When Elizabeth Warren came to Tufts University in Medford on Monday she was met by anti-war and Palestinian rights activists who asked why the popular senator and national Democratic Party celebrity seemed to echo Israeli talking points about the recent Israel attack on Gaza.
Warren had appeared as the keynote speaker at the Netroots Nation in July. She proudly identified herself a progressive and stirred the crowd with these words:
We know that this economy grows when hard-working families have the opportunity to improve their lives. We know that this country gets stronger when we invest in helping people succeed. We know that our lives improve when we care for our neighbors and we help build a future—not just for some of our kids, but for all of our kids. That’s what we believe in. These are progressive ideas. These are progressive values. These are America’s values. And these are the values we are willing to fight for.
The protest and the Gaza-related questions to Warren after her talk at Tufts received some attention locally and nationally – but the media coverage largely centered on the “controversy” after a blogger at the rightist Weekly Standard claimed that Warren was “comparing Israel’s Actions in Gaza to the Holocaust.” Some local media was more serious, noting that the activists had spotlighted the Israel-Palestine issue and compelled Warren to respond.
Warren has focused her legislative work and public speaking almost exclusively on consumer protection, finance and other economic issues that have struck a populist chord with Democrats and independents, many of whom are enthusiastic fans of the freshman senator from Massachusetts. By political calculation she has been almost silent on international issues and has rarely spoken out on questions of war and peace that are also important to her progressive base. As MW has reported, she literally ran away from commenting on the Israeli attack on Gaza.
However, Senator Warren was put on the spot with questions about Gaza when she appeared at a constituent meeting last month on Cape Cod and her response was reported by the local media and then spread widely on the Web. When questioned by a local resident about her support for additional military aid to Israel in the middle of the Gaza attack, Warren responded with these remarks:
“I think the vote was right, and I’ll tell you why I think the vote was right,” she said. “America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren’t many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”
Warren said Hamas has attacked Israel “indiscriminately,” but with the Iron Dome defense system, the missiles have “not had the terrorist effect Hamas hoped for.” When pressed by another member of the crowd about civilian casualties from Israel’s attacks, Warren said she believes those casualties are the “last thing Israel wants.”
“But when Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they’re using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself,” Warren said, drawing applause.
Noreen Thompsen, of Eastham, proposed that Israel should be prevented from building any more settlements as a condition of future U.S. funding, but Warren said, “I think there’s a question of whether we should go that far.”
Many of Warren’s progressive supporters, who had been urging the senator to speak out on war and peace issues, were shocked. Remaining silent was one thing, but repeating Likud talking points was worse. Many of us wrote to Warren or called her office to express disagreement and ask for meetings to discuss her statements and legislative record on Israel-Palestine issues. What they received in return were boilerplate responses asserting her advocacy of a peaceful solution and special support for Israel.
Aside from concurring in Congressional cheerleading for the attack on Gaza and appropriating more funds for Israel in the midst of the slaughter, Warren also recently signed on (tardily, to be sure) as a co-sponsor of the US-ISRAEL STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP ACT (S.2673) and justified her stance in letters to constituents. Earlier, in June, she joined 87 other Senators in signing on to an AIPAC-written letter to President Obama expressing “concerns” over the new Palestinian unity pact and threatening a possible cutoff of US funding to the Palestine Authority.
The week before Warren’s Tufts appearance, members of Massachusetts Peace Action wrote to Warren, expressing frustration with her stance and requesting (for the umpteenth time) a meeting with the Senator:
Dear Senator Warren,
It is safe to say that nearly all our members voted for you in the last election – and more than a few worked actively on your campaign. We very much appreciate your outspokenness as a progressive voice in the Senate on behalf of ordinary citizens over banking interests and we welcomed your support for the Budget for All campaign.
However, we were very disturbed to read about your recent statements regarding Israel and its attack on Gaza. We strongly urge you to rethink the positions you expressed, which are at variance with the facts and do not advance the goals of a just peace.
To interpret Israeli actions as merely “the right to defend itself” ignores the long history of occupation and siege imposed on the people of Gaza. It belittles the killing of more than 2100 Palestinians — the majority of them civilians, as the UN and respected human rights organizations have documented.
Moreover, a careful review of the chronology of this latest conflict reveals that it was instigated by Israeli actions, not “indiscriminate” attacks by Hamas. And the charge that the Palestinians use “human shields” has been debunked by serious investigators. In fact, the Israeli use of this practice has been amply documented.
In our view, it is not “progressive” to justify the slaughter of civilians in Gaza. It is not “progressive” to remain silent when Israel seizes more and more Palestinian land for settlements that are universally regarded as illegal under international law. It is not “progressive” to enable on-going human rights violations and war crimes through the continued uncritical appropriations of more military aid to Israel.
The time is long overdue to re-examine our policy of supplying billions of dollars of arms to Israel every year. We believe that your co-sponsorship of the US-ISRAEL STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP ACT (S.2673) sends exactly the wrong message to Israel in the light of its recent attack on Gaza and the on-going siege it maintains.
We ask that you speak up for Israeli accountability, adherence to international law and compliance with existing statutes regarding the permissible uses of exported US weapons. We also ask that you vocally support Secretary of State Kerry’s objections to the latest Israeli land grab in the West Bank.
We respectfully request a meeting at the earliest possible date to elaborate on these concerns.
At Tufts on Monday, the standout was organized principally by Mass Peace Action, with support from Boston Jewish Voice for Peace, along with some Tufts students and faculty. Warren was appearing as part of a “Distinguished Speaker Series” organized at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. She was introduced by Tisch College Dean Alan Solomont, formerly a Clinton-appointed ambassador and a serious Democratic Party rainmaker as National Finance Chairman of the DNC.
In response to Solomont’s softball questions, Warren stuck to her folksy populist message: she retold stories of her family struggles, stressed themes of opportunity, civic engagement and reform of the student loan program. Those topics were further elaborated in response to the first questions from the audience.
Then three questioners in a row asked about Gaza and Palestine. First was a Palestinian-American whose family had been exiled from Haifa in 1948 asking why Warren could not be more even-handed in advocating for Palestinians as well as Israel. She was followed by Mass Peace Action board member Eva S. Moseley, who said she was “concerned that Jews don’t do to another people what was done to them” and asked whether Palestinians as well as Jews had “a right to self-defense?” (Eva identified herself carefully as a Jewish Holocaust refugee, since her family fled Vienna after the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938, but this did not hinder the vile FrontPage Magazine web site from a calling her a “Fake Holocaust Survivor” who “support[s] terrorists.”) The third question was from a Tufts student charging that Warren was an apologist “for Israeli attacks on schools and hospitals” and had an “AIPAC alignment.” The questioners mentioned that they had supported Warren’s bid for election to the Senate.
Warren responded to each question almost identically: She was against violence; both the Israeli and Palestinian families should be able to live free from fear and secure in their own states. “I don’t want to see anyone kill more people.”
After these exchanges Dean Solomont said he wanted to “lower the temperature a bit” and closed by asking Warren about her grandchildren, and “the big question of the day”. . . Not the expected “Are you running for President” but What was her favorite movie? (If you’re wondering: Casablanca)
Outside, near the back entrance to the auditorium, the protesters gathered to be visible to Warren as she departed from the campus. One of her staffers was furious, oddly chastising the activists for not telling the Warren staff ahead of time what they were planning. We said we had been trying to see Warren for years. The staffer claimed, rather implausibly, that Warren had never met with AIPAC or any Israel lobby organization. He claimed that the senator was taken by surprise at the Cape Cod meeting and that she spoke “off message” as a result.
Warren, who is a possible presidential contender and the dream candidate for the progressive blogosphere, was very much “on message” on Monday. She was carefully even-handed, pro-peace and for two states in Israel-Palestine. In a brief interview after talk (with Alan Solomont at her side) she repeated the mantra that “the parties themselves are the ones who will have to negotiate” and “it is not up to the United States to impose it.” And: “At the end of the day it’s got to be what the Israelis and Palestinians negotiate, what they can live with.” No mention of one-sided US military and diplomatic support for Israel, or the asymmetrical power of the occupied and the occupier, of course.
As she exited the auditorium, Warren — an irrepressible campaigner — approached the activists, shook their hands and warmly thanked each of them for being there. We handed her a flyer as she entered her car to leave. The aide promised a meeting soon. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, speculations about a possible Warren presidential bid continue. Warren has announced that after November she will make her first trip abroad since entering the Senate – to Israel.