In a July 25, 2016 speech, a member of Congress, Hank Johnson (D-Ga), said Israelis living in the West Bank were “almost like termites.” Johnson’s remarks were delivered at an event sponsored by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a leading organization in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS falsely maligns and seeks to delegitimize Israel. The congressman’s comments were reported by very few major U.S. news outlets.
Adam Kredo, a reporter with the D.C.-based online paper The Washington Free Beacon, noted Johnson’s remarks about Israelis living in Jewish communities in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem:
“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.”
Most major U.S. news media failed to report Rep. Johnson’s comparison of Israelis to insect pests. A Lexis-Nexis search of The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and The Baltimore Sun showed no mention of the speech. Similarly, Politico and Roll Call—both Washington D.C.-based newspapers that focus on the U.S. Congress and politics—failed to provide coverage.
By contrast, The Washington Times (“Rep. Hank Johnson apologizes for comparing West Bank settlements to termites,” July 26, 2016), The Hill (“Dem rep: Israeli settlers are like termites,” July 25, 2016) and The New York Post (Congressman likens Israeli settlers to termites,” July 26) reported Johnson’s remarks at the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation event.
Shortly after The Washington Free Beacon reported Johnson’s remark, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), via social media platform Twitter, called on him to “apologize and retract this offensive unhelpful characterization.” Johnson’s office responded that it was a “poor choice of words—apologies for offense. Point is settlement activity continues slowly undermine 2-state solution.”
ADL replied: “We appreciate Hank Johnson’s clarification here.” Twenty hours after accepting Johnson’s “clarification,” ADL Director Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted, “Yes there was apology but no ‘point’ justifies referring to human beings in such an abhorrent, inappropriate manner.”
Johnson’s office released a statement, noted by the American Jewish Committee, saying: “The article (Free Beacon) headline is wrong. 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. When using the metaphor of termites, the Congressman was referring to the corrosive process, not the people.”
Johnson previously has been endorsed by J-Street, a self-defined “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group, whose frequently one-sided criticisms of Israel CAMERA has detailed (see, for example “Washington Post Errs on J Street, April 26, 2016). Johnson’s page on J-Street’s Web site provides a link so one can make a donation to J-Street PAC, a political action committee that—in the organization’s own words—“primarily helps members elect candidates who reflect our values…”
J Street did not publically call for or specifically condemn Johnson’s remarks after they were first made public. Instead, it “welcomed” the “clarification of his remarks.” In a small online blog that was not, as of this writing, shared via social media, the organization stated that “there was no place in discussions of this highly-charged issue for personal insults or slurs against whole groups of people including settlers in the West Bank.” But the majority of the post was spent decrying the Washington Free Beacon’s reporting.
In any case, Congressman Johnson’s “termite” remark fit views of the host for the speech.
Josh Ruebner, the National Advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, regularly writes misleading anti-Israel commentary in major U.S. news outlets. On February 12, 2016—after CAMERA critiqued one such fact-free missive in The Hill—Ruebner responded not with counterargument but with conspiracy theory by claiming, without evidence, that CAMERA was “working behind the scenes to pressure The Hill to not publish me.”
The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation may do more than give speakers like Rep. Johnson a platform.
Steve Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), a Washington D.C.-based organization that monitors extremist groups, has noted connections between organizations advocating BDS and terrorism. In an Op-Ed in The Algemeiner (“American Palestinian Group Has Strong Ties to Hamas,” June 29, 2015), Emerson said that one pro-BDS group, American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), has had “at least five…officials and speakers who worked in the previous, defunct network called the ‘Palestine Committee.’ It was created by the Muslim Brotherhood to advance Hamas’ agenda politically and financially in the United States.” Emerson pointed out that AMP’s National Media and Communications Director, Kristen Szremski, stated in April 2015 that the organization would be opening a Washington D.C. office to “work with legislative staff in Congress” to advance BDS. Szremski named the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation as a partner in this effort.
Antisemitic conspiratorial claims, including comparing Jews to germs, vermin or other animals, are symptoms detailed in historian Robert Wistrich’s 1991 book entitled The Longest Hatred: Antisemitism. Louis Brandeis, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice and American Zionist leader, once remarked that “publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Yet, sunlight—in the form of media coverage—generally was lacking when it came to Johnson’s remarks.