Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY 16th District) has been a member of the House since 1989, where he’s currently the leader of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Engel has consistently been one of its most hawkish Democrats: he supported the Iraq War, helped push former President Bill Clinton to intervene in Kosovo, and opposed the Obama administration’s Iran Nuclear Deal. He’s also been one of Israel’s biggest supporters. He’s long championed for the US to move the embassy to Jerusalem and in 2017 he introduced a motion that denounced the United Nations for condemning illegal Israeli settlements. He’s also been one of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s staunchest critics and has pushed federal legislation to criminalize the BDS movement. Last October, at an event organized by AIPAC, Engel said that the new progressive Democrats in Congress “need to be educated” on the subject of Israel.
Mondoweiss reached out to Ghebreghiorgis to ask about his candidacy, his thoughts on Israel/Palestine, and his opinion of Engel’s record.
Q: In your campaign announcement you criticized Engel’s policies on Israel/Palestine. Can you explain what your issues are with his positions and how your approach would be different?
Ghebreghiorgis: Whether it’s in the U.S. or abroad, I believe in equal rights and freedom for all. We therefore must commit to a political solution that centers those values for Israelis and for Palestinians.
Sadly, Eliot Engel has been one of the staunchest supporters of Israel’s right wing policies. He has consistently failed to recognize Israel’s expansionist settlement activity and the entrenchment of the occupation as the main barriers to peace in the region, instead deflecting and claiming that Palestinians, living in increasingly worse conditions, are not willing to negotiate in good faith. Additionally, he has devalued Palestinian lives, failing to censure the IDF for indiscriminate killings during the Great Return March, for example. His support of Trump’s decision to unilaterally move the embassy to Jerusalem and approval of Israel’s recent move annexing the Golan Heights are just two unfortunate examples in which he has sided with Netanyahu over Democrats and over American interests.
My approach would differ because I assert that the occupation, the settlements, and the institutionalized racism of the Israeli state preclude Palestinians from living a life of peace with justice. I would support ending all military aid to nations until they can guarantee they are not committing human rights abuses. I would also cosponsor HR 4391 and advocate that the Israeli government must end the siege of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank. We should also not be funding settlements, and our president should not be getting settlements named after him.
Q: Engel has been a vocal critic of Rep. Ilhan Omar and her criticism of AIPAC’s lobbying efforts. I am wondering if you have any thoughts on this battle that seems to be going on in the Democratic Party, do you think it’s becoming more receptive to the concerns of Palestinians?
Ghebreghiorgis: Ilhan Omar is a courageous, unapologetic advocate for justice and human rights. The attacks on her reflected a troubling blend of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-blackness with an unwillingness to hear any criticism of Israel lobbying. In general, Americans are becoming more aware of the pernicious influence lobbying and money in politics has on our democracy, and I am proud to say that our campaign will be 100% people funded.
Polling definitely shows that registered Democrats, especially millennials, are increasingly unwilling to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses in Gaza and the West Bank (happening with American complicity). Whether that will actually impact party leadership remains to be seen, but it is certainly a matter of time that there will be more change. We have already seen new representatives speak more openly about Palestinian human rights, and we will continue to see more new members (reflective of the population and a more inclusive Congress) continue to speak openly.
Q: Engel opposed the Iran Nuclear Deal and recently said, “I don’t think you can look at anything rationally when it comes to Iran. Who knows what’s going on behind the scenes there? I’m not advocating a war, because we went to wars in Iraq and elsewhere and were burned. We need to be careful; we need to balance it. But we can’t allow Iran to do those things.” Do you have a comment on that and how would you handle this issue differently if elected?
Ghebreghiorgis: This logic that Iran – or any state – has an innate, ineradicable irrationality and hatred is dangerous and counterproductive; it closes off possibility for discussion, negotiation, and cooperation. The Iran Nuclear Deal was beneficial for both the US and Iran, and most of the world supported the agreement. We backed out of a deal that Iran followed through on, and it is imperative to work multilaterally to ensure nuclear nonproliferation.
Q: Did anything from personal life help shape your foreign policy views?
Ghebreghiorgis: Being an American of Eritrean descent forced me to be politicized. My family members were fighting for independence half-a-world away, and my parents were attuned to that, so I always had an awareness of things going on outside of the USA. The brutality of war was imprinted on me by news that traveled across deserts and oceans: deaths of faceless relatives whom I would never have the chance to meet.
Outside the home, growing up in a diverse, largely immigrant community made me very aware of different countries and cultures at a young age. Socialized as a black American and Eritrean in this environment, I was made aware of the inequality that existed within and between our communities. Recognizing the injustices around me elicited an ephemeral anger that transformed into an eternal empathy. Even if they were not all directly my histories, I felt the pain of slavery, segregation, racism, genocide, and colonialism in me as a black person. I knew how hypocritical it would be for me to, even latently, support any system of oppression, when I understood the feeling of being oppressed myself. This motivated me to act in solidarity with others, informed by a liberatory politics that critiqued and questioned a status quo built on and sustained by imperialism, racism, sexism, and economic exploitation.
Q: Engel has pushed federal legislation that would ban BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). I am wondering what you think about anti-BDS laws, as they’ve become increasingly popular at a state level and there have now been multiple attempts to pass one at the federal level.
Ghebreghiorgis: Boycotts are the oldest and most noble form of political protest in this country. The 1st Amendment protects political boycotts as a form of expression. Anti-BDS laws are driven by far-right lobby groups, who aim to suppress dissent and protest in its many forms. Many of these laws have already been found unconstitutional by our courts. They have no moral or constitutional backing. They have been implemented to try and suppress criticism of Israel’s policies. We will continue to fight policies that limit freedom and equality, both here in the US and around the world.