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Kamala Harris’ office doing clean-up after exchange with student on Israel

By Jasmine Wright and Jeremy Diamond, CNN

Vice President Kamala Harris’s office is trying to contain the fallout from an exchange earlier this week between the vice president and a student who characterized Israel’s actions toward Palestinians as “an ethnic genocide and a displacement of people.”

While visiting a political science class at George Mason University on Tuesday to honor national voter registration day, Harris took questions from three students, including one who brought up the nation’s funding of Israel in a lengthy question.

“You brought up how the power of the people and demonstrations and organizing is very valuable in America. I see that over the summer, there have been, like, protests and demonstrations and astronomical numbers done with Palestine, but then just a few days ago there were funds allocated to continue backing Israel, which hurts my heart because it’s an ethnic genocide and a displacement of people — the same that happened in America and I’m sure you’re aware of this,” the student said in part of her question, saying that the funding occurs as Americans suffer at home.

“And I feel like there’s a lack of listening, and I just feel like I need to bring that up because it affects my life and people I really care about’s life …,” the student added.

Harris, whose husband — second gentleman Doug Emhoff — is Jewish, responded, “I’m glad you did.”

“And again, this is about the fact that your voice, your perspective, your experience, your truth cannot be suppressed, and it must be heard. … Our goal should be unity, but not uniformity,” Harris said. “And the point that you’re making about policies that relates to Middle East policy, foreign policy. We still have healthy debates in our country, about what is the right path. And nobody’s voice should be suppressed on that.”

The lack of push back from Harris to the student while taking questions during the visit has become the latest hiccup for her office that faced a turbulent summer, fueled in part by messaging mishaps. This latest communication mishap comes on a particularly fraught topic as progressives and other activists have been putting pressure on Democrats to take a more critical stance toward Israel, which has long enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington.

After that exchange, Harris’ senior staff has been reaching out to the heads of several leading pro-Israel organizations, per a source familiar with Harris’ office.

Her team began reaching out to the heads of several leading Jewish organizations after those leaders reached out to the White House to express their concerns, two people with direct knowledge of the conversations said. Harris’ deputy national security adviser Phil Gordon and Herbie Ziskend, the vice president’s deputy communications director, led the outreach, the sources said, making clear that Harris’s silence did not equate agreement with the students’ claims of “ethnic genocide.”

“There’s a recognition that the impression left by her failure to correct the student is problematic and does not reflect her commitment to a strong US-Israel relationship, nor that of the President and the Administration,” William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told CNN.

Harris’ team reached out to the heads of at least three organizations: the Democratic Majority for Israel, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League.

“This was touching base with her friends and allies and supporters who know that she’s very strong in her commitment to defending Israel and defending Israel security,” the source familiar with Harris’ added.

In a statement, Harris’ spokeswoman Symone Sanders said, “The vice president strongly disagrees with the student’s characterization of Israel.”

“Throughout her career, the Vice President has been unwavering in her commitment to Israel and to Israel’s security. While visiting George Mason University to discuss voting rights, a student voiced a personal opinion during a political science class,” Sanders said.

Harris’ office, handled in part by her communications team, has taken a deliberate stance in trying to clean up this latest issue. An additional source familiar with Harris’ office’s outreach told CNN the vice president’s team distributed facts on her record on Israel in her defense to allies, emphasizing her unwavering commitment to Israel.

“We know Vice President Harris and we know her record on Israel has been consistent and unwavering. At no time did we doubt her support of Israel. We wanted additional context to understand what occurred,” Halie Soifer, CEO of Jewish Democratic Council of America and former national security adviser to Harris in her Senate office, told CNN.

Harris office was in touch with Soifer’s group as well others. The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League on Thursday said he had spoken with Harris’ office after the vice president’s interaction.

“Just spoke with @VP office. Glad to hear her confirm she is proud of her record supporting #Israel, and knows claim it is committing ‘ethnic genocide’ is patently false,” Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted Thursday. “Looking fwd to a clearing of the record so there’s no ambiguity that what that student said was hateful/wrong.”

In a statement to CNN, Greenblatt added, “Making accusations of Israel committing genocide — an incendiary claim that is patently and demonstrably untrue — needs to be called out because it’s that demonization that has led to violence as we saw in the United States earlier this year,” referencing attacks on Jews in US streets in May.

Mark Mellman, President of the influential Democratic Majority for Israel, said Thursday he had also spoken with Harris’ senior staff.

“We were pleased Vice President Harris’s senior staff reached out to us today to confirm what we already knew: Her ‘commitment to Israel’s security is unwavering,’ and she ‘strongly disagrees with the George Mason student’s characterization of Israel,'” Mellman wrote in a statement. “The Biden-Harris Administration, as well as President Biden and Vice President Harris personally, have exemplary pro-Israel records, for which we are immensely grateful.”

The House last week easily approved $1 billion in funding for Israel’s Iron Dome Aerial Defense System, advancing the bill to the Senate for consideration with just eight Democrats and one Republican voting against the measure, and two voting “present.”

The aerial defense system, which has for years been heavily sponsored by the United States, is designed to intercept rockets midair — by targeting them and firing interceptor missiles to destroy them — before they can kill civilians living in Israel. This week’s legislation specifically would provide funding to replace missile interceptors that were used during heavy fighting with Hamas in May.

Last spring, a number of congressional Democrats ramped up pressure on the Biden administration to more forcefully engage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as violence in the region intensified. “It’s time to have serious conversations about conditioning military aid,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, said at the time.

This story and its headline have been updated with additional reporting.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Halie Soifer’s name.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Rachel Janfaza and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.

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