washington Free Beacon report headlined “Congressman: Jewish Settlers Are Like Termites,” the Anti-Defamation League tweeted: “This is an offensive and unhelpful characterization. Demonization, dehumanization of settlers doesn’t advance peace.”
Johnson’s office issued a statement calling the Free Beacon headline wrong and explaining that in comparing settlements to termite colonies, he “was referring to the corrosive process, not the people.”
The ADL later acknowledged the 4th District congressman’s tweeted apology for his “poor choice of words.”
“Corrosive settlement policies undermine the ability of all citizens in the region to enjoy healthy, peaceful lives in safe communities. We must work to promote policies that support a two-state solution and encourage trust between both sides,” Johnson said in the statement clarifying his remarks.
But the focus on one word overshadowed 35 minutes of anti-Israel comments by Johnson to an anti-Israel crowd of more than 50 people at an anti-Israel event sponsored by two organizations that promote the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement: the American Friends Service Committee and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
“He’s clearly missing the point about the importance of a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians,” American Jewish Committee Atlanta Regional Director Dov Wilker said.
Wilker noted Johnson never attributed any responsibility to the Palestinians, never mentioned incitement by the Palestinian Authority leadership and never spoke against terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.
The event, held in connection with the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, came less than two days after the woman Johnson replaced in the House, Cynthia McKinney, added to her record of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments by posting a video on Twitter implying that Israel was behind the recent terrorist attacks in Nice, France, and Munich, Germany.
It was anger at McKinney that led many in the Jewish community to line up behind Johnson in his surprise election victory in 2006. In an interview with the AJT during the campaign, Johnson said he ran because of his frustration at McKinney’s job performance and the way other members of the Congressional Black Caucus treated her as a joke.
Johnson is running for a sixth term in November against Republican Victor Armendariz.
As recently as five years ago, Johnson issued a statement backing U.S. efforts to facilitate a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement, demanding that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist and rejecting any unilateral Palestinian effort to seek statehood through the United Nations.
But Johnson was one of 19 members of the House who signed a letter in June 2015 criticizing Israeli military abuse of Palestinian children and, without any comment on Palestinian terrorism, urging Secretary of State John Kerry to make the human rights of Palestinian children a priority issue.
In February, Johnson wrote a letter to Kerry, signed by 10 congressional colleagues, seeking an investigation into whether possible rights abuses by Israel and Egypt justified cutting off aid to their security forces.
The moderator of Monday’s discussion, Josh Ruebner, called Johnson a leader in fighting for Palestinian rights and writing letters criticizing Israel, and nothing the congressman said contradicted that portrayal.
He said he was “in Palestine” for four or five days in May, a trip he took with other congressmen, for the first time since 2013, spending time in Israel only to fly in and fly out. His office said he tried to visit Gaza during the May trip and previously traveled to Israel with AIPAC and J Street, whose political action committee is supporting him for re-election. J Street welcomed Johnson’s apology Monday and criticized the sensationalized coverage by the Free Beacon.
“The difference and the tension and the sense of hopelessness among the people of Palestine and the lack of care and concern on behalf of the people of Israel has just gone up,” he said Monday about his spring visit compared with 2013. “You can feel it; you can see it.”
He accused Israeli settlers of snatching Palestinian homes and raising “Jewish flags” above them if they’re left vacant for even one night.
He compared Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to Donald Trump in the most right-wing Israeli government ever.
He blamed Israeli training for turning U.S. police into a militaristic occupation force.
And he indicted Israel for all the Islamist terrorism against the United States and its allies: “Why is it that we here in America continue to proceed down this path which has caused so many people around the world, particularly in the Middle East, to turn against us, and how can we exclude the possibility that all of the terrorism that is directed at us has its genesis in the failure to treat this situation in the way that humanity would demand that we do?”