There is not much to celebrate taking place on Capitol Hill these days.
Nearly two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, US advocates for Palestinian rights may be rightly discouraged from believing that any progress can be made to change the status quo of unconditional support for Israeli government policies and actions. Many issues of concern – the status of Jerusalem (and relocation of the US embassy), the rights of refugees, the blockade of Gaza and the expansion of Israeli settlements – continue to undermine any prospects for a just peace.
We continue to see progressive elected members of Congress and candidates for office shy away from criticizing US policies when it comes to Israel.
US aid to Israel continues to gain widespread Congressional support without any concern for the well-documented human rights violations committed by the Israeli military. State and federal laws have been introduced against the right to nonviolently protest the occupation of Palestine through boycotts and divestment.
But not everyone in Congress is staying silent.
Perhaps the most vocal champion of Palestinian rights in the US House of Representatives is Betty McCollum, elected to Congress since 2000 from St. Paul, Minnesota. Since 2015, she has led efforts in Congress to address the rights of Palestinian children living under Israeli military occupation.
“As an American and as a mother, I don’t think it’s a particularly controversial or a statement of moral courage to condemn a government that systematically arrests and abuses children,” McCollum said recently at a conference for Palestinian rights held in Minnesota.
“And, as a member of Congress, I don’t believe it should be a statement of political courage to say the US government should not spend $1 of our taxpayer funds supporting a brutal military detention system that abuses children. Now, in Congress you would think that makes common sense but yet this is not the case when it comes to protecting Palestinian children.”
McCollum also addressed the nation-state law recently passed by Israel, stating, “Friends, the world has a name for the form of government that is codified in the nation-state law – it is called apartheid.”
Actions make a difference
How did McCollum become so outspoken, even using a term such as “apartheid” to describe Israeli law? Why is she willing to be courageous on the issue of Palestinian rights given the dynamics in Washington, DC?
In her speech in Minnesota, she provided important lessons for those interested in effective advocacy.
Early in her remarks she highlighted the impact of constituent engagement.
“My constituents here in Minnesota’s Fourth District who send me to Congress, they expect me to fight for progressive values, human rights and policies that respect and elevate our shared human dignity,” she said.
“I am representative, a reflection of the people who elect me. So my work to promote peace, attack poverty, defend the rights of children and stand in solidarity with the oppressed, including the Palestinian people, is because I have the support of my wonderful constituents.”
While it may often seem pointless to call members of Congress, send emails, attend town hall meetings, and go on lobby visits in Washington, McCollum reminds advocates that these small actions can make a difference and are counted when officials make decisions.
Building alliances with other communities on shared interests, such as the welfare of children, and mobilizing together can have even greater impact than individual efforts. As McCollum began her advocacy for Palestinian children, local groups joined together in the Twin Cities to support her – and helped to keep the phone calls and letters supporting her work coming over these past few years.
Silence is never progressive
In Chicago earlier this year, several groups – led by the American Friends Service Committee, American Muslims for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace – organized a town hall meeting with Luis Gutierrez, another member of Congress. The meeting was called to thank Gutierrez for signing onto the bill initiated by McCollum.
“We cannot continue to call ourselves progressive … and profess to be dedicated to peace in the Middle East … if when Palestinian children are arrested, jailed and even tortured we say nothing,” Gutierrez said at the town hall gathering. He compared his own feelings as a grandfather wanting to protect his grandson growing up in Chicago to how difficult it is for parents of Palestinian children who have no rights or ability to protect their children under occupation.
Gutierrez was emboldened to speak out due to a visit to Palestine and experiences his daughter had while studying in the country. While Congressional delegations to Israel are well-funded and seemingly a right of passage for all members lawmakers, far fewer members of Congress go to the region to examine the impact of US policies on Palestinians living under occupation.
The example of Gutierrez highlights the value in organizing more opportunities for visits to the region for members of Congress, or at least providing them an itinerary to visit Palestinian organizations should they make such a trip – and following up when they return home.
Many of the supporters of HR 4391 come from districts where Palestinian rights advocates have been working for years to inform the public and their officials on the impact of unconditional diplomatic support and military aid to Israel.
Education and direct engagement with those most affected by injustice are essential in getting members to speak out.
McCollum’s views on the nation-state law were informed by her meeting with Aida Touma-Sliman, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
McCollum told the St. Paul crowd: “Aida is fighting Israel’s recently passed nation-state law which codifies separate and unequal. This is a standard of racism America rejects and outlawed more than 50 years ago.”
She added: “As Aida has written and told me, rather than working equally for the benefit of all citizens, irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity, or national affiliation, Israel will now promote the development of exclusive Jewish communities. Aida inspired me with her courage and determination.”
In recent years, many groups active on Palestinian rights have organized briefings and visits to Capitol Hill to deliver first-hand accounts and analysis to Congressional staff. Over the past few weeks, the Haifa-based Mossawa Center has toured the US, bringing with it the perspective of Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“We are often invisible in the conversations about the prospects for peace,” said Jafar Farah, Mossawa’s director, to an audience in Chicago. “We want to be members of a progressive front, cooperating together to gain our rights.”
In this moment there may be little political energy or interest beyond changing the balance of power in Congress on election day this November. But Palestinian rights activists should continue to prioritize campaigning for human rights in home districts and on Capitol Hill in the coming year – refining our advocacy skills and building our power to make change.
McCollum’s speech in Minnesota got activists on their feet, praising her courage for speaking up for Palestinian rights. May we continue the hard work of finding more members of Congress to follow her lead.
Jennifer Bing is director of the Palestine-Israel program for the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago and co-leader of the No Way to Treat a Child campaign.