Massachusetts Rep. Stephen Lynch recently held a town hall meeting where he criticized the conditions along the southern border and talked about his tour of ICE and border patrol facilities in El Paso. “I have to be honest though, I have never seen a situation where the families are separated,” Lynch told the crowd. “That is never the practice of the host country. I do not believe it is necessary in our situation, either…Detaining children, period, is wrong.”
Later in the evening a Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) member named Milt rose to ask the Representative a question:
You said separating families does not protect U.S. security. Well, we’re not the only country in the world that separates kids from their families. That is also true in Israel at this moment and it’s our money that is paying for the Israeli military in very high amounts…and we support the Israeli military who arrest children…11 years to 18 years of age, imprison them and torture them and coerce them [while being] separated from their families. That’s our money that’s helping to support that. Now I noticed earlier you were very sensitive around… Jewish issues in this country and I assume abroad also, you talked about the different places you’ve been and you talked about balance.
Well, as you well know the Jewish community is quite split on many of these issues about Israel and Palestine. It’s a fact that our community is split and I’m looking for some balance on your part in terms of who you’re supporting and not supporting, what you can do in your leadership role in the…Palestine/Israeli conflicts and the use of our money. There’s a bill: H.R.2407 – Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act. This is a bill that we’re asking you to support, we’ve been asking other [Congress members] to support. It basically says, we do not put our money–the money the U.S. government gives in Israel–to support the military and their treatment of children; the separation of children from their families in Israel. How do you respond?
H.R.2407, the historic piece of legislation that Milt asked Lynch about, is a bill that was introduced in April by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN). It would amend the Foreign Assistance Act to block funding for the military detention of children in any country, including Israel. McCollum previously introduced a slightly different version of the bill in 2017, but it died at the end of that congressional session.
The current resolution has 21 co-sponsors, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA).
“Israel’s system of military juvenile detention is state-sponsored child abuse designed to intimidate and terrorize Palestinian children and their families,” McCollum said upon the bill’s introduction. “It must be condemned, but it is equally outrageous that U.S. tax dollars in the form of military aid to Israel are permitted to sustain what is clearly a gross human rights violation against children.”
Lynch’s response to Milt’s inquiry was striking, as he casually admitted that the bill sounded like something he would support. “I’m sure that’s a paraphrase of the bill, but if that’s the essence of it… I think you’re truthful, I have no reason to doubt your veracity. So yeah, I would gladly support that. I think that’s something we should do as a country,” he said.
Milt, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace – Boston, asked his @RepLynch to sponsor #HR2407 Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation. Rep Lynch said yes! @jvplive @BettyMcCollum04 pic.twitter.com/IOZ4H2MBBP
— JVP Boston (@JVPBoston) August 23, 2019
The Lynch question is part of an effort by JVP to drum up support for the McCollum bill among lawmakers. This fight (which was recently bolstered by the creation of a JVP 501(c)(4) called JVP Action) is part of an international movement driven by activists called No Way to Treat a Child that grew out of work by done by the Defense for Children International-Palestine and the American Friends Service Committee.
Jill Charney is a member of JVP Boston who works on issues of legislative advocacy. She told me that the chapter has demonstrated outside the offices of Congress members and called on constituents to send lawmakers postcards in support of the bill, but she cited town halls as one of the most effective ways to push JVP-backed policies. Now that Lynch is on the record voicing support for the legislation, she said local activists can work on pressuring him to live up to his word.
“We usually ask targeted questions about the legislation’s human rights issues and/or its First Amendment rights issue,” said Charney. “When the audience is on our side [like the Lynch town hall] the lawmaker is influenced to be public and less ambiguous with their stand. We then can use the public declaration (because it is on video of course!) to put their feet to the fire. That is exactly what we are doing as we pressure Rep. Lynch to make good on his public promise to sign on to HR2407.”
Milt’s targeted question and Charney’s point about holding lawmakers to their word, points toward a potentially effective angle. Virtually every Democratic politician has criticized the crisis along the southern border and the Trump administration’s handling of it. Since most of them are on the record condemning policies of child detention and the separation of families, there’s an obvious element of hypocrisy if they fail to support McCollum’s bill.
In fact, some of these policies’ most vocal critics are Democratic presidential candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but they’ve reportedly ignored calls to introduce a companion bill to H.R.2407 in the Senate.
It remains to be seen whether Rep. Lynch will actually become a co-sponsor of McCollum’s bill, but if he does it won’t be the first time that a politician was swayed on Israel/Palestine legislation via a town hall. In 2017, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was questioned by a JVP member at a town hall event in the Bronx. Gillibrand was asked about her support for S.720, a bill that aimed to penalize supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
“I urge you to not only not support such a bill, but to come out in opposition to it, and to urge your colleagues to do the same,” JVP’s Steve Siegelbaum told the Senator. “This is not what I as a Jew wish for, it is not what the world needs. What we need is support for the rights of the Palestinian people, peace for Palestine, peace in Israel.”
“I am open to looking at it again because I do not want to undermine people’s free speech rights on any level,” Gillibrand said in response. A week later she withdrew as a co-sponsor.