Rep. Ro Khanna speaks at a rally demanding that the Senate vote to reject Mike Pompeo's nomination for Secretary of State, April 11, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Tasos Katopodis-Getty for
Rep. Ro Khanna speaks at a rally demanding that the Senate vote to reject Mike Pompeo's nomination for Secretary of State, April 11, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Tasos Katopodis-Getty for

Bay Area Rep. Ro Khanna faces questions over statement about ‘burning down Palestinian villages’

Bay Area Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna clarified statements he made about Israel on Feb. 5 during an appearance on MSNBC.

Commenting on President Joe Biden’s foreign policy, Khanna told host Mehdi Hasan that Israel “can’t be burning down Palestinian villages. Human rights are going to matter. We’re going to have a human rights foreign policy.”

On Feb. 6, Times of Israel reporter Jacob Magid called out Khanna’s statements on Twitter. The congressman responded with his own tweet, saying “I should have clarified that I was referring to Israeli settlers who have burned Palestinian orchards and the military which has demolished or bulldozed villages. As someone who supports the US Israel relationship, surely we can agree both are wrong.” Khanna linked to an Associated Press story and a Reuters article about the matter.

According to data from B’Tselem, an Israeli nonprofit that tracks human rights violations, in 2020 Israel destroyed 153 housing units in the West Bank, including rural tents and shacks, and 121 in East Jerusalem. There is no evidence, from B’Tselem or elsewhere, of the Israeli government burning down Palestinian villages.

“Why say ‘demolishing’ when ‘burning down’ has a much better ring to it?” Magid said in a tweet to Khanna. Khanna’s office did not respond to a request for comment from J.

J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group based out of Washington, D.C., defended Khanna in a statement to J.

Spokesperson Logan Bayroff called Khanna “one of the most knowledgeable and principled congressional advocates for diplomacy” on Israel-related issues.

“The Congressman quickly clarified his recent comments, and the two practices he said he intended to reference — Israeli settlers burning Palestinian orchards and olive groves and the Israeli government’s demolition of Palestinian homes, schools and medical facilities — are grave violations of international law,” said Bayroff. “We’re grateful to Rep. Khanna for speaking out about actions like this that undermine American interests, Palestinian rights and Israel’s long term future.”

Khanna, whose district includes parts of Alameda and Santa Clara counties, was elected in 2017. He served in the Department of Commerce during Barack Obama’s presidency, and in 2019 was named co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.

Khanna has been sharply critical of the Netanyahu administration but has shown support for partnerships between the U.S. and Israel; he also supports a two-state solution. In 2018, he moderated a panel discussion in Sunnyvale that highlighted the relationship between Israel and Silicon Valley (though he sparred briefly with the Israeli consul general over actions taken by the Israeli prime minister).

A year later, Khanna was part of a large majority of House members who voted to condemn the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, saying he did not think it would lead to a two-state solution nor “the recognition of rights of Palestinians.” However, he does not support criminalizing BDS.

“The vast majority of the Democratic Party wants this relationship [between the U.S. and Israel] to continue to succeed,” Khanna said in an interview with J. in 2019. “[But] we want it to succeed on progressive values that bring peace and human rights.”

In the same interview, Khanna voiced concerns about Jewish college students facing backlash for their views on Israel.

“I’ve had students and their parents saying they’re uncomfortable about going to Hillel or being open about their faith,” he said at the time. “Just like I think we shouldn’t penalize boycotts, or speaking about Palestinian rights, we have to have equal respect for people who are practicing Jews or supportive of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.