This past Saturday morning, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s junior senator, held her first Town Hall of the Congressional Summer recess at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. She reported briefly on what is happening in Washington, particularly on health care, expressed her support for a single-payer health system, and then answered questions.
Gillibrand was, at last count, one of 14 Democratic and 31 Republican Senatorial sponsors of the AIPAC-generated Anti-Israel Boycott Act, which would penalize, and in some cases criminalize, individual and corporate advocacy in support of boycotts of Israel for its violation of Palestinian rights, including its occupation of, and expansion of settlements in, the West Bank.
The bill has reportedly been around since March in stealth mode, its proponents garnering 45 co-sponsoring Senators and an absolute majority of 234 co-sponsors in the House, 63 Democrats and 174 Republicans. When the Intercept sounded the alarm last week, the Westchester chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (“JVP”) called Gillibrand’s office and, hearing of the coming Town Hall, mobilized on short notice to appear there, joined by WESPAC (the Westchester Peace Action Coalition), Adalah-NY and Jews Say No!
In order to go to a Gillibrand Town Hall, one must RSVP. She also uses a lottery system for questions. Each cost-free ticket has a numbered stub which is detached and surrendered when checking in if one wishes to ask a question. All stubs go into one big bowl. Those whose numbers are selected then go to microphones in the aisles. Gillibrand estimated the crowd in the Hostos auditorium at 600. There were only about 12-15 questions asked in the 45 minutes allotted to questions, so the chances of being selected were not large for those in attendance interested in asking Sen. Gillibrand why a good progressive like her wanted to jail those exercising their constitutional right to political boycott.
Arriving early, Steve Siegelbaum of JVP had a chance to engage others in surrounding seats on the issue. When one of those sitting behind Siegelbaum won the right to ask one of the first questions, he tapped Siegelbaum on the shoulder and handed him his ticket, saying “I like what you had to say just now.” Siegelbaum made the most of his opportunity. His statement and Gillibrand’s response is transcribed below.
My name is Steve Siegelbaum, with Jewish Voice for Peace. I’m one who lost a distant relative in the Holocaust. Lost is a euphemism for murdered. And I find it ironic, hearing from your colleague Charles Schumer that opposition to current Israel policies is considered anti-Semitic. I find it insulting. (Applause.) I was brought up to respect the rights of all people, and under current Israeli policy that is not happening with Palestinians. Your support for this Senate Bill 720 is an affront to me and the memory of my relatives. It is clearly, clearly reminiscent of McCarthyism and it is clearly unconstitutional. (Applause.)
And given your fine record on so many issues, on one of which you just stated your support for single payer health care, I am surprised and disappointed that you would be supportive of S 720. And I urge you, and think I’m backed by many people here APPLAUSE I urge you to not only not support such a bill, but to come out in opposition to it, and to urge your colleagues to do the same. This is not what I as a Jew wish for, it is not what the world needs. What we need is support for the rights of the Palestinian people, peace for Palestine, peace in Israel. (Applause.)
Thank you for sharing your story and your perspective. And I agree with you. The way I read the bill is not the way you read the bill. I saw the bill as an extension of foreign policy to not allow companies to side with foreign entities that were doing boycotts. I support everyone’s right to free speech, I would never do anything to undermine people’s rights to free speech, but I do see how this issue is seriously being debated, and I have asked the ACLU to come meet with me. I am open to looking at it again because I do not want to undermine people’s free speech rights on any level.
I share your concerns about the government of Israel. I am concerned that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not have a plan for peace, and doesn’t have a vision for peace. It was clear to me when I took a delegation of Senators about a year ago to Israel. We went to Israel, we went to Vienna, to meet with the IAEA to see how the Iran deal was being implemented. We went to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. And in our meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the question we asked is, what is your vision for peace, and he didn’t have one. He just said my only hope is that I protect my people from rockets. If you don’t have a vision, if you don’t have a plan, then it is never going to happen. And so we do need to require more of our world leaders, and I think a call to action to Israel’s government to have a plan for peace is really incumbent on all of us.
Gillibrand’s explicit commitment to look at the bill again and not to support it if it would “undermine people’s free speech rights on any level” – which it clearly does – was welcome. But whether it survives the political pressure from AIPAC and her wealthy Israel-right-or-wrong donors to toe the line on support for Israel and its current campaign to demonize BDS supporters, only time will tell.
She may have been surprised by the fact that two other constituents came to the microphone and deplored the bill and its attack on the First Amendment. Neither one was part of our contingent or known to us. Again, both times, the audience erupted in applause and cheers, without a boo or other suggestion of dissent from the audience. That 20 or 25 percent of her questions, drawn at random, evidenced support for the right to boycott Israel may be another sign that American public opinion, and American Jewish public opinion, on Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians may be changing.
“After the event, when I thanked the man behind me for giving up his right to speak,” Siegelbaum said, “he said he was from Cuba and that his wife is Palestinian, so what I said resonated with what he already knew of the situation. And there have been over 53,000 views of the video on Facebook, with almost 100% favorable comments, including from Jews (and others) in France, and from England, South Africa, and elsewhere.”
As Rebecca Traister said of Gillibrand in New York Magazine earlier this year, “[O]ne of her strengths, sometimes mistaken for a hollow willingness to shape-shift, is her nose for where her constituents, and the country, are headed. Through some combination of happenstance and remarkable political instincts, she often manages to show up there early.”
When Gillibrand represented her upstate district in the House of Representatives, she had an A rating from the National Rifle Association (“NRA”). That changed when she was appointed to the Senate to replace Hillary Clinton. And at her Town Hall Saturday, she told one woman who confessed her despair about gun control that the NRA had a “stranglehold” on the Congress, but that sensible gun control measures were a necessity that would come to pass if she and others kept pressuring for change.
As she posed for pictures with constituents on her way out, I mentioned to her that there is another lobby in Washington with a stranglehold on Congress. With a smile, she asked, “Which one is that?” AIPAC, I said. “I agree,” she replied.