The May 14 split screen of Israeli and U.S. elites toasting a symbolic embassy opening in Jerusalem while 62 unarmed Palestinian protesters were gunned down by Israeli snipers in Gaza or suffocated by tear gas became an international media meme.
In Sacramento, a third screen could have underlined the stark contrasts even more. At the Capitol, both houses passed resolutions (HR 107, SR 109) congratulating Israel on its anniversary, declaring in the fourth of 12 “Whereas” clauses:
“Israel has much to commemorate and celebrate, most notably that it has established, in its 70 years of existence, the most successful and politically stable democracy in a Middle East that continues to experience great turmoil.”
“Great turmoil” indeed. The toll of 120-plus dead and thousands shot, many with permanently disabling leg wounds and amputations, has been condemned as criminal by UN officials and the world’s major human rights organizations, including B’Tselem in Israel, which called on soldiers to refuse “flagrantly illegal” orders to shoot civilians. From personal experience in the Israeli army, my educated guess is that a significant number may have heeded that call and were sent away from the “front,” silenced by threats of court-martial if they spoke up. Or perhaps the snipers’ ranks were simply pre-purged of any who might have moral qualms. The recently disclosed video of two soldiers celebrating after a long-distance “hit” of a Palestinian who posed no threat whatsoever was jarring. Even more so was the military command’s response: Criticism of the video’s leak, not of the soldiers’ behavior.
Whatever the state of mind in the military, it’s dispiriting to hear from Israeli friends that for the most part, there is anything but “great turmoil” among Jews inside the country. Protests have been small, as most of the population has swallowed the absurd assertions that one of the strongest, most high-tech equipped militaries in the world had no choice but to open fire on what was mostly a peaceful, family-oriented encampment, with many of the victims shot hundreds of meters from fortified positions behind a triple fence that encages some 2 million; and that otherwise, the desperate Gazans would somehow have overrun Israel and slaughtered its population.
And how about that “successful and politically stable democracy” praised in the Capitol resolutions?
Only one state senator, Bill Monning of Monterey, dared to speak of the reality unfolding 10,000 miles away, decrying “the shooting of over 50 unarmed Palestinians at the wall, protesting a history in their view of discrimination, of occupation and a denial of human rights.” Indeed. How complicated should it be to understand that when one national-religious group rules over another that lacks all or most basic rights (depending on where they live), it can’t be called a democracy? In the hellhole that Gaza has become after 11 years of suffocating blockade, who can be surprised that well over 100,000 people, most of them the descendants of Palestinians expelled from their homes around Israel’s establishment in 1948, would march for their human right, unassailable under international law, to return? Fulfilment of that right may well be complicated by all that has happened since, but do they deserve to be shot for asking?
In the end even Monning voted for the resolution along with 57 of 59 senators; he said that his unease was not over what it actually said. But his surprisingly strong words about the Gaza massacre sparked a 25-minute floor discussion, unusual for such congratulatory measures. In between praising Israel and invoking the Holocaust, several senators at least challenged the wisdom of President Trump’s provocative embassy move, and evidenced some discomfort with the day’s juxtapositions. For this, it’s worth watching the video (find the May 14 “Floor Session,” starting at minute 12) of the “debate.” (Nausea alert: They made a whole party out of it, having the Israeli consul-general and a slew of Israel lobby people there on the floor as special guests.)
A Republican senator, John Moorlach of Orange County, had an interesting take in his speech supporting the resolution. At one point he referred to the ethnic cleansing/genocide of California’s native population and the internment of Japanese Americans. Was he alluding to the similar treatment of Palestinians? Well maybe, in fact. It could be that he’s less immersed in and driven by the mythology surrounding Israel’s creation and has a clearer view of reality than many Democrats. If so, he seemed to reconcile these crimes with support of Israel by implying that shit happens and we need to move on: “We live in a broken world,” he sighed. Interesting, though; perhaps it may lead someone, somewhere, to recognize the similarities and draw different conclusions.
One brave senator publicly abstained (one other was absent): Bob Wieckowski of Fremont (suburban Bay Area), in a short statement, cited the incongruity between the resolution’s praise for the fact that “Israel regularly sends humanitarian aid, search and rescue teams, mobile hospitals, and other emergency supplies to help victims of disasters around the world” and the ongoing, human-caused disaster in Gaza.
In the state Assembly, the nearly identical resolution passed without opposition, and 73 of 77 members (there are two vacancies and a suspension due to sexual harassment allegations) jumped on the co-sponsorship bandwagon when it came to the floor. More typically, there was no debate, but at least three members abstained out of discomfort – at least with the timing. (One disclosed this to me in a phone call. The others’ decisions were reported by staffers, but none was willing to speak publicly.)
Compared to such resolutions in the past, even minimal dissent felt satisfying. Well, better than nothing, anyway, but still a frustrating testament to the fear so many legislators clearly feel. It came on the heels of regular efforts by human rights advocates to oppose the drumbeat of legislation and resolutions pushed by Israel-aligned organizations in the Legislature, some of which have been more successful:
- While a Senate resolution “On anti-Semitism” was rushed through with no opportunity for public input in the closing days of the 2017 session, a similar one in the Assembly was delayed for a committee hearing, then dropped by its author after opponents noted that contained false and dangerous “facts” and included code indicating support for penalizing boycotts of Israel.
- California’s version of the wave of anti-boycott bills that coursed through statehouses in 2016 passed amid vehement opposition and only after being watered down to pretend it was about discrimination. There is nothing to enforce, but unsurprisingly, it is being cited, quite absurdly at times, in efforts to chill speech critical of Israel. And of course that was its real purpose.
In each of these instances, the introduction of shamefully anti-Palestinian legislation in California, win, lose or in between, provides opportunities to educate and build relationships with lawmakers, their staff and sometimes, media personnel. The same is true in other states and on the federal level. It’s a long haul, but in the process, support for Palestinian rights has become an inseparable part of the progressive agenda.
On May 15, a day after the embassy festival, Gaza massacre and Capitol pander, dozens of us stood broadcast our message to rush hour traffic a few blocks away at 16th and J streets in Sacramento, demanding an end to the killing and Palestinian freedom. The ratio of supportive honks and waves to hecklers was noticeably way up compared to past actions.
To me, the trajectory looks positive.