Georgia Democrat compares Israeli settlers to burrowing termites

Rep. Hank Johnson apologizes for ‘poor choice of words’ after ADL pans his ‘offensive, unhelpful’ comments

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Rep. Hank Johnson speaks at Georgia Piedmont Technical College in Clarkston, GA, in February 2016. (Courtesy)
Rep. Hank Johnson speaks at Georgia Piedmont Technical College in Clarkston, GA, in February 2016. (Courtesy)

PHILADELPHIA — As a contentious convention got underway under stormy skies in Philadelphia, a prominent Georgia Democrat came under fire Monday for seeming to compare Israeli settlers to termites during an event supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement held on the convention’s sidelines.

Speaking at an event sponsored by the pro-BDS organization US Campaign to end the Israeli Occupation, Johnson complained that “there has been a steady [stream], almost like termites can get into a residence and eat before you know that you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself, there has been settlement activity that has marched forward with impunity and at an ever increasing rate to the point where it has become alarming.”

Johnson’s comments were initially reported in the right-wing Washington Free Beacon, and the Georgia congressman has not challenged their accuracy, although his office did challenge the original report’s headline that the legislator had called Israelis termites.

“It has come to the point that occupation, with highways that cut through Palestinian land, with walls that go up, with the inability or the restriction, with the illegality of Palestinians being able to travel on those roads and those roads cutting off Palestinian neighborhoods from each other,” Johnson continued during his Monday morning comments. “And then with the building of walls and the building of checkpoints that restrict movement of Palestinians. We’ve gotten to the point where the thought of a Palestinian homeland gets further and further removed from reality.”

The Anti-Defamation League called Johnson’s comments “offensive and unhelpful” and asked the lawmaker to retract his remarks. “Demonization, dehumanization of settlers doesn’t advance peace,” the organization tweeted.

Johnson later apologized for his remarks, saying they were a “poor choice of words.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition asked how long it would take for Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party to officially denounce Johnson.

Johnson is also listed on J Street’s website, which allows readers to donate to his re-election campaign. According to the organization, Johnson has traveled both to Israel and to the Palestinian territories, and “is a strong supporter of J Street’s mission.”

The Anti-Defamation League described Johnson’s comments as “an offensive and unhelpful characterization.”

In a tweet directed at the congressman, the organization chided that “demonization, dehumanization of settlers doesn’t advance peace.”

Johnson responded directly to the organization, also using the social media platform to say that the comment reflected a “poor choice of words.”

“Apologies for offense,” continued the legislator who represents Atlanta suburbs in DeKalb County. “Point is settlement activity continues (to) slowly undermine 2-state solution.”

In addition to challenging the original headline in a statement to Johnson’s local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the congressman’s office emphasized that “Congressman Johnson did not call Israelis termites but did say the settlement policies threaten peace and the two-state solution.”

“Congressman Johnson did not intend to insult or speak derogatorily of the Israelis or the Jewish people,” the statement continued. “When using the metaphor of termites, the Congressman was referring to the corrosive process, not the people.”

A file photo from 2006 shows Cynthia McKinney speaking to the press. (Wikimedia)
A file photo from 2006 shows Cynthia McKinney speaking to the press. (Wikimedia)

Ironically, Johnson was elected to replace former representative Cynthia McKinney who garnered headlines over the weekend when she claimed on Twitter that an Israeli photographer had been on hand for massacres in Nice and Munich, proving in her mind that Israel had a hand in both attacks.

McKinney, a former Democrat now affiliated with the Green Party, posted a conspiracy theory video on Twitter, adding her comment: “Same Israeli photographer captures Nice and Munich tragedies. How likely is that? Remember the Dancing Israelis?…”

“Dancing Israelis” refers to a widely discredited conspiracy theory that five Israeli men were arrested in New Jersey on September 11, 2001, after being seen celebrating the terror attack.

This was not the former Georgia representative’s first brush with complaints of anti-Semitism. McKinney, who served from 1992 to 2002, was defeated in the 2002 Democratic primary day after her father appeared on TV saying “Jews have bought everybody … J-E-W-S.”

Johnson’s comments came at a convention in which Palestinian claims have sprung to the forefront of the fractious politics of the left-leaning party. Yellow stickers proclaiming support for Palestinian rights were distributed at the entrance to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ afternoon address to his delegates.

Later in the day, activists unfurled Palestinian flags on the convention’s main floor when delegates participated in a voice vote to approve the party’s platform.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a prominent feature of the platform drafting debate, with Sanders representatives pushing for — but failing to secure — stronger language decrying Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian land.

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