Israel’s Herzog says criticism of Israel must not drift into antisemitism

By Patricia Zengerle, Rami Ayyub and Josephine Walker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Israeli President Isaac Herzog told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday he welcomed criticism, especially from American friends, but said it must not cross the line into negation of Israel’s right to exist. That, he said, was antisemitism.

Herzog, whose position is largely ceremonial, spoke to a chamber packed with members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, despite the absence of a handful of progressive Democrats who announced they would boycott over issues including the treatment of Palestinians by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Herzog spoke a day after a White House meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at which the two leaders stressed their countries’ close ties despite tensions with Netanyahu’s right-wing government.

“I’m not oblivious to criticism among friends, including some expressed by respected members of this House. I respect criticism, especially from friends, although one does not always have to accept it,” Herzog told the joint meeting in a speech greeted with several standing ovations.

“But criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the state of Israel’s right to exist. Questioning the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is not legitimate diplomacy, it is antisemitism.”

The House passed a resolution by an overwhelming 412 to 9 vote on Tuesday expressing support for Israel and saying it was not a racist state. The nine were Democrats, and a 10th voted present.

The vote followed an uproar over remarks by Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal, who leads a large group of progressives in Congress, for saying that Israel is a racist state. She apologized on Sunday.

U.S.-Israeli ties have been strained over Israeli settlement expansion on the occupied West Bank and what Washington sees as dimming prospects for a two-state solution to relations with the Palestinians as well as a judicial overhaul.

The proposed overhaul, which has drawn street protests across Israel from critics who decry it as anti-democratic, included curbs on the Supreme Court’s authority while granting the government decisive powers in appointing judges.

Herzog vowed to work toward a consensus on the difficult issue, calling the protests a reflection of the strength of Israeli democracy.

“As a nation, we must find a way to talk to each other, no matter how long it takes. As head of state, I will continue doing everything to reach broad public consensus and to preserve, protect, and defend the state of Israel’s democracy,” he said.


Herzog followed his father, Chaim Herzog, who as president in 1987 was accorded the same honor of addressing a joint meeting of the U.S. House and Senate, one of the highest marks of esteem Washington affords foreign dignitaries.

The invitation was extended to Herzog by the leaders of Congress last year to mark the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding.

Herzog acknowledged the presence of Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of former U.S. President Harry Truman, who met with Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog, Herzog’s grandfather, at the White House in 1949 after Truman became the first world leader to officially recognize Israel.

Herzog met later on Wednesday with Vice President Kamala Harris. The two announced a joint five-year, $70 million initiative to support climate-smart agriculture to improve the use of critical water resources in the Middle East and Africa.

Herzog thanked Harris’ husband Doug Emhoff for his “valiant efforts to combat antisemitism and hatred of all forms.”

On Monday, Biden invited Netanyahu to the United States for an official visit later this year.

Biden had held off extending the invitation out of concern over Jewish settlements and the planned judicial overhaul. Israelis have protested the plan for months, including on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Don Durfee, Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)