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Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and the silence of friends

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“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” –Martin Luther King

We know the most vociferous opponents of Palestinian freedom that walk the halls of Congress. Their words and actions are clearly supportive of the most brutal of Israeli actions against Palestinians, leaving no room for doubt of their racism and total disregard for human rights. They are the Bull Connors of our age. I wonder though if the greatest impediment to advancing new US policies that could help bring peace and justice to the Middle East come not from the Ros-Lehtinens and Chuck Schumers and Steny Hoyers of Congress, but from “friends” in Congress who sometimes say the right thing, but their actions often perpetuate a deadly status quo. 

Barbara Lee presents herself as an opponent of Israel’s continued military occupation of Palestinian lands. She has, after all, packaged herself as a “renegade for peace and justice”, the title of her autobiography. To that end, Lee has shown a willingness to not support some of the most egregious of AIPAC resolutions supporting Israeli oppression of Palestinians that come through congress on a regular basis, and on rare occasions even actively opposes them. When news reached Barbara Lee of the wounding of Tristan Anderson, her constituent, by the Israeli military, by all reports Lee was genuinely concerned for his recovery and wanted an investigation into this tragedy.

It seems, however, that political expediency often gets in the way. She has, to her credit, publicly called for a thorough investigation in Tristan’s case, but little has come of it. As the recent slaying of Jawaher Abu Rahmah has shown us, Israel has not changed its practice of reckless use of tear gas. It has been nearly two years since the wounding of Tristan Anderson, and Barbara Lee continues to play it safe for the most part, working, as she says, “behind the scenes”. Instead of aggressively going after the truth of what happen and showing a willingness to hold Israel accountable for its actions, she calls for support for the policies of President Obama, which are clearly a failure.

Obama’s muted criticisms of Israeli policies are accompanied by unprecedented generous rewards while Israel ignores these “concerns”. It is no wonder that Israel is then bulldozing Palestinian homes at a record pace, at the same time building and expanding settlements contrary to international law. Israel knows it will get all it wants from President Obama and congresspeople like Ros- Lehtinen and Lee.

This was made crystal clear to us when Barbara Lee supported Obama’s extra gift to Israel under the guise of “Iron Dome”, a program of dubious military value that meant an extra $200 million (for starters) from US taxpayers for the Israeli military, above and beyond the regular $3 billion annual subsidy. The vote last May was one of the rare times that military aid to Israel was standing alone, and not part of an overall foreign aid package. Barbara Lee refused to join progressives like Dennis Kucinich, John Conyers and Pete Stark in opposing this further subsidy to a state that refuses to end its military aggression against the Palestinian people. With this vote, she did not look like a renegade, but rather like a conformist supporting militarism and occupation, while we live at an “hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists”, as Martin Luther King said years ago. 

Lee is considered by many to be one of the most progressive voices in Washington. For her to then support military aid to Israel hurts our cause immensely. It helps perpetuate the myth that “There Is No Alternative” but to passively wait for Israel to change its policy. Lee’s policies (and Obama’s) are reminiscent of those who called for “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa. We know, however, that there is an alternative; namely a call for human rights, a call for the rule of international law, and the end of US military aid that supports an unjust system of oppression.

In the closing weeks of the last Congress, retiring Congressman Brian Baird of Olympia, Washington (He was Rachel Corrie’s Congressional representative) made a brief speech on the floor of the House decrying Israeli violence against civilians. He said “Let us call on Israel to stop killing children.” On February 10th, we will gather at the Oakland Federal Building that houses the offices of Barbara Lee, and we will pause to remember the slaying of Jawaher Abu Rahmah (with US-supplied tear gas) and so many women who have suffered so much as a direct result of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and denial of their basic rights. We too will call out, “Israel, Stop Killing Children” “Israel, Stop Killing Women.” “Israel, Stop Jailing Activists” and most importantly, we will call for an end to Congressional funding of a brutal military occupation, an occupation that Barbara Lee says she opposes.

We are looking forward to the day that Lee moves from carefully guarded words to actions that match her stated dedication to peace and justice. We invite Barbara Lee to join us on the 10th as an active partner in the struggle for freedom for Palestine.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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