The highlight of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights conference that concluded Sunday in St. Paul was a speech by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) that was that very rare and brave thing in mainstream US politics: an unapologetic endorsement of Palestinian human rights.
McCollum denounced Israel’s “brutal” “cruel” policy of detaining and torturing children, which she has sought to sanction through groundbreaking legislation that would end U.S. aid that supports those practices. She said that it is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel: “why can’t I hold a foreign government accountable for how they abuse an entire population of people under their control?”
She referred to the power of the Israel lobby over other legislators — a power that she first defied in 2006, when she told the Israel lobby group AIPAC that it was barred from her office till it apologized for saying she supported terrorists. She said that more and more Congresspeople are at last willing to take on Israel openly, witness the 29 co-sponsors of her bill (all Democrats).
And most importantly, McCollum described Israel under its “nation state of the Jewish people” law, which was enacted last July, as an “apartheid” state.
“Friends, the world has a name of that form of government that’s codified in the nation state law, and it’s called apartheid.”
McCollum, 64, is a former social studies teacher who represents a district that includes all of St. Paul and its northern and eastern suburbs. She is endorsed by J Street, the liberal Zionist organization. Her speech, in which she accepted a leadership award, can be found on Facebook. We have transcribed much of it below.
“Tonight’s very special to me. There are so many amazing people in this room. You’ve dedicated time and energy and resources with your hearts and souls for fighting for Palestinian rights. For me to be recognized for my work, I mean our work, it is humbling and I am deeply appreciative. To be recognized.
“This conference is being hosted by the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and collectively you are the champions who come from every corner of our country… It is because of your collective work with our great partners that we are establishing a narrative in Congress that promotes Palestinian rights.
“And as I said, I’m honored to be here tonight but I’m also honored you’re in my congressional district here in St. Paul. I want to thank you for hosting this conference here in my neighborhood. (applause)
“I am able to receive this award, not just because of my work, but because of my constituents in Minnesota’s 4th District, they send me to Congress. They expect me to fight for progressive values, human rights and policies that respect our human shared dignity. As a representative I am a reflection of the people who elect me.
“So I work to promote peace, attack poverty, defend the rights of children, stand in solidarity with the oppressed, including the Palestinian people — is because I have the support of my wonderful constituents.
“Last November I introduced a bill in Congress, and it’s called ‘Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children,’ shorthand, HR 4391.
“It’s not a complicated bill. It says that U.S. aid to Israel shall be prohibited from being used to arrest, detain, abuse, torture or otherwise violate humanitarian law and the human rights of Palestinian children. Now we know thousands of thousands of Palestinian youth have been victimized by the Israeli system of juvenile military detention over the years. We know that because of UNICEF, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Israel’s B’Tselem, DCI Palestinian, and the U.S. State Department have all documented Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinian children.
“Now, as an American and as a mother, I don’t think it is particularly controversial or a statement of moral courage to condemn a government that systematically arrests and abuses children. (applause)
“I don’t think it is particularly controversial, but as a member of Congress, I don’t think it should be a statement of political courage to say that the U.S. government should not spend one dollar of our taxpayers’ funds in supporting a brutal military detention that abuses children.
“In Congress you would think that that makes common sense but yet this is not the case when it comes to protecting Palestinian children, and when the government doing the abusing is Israel. With HR 4391, moving forward, we are making a clear unwavering statement that we are not going to support US tax dollars funding Israel’s cruel, brutal and dehumanizing system of juvenile military detention of Palestinian children. So let me say a big thank you to all my congressional co-sponsors, our partners in the faith community, our NGO champions, everyone in this room representing advocates and citizens all across this country.
“This bill is a statement of unity never seen before in Congress, it unites us in our common belief in human rights.
“It is a statement of our shared values of freedom, equality and justice for the Palestinian people. You all need to know that the members of congress cosponsoring this legislation, there is a profound commitment to Palestinian rights, and I admire their willingness to stand with me. Because it’s not easy. We are confronted by a right wing pro-Israel lobby that supports Israel’s brutality. And groups like Christians United for Israel, that worked for settlement expansion and delegitimizes Palestinians to justify their religious extremism.
“But there’s a truth we’re fighting for, and that is that the Palestinian people deserve freedom, justice and equality just like people anywhere in the world. They deserve to be citizens of an independent Palestine state and they deserve to live their lives without fear in their own homeland.
“Now my goal with HR 4391 is to offer, as I said, an alternative perspective, to force policy makers to think about the 3.8 billion dollars in U.S. aid to Israel and how that helps to enable, facilitate and enforce the military occupation of Palestinian lands and the repression of the Palestinian people.
“Yes, people in Israel, the Israel people, they deserve security and Israeli children deserve security too. But imprisoning, abusing, traumatizing another generation of Palestinian children in the name of security — it’s a lie. And we need to call it what it is. (applause)
“Israel’s military detention system is a weapon of occupation that terrorizes Palestinian children and their families into submission. I don’t want my tax dollars, or yours, to go to support that.
“As Americans, living in the era of Donald Trump, it’s easy to fall into the trap of hopelessness and despair. Yet the Palestinian people face hopelessness and despair along with 50 years of military occupation and they continue to have the courage to persevere.
“And for the Israelis, Jews and Arabs, who reject racist policies, occupation, the extreme Likud Netanyahu government, I also commend their courage and their perseverance. (applause) You should applaud them.
“A few weeks ago in the coffee shop of this hotel I met with an amazing woman who was struggling for freedom for justice and her country’s democratic future. Her name is Aida [Touma] Sliman and she is a citizen of Israel, and she is also a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset. She’s fighting Israel’s recently passed nation state law, which codifies separate and unequal. It is a standard of racism that the United States rejected and outlawed more than 50 years ago.
“Aida’s written and told me, rather than working on equality for the benefit of all citizens irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity or national affiliation, Israel will now promote the development of exclusive Jewish communities. Friends, the world has a name of that form of government that’s codified in the nation state law, and it’s called apartheid. (applause)
“In this case (applause continues).. Thank you, thank you, but… What Brad [Parker of Defense of Children International/Palestine, who introduced her] didn’t tell you is I’m a former teacher — I appreciate, it’s overwhelming thank you very much but I’m going to get through this speech.
“So, she [Touma-Sliman] really inspired me with her courage and her determination. She’s there with a lot of other Israelis and they’re battling their own extremist government that’s delegitimizing and dehumanizing her very existence. And it’s in this context that I think about the future, not just for Palestine or for Israel, but for the future of our own country, the United States. We are now living in a nation which the policies of the president of the U.S. and his administration, are explicitly bigoted, dangerous and demeaning to all Americans. Think about a few of the destructive dangerous policies advanced by this president: the Muslim ban, the separation wall with Mexico, immigrant family separation, child detention, rejecting refugees, the only nation in the world to withdraw from the Paris Climate agreement, and reneging on the Iran nuclear deal, cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans while sabotaging health care for the most vulnerable Americans.
“It isn’t a wonder that Benjamin Netanyahu knows he has a green light to advance apartheid inside of Israel or endlessly expand the settlements or for Israeli security forces to force a massacre of scores of unarmed protesters in Gaza with complete impunity.
“Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are partners intent on destroying the future for the Palestinian people. There is no peace process, the U.S. is no longer an honest broker. There is no illusion of this White House even caring about Palestinians. The White House point person in the Middle East is Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner; a U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer by trade, and a right wing extremist by choice. And over the years Kushner and Friedman have invested financially in supporting, sustaining West Bank settlements. Settlements that violate international law. (applause)
“The two top American officials leading United States government policy on Israel/Palestine are not diplomats. They appear to be more like settlers, right wing settlers who actively seek to expand Israel’s control over Palestinian land, livelihoods and the future. It’s appalling.
“It’s also the reason why we’re witnessing the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress making every effort to extinguish any hope or possibility of an independent Palestinian state. A few days ago in his press conference President Trump articulated his vision of a Palestinian conflict calling the peace agreement ‘a real estate deal’. President Trump said, “If the Israelis and the Palestinians want one state, that’s OK with me. If they want two states that’s OK with me, I’m happy, if they’re happy.” These are the profound words of the so-called leader of the free world?
“But it gets better. Mr Trump then went on to explain that China has great respect for him because of his– very large brain. We needed to laugh. Policy actions by this White House have explicitly targeted Palestinians and their interests, in their efforts to reward the Netanyahu government. It’s very clear that the unilateral relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the termination of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA and the eviction of the P.A.’s office in Washington are intended to delegitimize Palestinians as having status, rights, or even an identity in their homeland.
“And the termination of U.S. aid to non governmental organizations providing health care, education, humanitarian assistance to needy Palestinians is nothing more than a policy of blatant cruelty intended to inflict hardship and make vulnerable people suffer. It’s shameful but then again it should come as no surprise, President Trump tried to eliminate health coverage for 30 million Americans– why wouldn’t he cut health care to Palestinians?
“In Congress, Democrats and Republicans need to understand that the cost and consequences of 50 years of military occupation, Israeli settlements, check points, separation walls, soldiers – have made an independent Palestinian state all but impossible. There is clearly no reason for Palestinians to have any faith or any trust in America’s current president. But we must not allow them to lose faith in the American people. As Americans, as progressives, we must strive to make freedom, justice and equality — human rights, economic opportunity, and hope for the foundation for future U.S. policy for engagement with Israel and Palestine. It must be accountable and Israeli oppression must not be supported by U.S. tax dollars. The status quo of today must be rejected. (applause)
“A democracy, a real democracy does not accept 2nd class citizens. It does not segregate communities and it does not sponsor discrimination or military occupation. If the one state solution is an inevitable endgame of the Trump-Netanyahu axis, and I hope it’s not, I pray it’s not– but if it is then the American people must demand a U.S. policy explicitly requiring conditions that include equal rights and full citizenship for all Palestinians. (applause)
“So the burden for U.S. advocacy to improve the future for Palestine, again, is on your shoulders. Your commitment and your dedication is essential. Now we’re in a dark place but I also see a progressive movement that is awakening, and that’s willing to push back against the powers that once seemed so invincible. Even in Congress, there’s a growing group of Democrats who are disturbed and disillusioned by the conduct of the Israeli government. It allows for more open discussion among policy makers than ever before about Israel’s accountability. Let me be clear, holding the Israeli government accountable for its abuses is not anti-semitic. It is just being responsible and just. (applause) If I, if we can hold President Trump and the White House accountable then why can’t I hold a foreign government accountable for how they abuse an entire population of people under their control? (applause)
“But there is good news, I believe there’s a change coming to Congress in the new year, where there are strong progressive women and men who’ll be coming to Washington who will certainly have their voices heard and I’m certain these new voices will bring new energy to our movement. But a significant burden is still on us, to expand the coalition of NGO’s, faith groups, elected leaders and citizen activists. Because Palestinian rights are human rights and we must make them a litmus test for politicians and faith leaders, and leaders in our civil society. I can’t guarantee that our goals and missions for peace and justice and freedom and equality for Palestinians will succeed. But I know we can’t be silent.
“The hotel we’re in tonight is owned by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, a tribal nation located a few hours from here. In Congress I have made working with tribal nations a priority of mine. More than 20 years ago two women mentored me on Native American issues, they taught me the profound meaning of sovereignty. They were the late Marge Anderson, chairwoman of the Mille Lacs Band, and Melanie Benjamin, the current chairwoman of the Mille Lacs Band. Because here in Minnesota, this is not our land. It belonged to the Ojibwe in the north and the Sioux in the south. European settlers took this land from Native Americans. They subjugated them, they committed atrocities and for more than a century the U.S. government imposed state sponsored policies to extinguish their culture. The inter-generational trauma, the suffering from these abuses, they continue to be real. The healing is slow, and it is painful. But tribal nations are fighting for their rights, their dignity and their future and they are a vibrant voice in the present and in the future of our state and of our nation.
“I am proud to stand with them and work in partnership to help them protect their rights while building a better future for their children and generations to come. And that’s the same commitment I make to you tonight and to the Palestinian people. It’s a long road ahead. There must be peace, reconciliation and real hope for a better future before the healing can begin.
“What we need, the American people and our government, is to stand with the children of Palestine and to stand with their parents. Because they deserve their rights respected, their voices heard and their future to be one of hope, one of opportunity and most importantly one of peace. Thank you for allowing me to join you this evening. Thank you for recognizing me and the co-sponsors of our legislation. Let us work together, in the words of the Ojibwe, Miigwech”