It is easy to lash out on social media and express our disappointment, frustration, and anger at political events and developments. In the wake of the horrendous tally overwhelmingly in favor of HR 246, the resolution condemning BDS, I myself posted an outraged “WTF! Ayanna Pressley voted against BDS. Shame!” on my Facebook page, singling her out as a “progressive” who nevertheless could not cast the right vote on what should have been an absolutely obvious matter. My outrage was based on the assumption that Pressley, hailed as a member of the “Squad,” i.e. the rookie women-of-color team pushing the Democratic Party away from its accommodationist neoliberal stance, would be a Progressive on Palestine, rather than one more Zionist “Progressive” Except for Palestine.
I confess, I had never heard of Pressley until she ran for Congress. Since then, I learned there were differences on the question of Palestine within the “squad,” with Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar clearly the more knowledgeable of the four, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez having expressed the need to learn some more about the issue. I was blissfully ignorant of Pressley’s stance. Yet it is safe to say that most activists around the country simply expected a closing of the squad’s ranks when it came to a resolution condemning the Palestinian people’s choice of a time-honored strategy to hold their oppressor accountable. Pressley’s vote, then, came as a major surprise to most, and she was called out by progressive individuals as well as many organizations. Her response, namely that she voted to condemn BDS “as an expression of solidarity with Jewish families,” added insult to injury, as it revealed an utter disregard for the Palestinian people—families too—whose ethnic cleansing was ongoing as she voted, as well as the many Jews, individuals and families, who fully support BDS.
As I discussed what still felt like a betrayal with friends in Massachusetts, however, a different image of Pressley began to emerge, as longtime activists for Palestinian rights in Boston said they were not surprised by Pressley’s condemnation of BDS, which they viewed as consistent with her own longstanding stance favoring Zionism. I looked up her congressional candidate website, where she discusses her policy positions, and was disappointed to read uncritical platitudes and normalizing talk. There, Pressley writes “I steadfastly support a two-state solution that will safeguard Israel’s future as a Jewish and Democratic state, and establish a sovereign and independent Palestinian [state]. … We must avoid efforts to unilaterally blame and deny legitimacy to either side, and should instead work towards building a just solution that recognizes the trauma suffered by both populations.”
Such language is possibly worse than a vote condemning BDS, as it discusses “the trauma suffered by both populations” as if these populations were somewhat equal, similar in their aspirations, rather than oppressor and oppressed, colonized and colonized, occupier and occupied. Simply, one cannot speak of the pain on “both sides” of Israel’s war on the Palestinian people without being a normalizer of violent settler-colonialism that hinges on racism. It is tantamount to Trump’s claim that “there are fine people on both sides” of rallies promoting white supremacy, and the protests against these displays of hatred.
Pressley’s statement continues: “My approach to foreign policy is grounded in the same values that inform my domestic priorities – empathy, inclusiveness, and a belief that the solutions to our most important challenges should be informed by the people most impacted. The people closest to the pain, should be closest to the power, driving and informing the policy making.”
Apparently, no one told her that “the people closest to the pain” in this context are the Palestinian people. And the Palestinian people have chosen BDS, which she voted to condemn, thus satisfying a top AIPAC priority.
Pressley’s statement is standard, widely-available Zionist drivel. And in typical Zionist lingo, she blames BDS, rather than Israeli apartheid, for the disruption of meaningful engagement and dialogue: “I do not support BDS as a means to achieve a two-state solution because I believe it does not acknowledge the efforts of those on the ground who are deeply committed to bringing peaceful coexistence to the region, and pushes Israelis and Palestinians farther away from the meaningful engagement and dialogue needed to empathize with each other’s struggle and acknowledge each other’s humanity.”
Yet even as many were expressing their outrage at Pressley’s vote, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib herself, who had sponsored a resolution supporting the right to boycott, wrote in a Facebook exchange that we should not give up on Pressley. “This is a missed opportunity,” Tlaib wrote, in response to a post critical of Pressley. “Don’t dismiss those who voted to target this form of speech that criticizes Israel. Our movement for equality, freedom and upholding human rights for Palestinians is growing outside the halls of Congress. We gain more respect that way, rather than making them fear us (like those who want to continue oppressing Palestinians and Black Israelis). This is the largest incoming class since Watergate and many don’t know what occupation even means. We live it, but so many of my colleagues haven’t been engaged enough.”
Tlaib continued, in defense of Pressley, saying: “I have heard Rep. Ayanna Pressley quote the words of Angela Davis, speak out about the pain of “othering” so powerfully. Don’t give up because of one vote. My sity [grandmother] and all those living under occupation and racist policies deserve us to take this as a challenge. Request meetings, follow up in a thoughtful way, write opeds, educate and mobilize. This is just the beginning of a new era. I have been there … and don’t think I don’t know how much it hurts, but we can’t give up so easily on people anymore. This new class of members is a new opportunity.”
Palestine is not the only issue, but it is certainly emblematic, which is why so many of us argue that one cannot genuinely be “Progressive Except for Palestine.” If we are to give Pressley the benefit of the doubt, and assume that she fell back on the Zionist lines by default, because she did not know better, then we should educate her, share with her the words of Angela Davis, whom she quotes, but also Desmond Tutu, and Marc Lamont-Hill, and Blacks for Palestine, and Black Lives Matter, on Palestine. If then she still cannot understand who is inflicting the pain, and who is suffering it, and if she still refuses to support the leadership of the most impacted, then we have no choice but to write her off. But let us not do so before we try, and try again. We’ve had to do that with just about every politician so far, with only a handful of exceptions, of those rare individuals who grasped it without our outreach. It’s not fair, but then again, if the world were fair, we would not be fighting this battle.