Dwight Bullard, a progressive African American state senator representing Florida’s 39th district, is under attack from Israel lobby groups for visiting the Israeli-occupied West Bank in May on a delegation hosted by the Dream Defenders, a group that supports the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Unbowed, Bullard has told The Electronic Intifada that he witnessed “segregation and injustice” in Palestine.
Leading the attack against Bullard is the pro-Israel group Miami United Against BDS.
In a press release last week, it accused Bullard of meeting with “terrorists.”
“Bullard took a trip in May to territories under Palestinian control where he met with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an organization listed by the State Department since 1997 as a foreign terrorist organization,” the group stated.
The US and Israel consider virtually all Palestinian political factions and resistance organizations to be “terrorist” groups.
A desperate smear
Pro-Israel groups are pointing to photos posted to social media during the trip as proof that Bullard met with the PFLP.
In the photo at the top of this article, originally posted to the Dream Defenders’ Instagram account, the delegation is seen posing for the camera in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem with Mahmoud Jiddah, identified in the caption as their tour guide.
Jiddah is an African Palestinian who was a member of the PFLP in the 1960s. He was arrested with his brother and cousin in 1968 and spent 17 years in Israeli prison, accused of planting bombs, before being released in a prisoner exchange.
Today Jiddah is a leader in the African Palestinian community and works as a tour guide in the Old City of Jerusalem.
He can be seen in this 2011 video produced by the Alternative Information Center, talking about his own life and the history of his community in Jerusalem.
“Meeting with the Afro-Palestinian community in East Jerusalem is a must for anyone seeking to understand the continued Palestinian struggle for liberation,” Ahmad Abuznaid from Dream Defenders told The Electronic Intifada.
“The Dream Defenders did not meet with the PFLP, but this attack on the senator shows the true desperation of the efforts to hold back our movement,” he added.
Speaking with The Electronic Intifada, Bullard also rejected the accusation that he met with terrorists.
“When they showed me the picture [of Jiddah], I was like, you mean the guy who gave us a tour of Old Jerusalem? He’s a tour guide,” said Bullard, laughing.
Pro-Israel groups are also outraged over Bullard’s meeting with Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights defender and a co-founder of the BDS movement, which Miami United Against BDS calls “anti-Semitic.”
Amnesty International, among other organizations, has expressed concern at Israel’s threats to retaliate against Barghouti for his political activities. In apparent fulfillment of those threats, Israel has effectively imposed a travel ban on him.
“It is unthinkable to accept that there is someone in the Florida legislature who is willing to meet openly with terrorist groups and other hateful organizations whose values are diametrically opposed to those of Floridians and all Americans. It is our duty to condemn this form of hate and defeat it,” Joe Zevuloni, an Israeli American businessman and founder of Miami United Against BDS, said in the press release.
Zevuloni did not return The Electronic Intifada’s calls seeking comment.
The only national group to throw its weight behind the protest so far is The Israel Project, a politically connected right-wing organization that specializes in feeding anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim propaganda to journalists and policy makers.
“Any Florida state legislator who would go to Israel and choose to meet with those groups, it’s more than troubling, it’s deeply disturbing,” Ken Bricker, The Israel Project’s Southeast regional director, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“I have to wonder if the constituents in his district [are] aware of who he is and what he believes in,” added Bricker.
Bullard was also attacked as a supporter of hatred by Uri Pilichowski, a West Bank settler.
“Floridians should know about Dwight Bullard’s associations with groups that seek the destruction of Israel and the Jewish People and call for Bullard to cut those ties,” Pilichowski wrote in The Times of Israel.
Picking the “wrong” side
Bullard told The Electronic Intifada that he went on the trip to “develop an understanding” of the Palestinian side that is often missing from the mainstream narrative. He added that he is willing to go on a trip hosted by a pro-Israel group as well, though he is unhappy with the reaction he has received from such groups since his return.
“Had I gone on an AIPAC trip or toured with the [Anti-Defamation League] there would be no outrage or Palestine group protesting outside my office,” argued Bullard, referring to two of the major national pro-Israel lobby groups. “It’s only a news story if you pick the wrong side.”
American lawmakers routinely travel to Israel on delegations hosted by Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC – it’s practically a requirement for politicians at the national level.
Bullard was especially frustrated by the demands from Israel’s supporters that he shut out constituents based on their political views.
“As a public servant I’ve meet with a number of groups that I fundamentally disagree with on 85 percent of issues but I still meet with them. I’m a strong pro-choice advocate but I meet with all the pro-life folks,” he said. “And we go all through it on why I can’t support their issues. I won’t close the door on them.”
Attacking Black leaders
The smear campaign against Bullard is just the latest fault line between pro-Israel groups and African American activists and leaders affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives.
Early this month, pro-Israel groups attempted to discipline MBL for expressing solidarity with Palestinians in its platform.
The Dream Defenders, which endorsed the MBL platform and whose members helped draft it, strongly denounced the reaction from Zionist groups.
After meeting with Palestinians who support BDS and seeing the repressive conditions they live under, Bullard has come to understand the boycott as part of their struggle for their civil rights.
“I think what people need to do is recognize why an African American would feel a sense of alignment with oppressed people,” said Bullard.
“It’s not just hearing about injustices happening to the Palestinian people. When you see it first hand, that’s a game changer,” he added.
“The fact that it was so in your face, you realize your own privilege even in circumstances related to race. We talk about driving while Black [in the US]. The idea that [in Palestine] you have to be carrying a particular ID in order to move freely within spaces in a place that you call home, that stuck with me,” he said.
Bullard was so disturbed by what he witnessed, he felt compelled to wear a kuffiyeh – a Palestinian checkered headscarf – at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month, “to show solidarity with Palestine,” he said.
A Jewish Telegraph Agency reporter noticed Bullard’s scarf and snapped a photo of him that was published with a story on Bullard’s trip to Palestine.
“There’s segregation and injustice going on over there,” said Bullard, “and in the words of Dr. King, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Bullied into voting against BDS
Florida is one of several states to have passed anti-BDS laws that bar state investment in, or business with, companies that boycott Israel.
The Florida law is especially draconian in that it makes no distinction between “Israel” and Israeli-occupied territories, effectively punishing even those who boycott goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which even the US recognizes are illegal under international law.
Bullard initially opposed the anti-BDS legislation, voting against it twice in subcommittee meetings because he viewed it as a violation of free speech that he said “screams un-American.”
However, Bullard told The Electronic Intifada he was ultimately “bullied” into voting for the law.
“It was the first time I felt pressured to vote in a particular way,” he recounted, adding, “there are probably three or four votes that I’ve taken in my tenure in the legislature that I’m very uncomfortable with having taken.” The anti-BDS vote “is easily in the top three,” he said.
Bullard served in Florida’s lower house from 2008, until he was elected to the senate in 2012.
Israel as a wedge issue
The Miami Herald endorsed Bullard early this week, indicating that the accusations have gained little traction.
In order to capitalize on this, Miami United Against BDS is organizing a protest outside Bullard’s office on 28 August, two days before the Democratic primary election for his senate seat in a redrawn district.
Bullard’s opponent is Andrew Korge, the son of a major donor to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Korge has tried to turn Bullard’s visit to Palestine into a wedge issue on at least one occasion, during a homeowner’s association meeting last month, according to Bullard.
Rejecting the insinuation that he’s anti-Semitic, Bullard said, “I’ve had a pretty solid relationship with Jewish groups. I’ve advocated for and represented Jewish causes, Holocaust memorial and education funding.”
But when it comes to showing support for Palestine, Bullard observed, “all of that easily gets forgotten.”