Despite potential groundswell, Congress reluctant to recognize Palestinian rights

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Rep. Keith Ellison, left , outside of the briefing room in Rayburn House Office Building. (Photo: Sam Knight)
Rep. Keith Ellison, left , outside of the briefing room in Rayburn House Office Building. (Photo: Sam Knight)

If the polls are to be believed, the days of unconditional US support for Israel are numbered. Younger American voters are increasingly blaming the IDF for the wanton havoc it wreaks in occupied Palestine. Those who have, for years, considered Palestinians to be their equals are probably wondering what took so long for this oft ahead-of-the-curve cohort to arrive at a level of tepid criticism for Israel.

But Congress is lagging behind. With a zealous, unwavering love for Israeli military operations still pervasive on Capitol Hill, one prominent progressive representative told Palestinians’ advocates and allies that they mustn’t cease Congressional outreach.

“We have got to keep the pressure on,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said on Friday evening, at a gathering of solidarity activists. “Make sure this is a dialogue not a monologue,” he instructed.

The crowd had assembled at Busboys and Poets restaurant in Washington DC, near Chinatown, to hear a brief talk by Tariq Abu Khdeir, the 15 year-old Palestinian-American who was, last month, nearly fatally beaten in detention by Israeli policemen. Abu Khdeir’s lawyer Hassan Shibly, Palestinian-American human rights attorney Noura Erakat, Institute for Policy Studies director Phyllis Bennis, and anti-war activist Lt. Col. Ann Wright (Ret.) were among scheduled speakers alongside the owner of the local chain, Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-American restaurateur, activist and a former DC mayoral candidate. But Ellison’s appearance midway through the panel came as something of a surprise. He said that he was “incredibly honored and inspired by Tariq” and that the teenager’s plight made him think of his own adolescent son.

Rep. Keith Ellison addresses a crowd at Busboys & Poets in Washington DC (Photo: Sam Knight)
Rep. Keith Ellison addresses a crowd at Busboys & Poets in Washington DC (Photo: Sam Knight)

“I don’t know what I would do if I saw his face looking like that,” Rep. Ellison said – a reference to the images of Tariq’s published after his release from an Israeli jail.

Earlier Friday afternoon, in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, Ellison had been in the audience at a privately organized panel on Israeli abuses. Featured speakers were Abu Khdeir, his mother Suha, Shibly, Palestinian journalist Laila El-Haddad – despite the fact that eight of her relatives had been killed that morning in Gaza by the IDF – and human rights experts.

The hearing, an educational session geared toward Congressional staffers, was so well-attended that organizers decided to repeat it immediately following its conclusion. The moderator and national advocacy director for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation Josh Ruebner remarked in the evening, at Busboys and Poets, that some Congressional staffers had to be turned away due to a lack of space.

“Briefings like this are critically important,” Rep. Ellison told me after attending the first hearing. He said many of his colleagues have expressed an interest in learning about the plight of Palestinians – something which they don’t know a lot about – and that over twenty agreed to read his op-ed calling for an end to the siege of Gaza. The Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair described the briefing as a great place for them to start, saying that it contained “no vitriol,” a “sober recitation” by Tariq, and was sponsored by organizations that “go wherever human rights abuses are.”

“Tariq is a US citizen. He has every right to be here to tell his story,” Ellison added.

When asked if it was he who sponsored the hearing – private events in Congressional space must be sponsored by a member of Congress – Ellison said “I honestly don’t know.” His staff, he said, will occasionally sponsor events that they’re sure he’ll support. Ellison said that he “certainly would” have sponsored the hearing featuring Tariq.

The first Muslim elected to Congress took pains to stress that, in addition to visiting Gaza, he has been to Sderot and southern Israel, and has condemned Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire. What he wants to see is a more balanced discussion.


Unfortunately, few in the corridors of power appear currently open to the mere thought of humanizing Palestinians. As Tariq began to speak on Friday afternoon, Sen. Barbara Boxer launched into an IDF talking point-filled tirade on the floor of the Senate. Boxer falsely claimed that Protective Edge started due to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers; that Hamas employs tunnels “to kill Israelis, to torture them, to kidnap them”; that Hamas broke the ceasefire brokered on Aug. 1; and that the conflict boils down to the equivalent of the US facing “100 rockets a day coming from Mexico or Canada.” Boxer delivered the speech to a near empty chamber – after speaking that morning, she said, to Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer – to advance the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014. The vast majority of her monologue touted the legislation’s advancement of Israel’s participation in the Department of Homeland Security visa waiver program. Her unanimous consent request, however, was denied by the only other Senator present, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) who said he took exception to the DHS program. But Sen. Sessions might not be the only one with an issue. Boxer, who introduced the bill on July 28, with 80 cosponsors, noted that there was an anonymous hold on it – her colleagues’ concerns could also pertain to increased cooperation between US and Israeli security officials, given Israel’s brazen spying on high ranking Americans, or its systemic racism, in the context of visa waiver program eligibility. Her request for unanimous consent, therefore, was little more than cosmetic.

The speech did, however, force CSPAN2 – as per the channel’s policy — to cut coverage of Tariq’s speech to broadcast the legislative session. Boxer’s grandstanding also prevented Americans from watching moving testimonies by Suha Abu Khdeir, Hassan Shibly and Leila El-Haddad.

Sen. Boxer’s office appeared to be aware of the event, too – one of her interns attempted to get into the packed hearing, well-placed sources told me and Electronic Intifada’s Rania Khalek. A press officer for Sen. Boxer received my request to confirm the intern’s presence and the office’s awareness of the briefing. Her office declined to respond.

Even if the timing of Boxer’s speech was coincidental – Khalek said it echoed LBJ’s “impromptu press conference to interrupt televised coverage of former sharecropper and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s moving testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention” – there is widespread reluctance on the Hill to even hear Palestinians and their allies air grievances. Late Friday night, the House of Representatives took up a Senate bill that would allocate $225 million in additional funds to Israel’s “Iron Dome.” The bill passed 395-8 without any debate.

Ellison was one of the eight representatives to vote against the bill, explaining two days later on Meet The Press that pushing for a ceasefire – and not favoring one side – should be an American priority. The other seven to vote with Ellison were Reps. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Jim Moran (D-Va.), Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Mark Sanford (R-S.C.). O’Rourke said that he “could not in good conscience vote for borrowing $225 million more to send to Israel, without debate and without discussion, in the midst of a war that has cost more than a thousand civilian lives already, too many of them children.”


Off of Capitol Hill, perceptions of Israel/Palestine seem to be changing dramatically. In what seems to be an historic moment, the results of a poll released last week show a plurality of young American adults blame Israel for violence in Palestine. The Pew survey found that 29 percent of Americans aged 18-to-29 hold Israel accountable for the current carnage in Gaza, while 21 percent lay the blame at the feet of Hamas. While it might seem astonishing that even one-in-five would blame anyone but the IDF for the destruction and mass murder resulting from Protective edge (given Israel’s fabricated casus belli, the minimal impact of Gazans’ haphazard home made rockets, and the 18 preceding months of ceasefire disproportionately violated by Israel) in 2009, during the similarly one-sided Operation Cast Lead, only 14 percent of the same cohort blamed Israel for the tumult, while 23 percent blamed Hamas. In a separate Gallup poll, the same age cohort said Protective Edge was unjustified by a ratio of 51-25 (24 percent had no opinion). Arsalan Iftikhar posits in Quartz that this generational shift is due to the proliferation of social media as a vehicle of news consumption.

Whatever the reason, it has become less controversial to be in a room where people celebrate the humanity of Palestinians. After Ellison stopped in at Busboys and Poets and made brief remarks, he heard Noura Erakat point out that the so-called “terror tunnels” are keeping Gaza alive amid Israel’s blockade (and that the latest round of destruction can’t close them). Erakat also criticized the two-state solution, calling it “dead” – a one-state appeal for equality that fear-mongering Zionists have likened to a second Holocaust.

“Israel cannot be Jewish and democratic. It can be Jewish or it can be democratic,” she said. “Israelis are responding to that crisis in horrific ways.”

The Congressman also heard Phyllis Bennis compare tunnels used by Gazan militants and entrepreneurs to those used by resistance fighters in the Ghetto Warsaw Uprising. Indeed, Marek Edelman, who in 2009 became the last surviving commander of the uprising to die, wrote about crawling through sewers to carry out operations. He also expressed the idea in 2002, according to his obituary in the Independent, that “the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as a symbol of Jewish liberation…belonged to the Palestinians.”

During the discussion, Bennis noted advocates of Palestine must “pierce that bubble where it’s political suicide to criticize Israel.”

“Maybe Keith can help us figure this one out,” she said.

But that threshold might have already been crossed. The dovish Republican Rep. Jones defeated a primary challenger heavily backed by the neoconservative “Emergency Committee for Israel.” Despite the fact that $1.37 million in campaign donations and “independent expenditures” were marshaled by hawks to defeat Jones, the incumbent beat his insurgent rival, William Griffin, by five percentage points. The representative himself – who must have savored his vote against additional Iron Dome funds – raised just over half a million dollars with no “independent” advertising backing him.

Nonetheless, longtime activists felt that Ellison wasn’t necessarily doing his career any favors by attending.

“I think Congressman Ellison is acting on his moral conscience,” Noura Erakat said. “And I think it’s actually a situation for him where he’s not being supported either by the Muslim and the Arab community, which thinks he’s not doing enough. And obviously he’s not supported by the opposition. When he comes to an event like this, he’s not acting with any political calculus. He’s leading with his heart.”

In the aftermath of Protective Edge and all its craven brutality, that calculus might change. Josh Ruebner said he was hopeful that “the access that Tariq got here in Washington” – he was met by Congressional staffers, and State Department and White House officials – was significant.

“The genuine shock, I think, of policymakers hearing his story; realizing, for many people, that Israel treats Palestinians in this fashion,” he said Friday, could make a difference. “Like everyone has said today, his case is far from being extraordinary. This is what happens to Palestinians day in and day out. I hope we broke through some emotional and political walls today in Washington through Tariq being able to tell his story.”

Whatever potential breakthrough may or may not be on the cusp in Washington has been built on past activism and Israel’s brutality, which is becoming increasingly impossible to conceal. At Busboys and Poets on Friday, this was summed up by spur-of-the-moment remarks delivered, upon invitation, by the sister of Rachel Corrie, the 23 year-old activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while trying to stop a home demolition in Rafah.

“Every time this happens, it opens wounds that have never quite healed,” Sarah Corrie said.

Her friends in Rafah, she took pains to point out, “have never experienced anything this bad.”

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With a zealous, unwavering love for Israeli military operations still pervasive on Capitol Hill,… It is the love of money. This conflict and sustaining the colonial enterprise is a massive industry. Put an end to it and all of a sudden money and resources would find a new home and the current players around the beltway would be out of the game they still control. Elected officials answer to the flow of money, not the… Read more »

Last Monday after reading about the 8 Congresspeople that voted against sending the $225 million to Israel I called each of their DC offices. I told the staffer that answered, something to the effect “I was so proud of their Congressperson I wanted them to move to Oklahoma where no Congressperson is brave enough to even think about going against Israel….and promised I’d do everything I could to help them move”. Six of the eight… Read more »

Congratulations, and thanks.

“Do you suppose they were “Israeli firsters” on the Congressperson’s staff. Moles for AIPAC maybe?”

Part of AIPAC’s service to the country has been the arranging of free interns for cash-strapped congressmen. (Walt and Mearsheimer described this.) Since learning this I’ve never been able to call my congressman’s office without worrying that my comments were likely to disappear.

It’s all part of the corruption of our political system that Zionism produces.

Was it here or somewhere else that I read that Congressional staffers were appalled at the recent passing of the money for Iron Dome? Supposedly even some staffers who worked for a Republican senator were disgusted. It was supposed to be nothing but a raw demonstration of AIPAC’s clout, to get Congress to show unwavering support for Israel.

I’m probably citing some story that appeared here–been reading so much lately I’m losing track.

The Israel lobby will in all probability be able to continue to reward politicians toeing the Aipac line, and to punish those failing to do so.