Mckayla Wilkes is trying to unseat one of the country’s most hawkish Democrats

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This is the latest edition of The Shift — Mondoweiss’s newsletter covering the battle over Palestine in the U.S politics. This newsletter is published every Thursday.

Subscribe to The Shift, a weekly newsletter from Michael Arria tracking the politics of Palestine in the U.S.

Mckayla Wilkes Hopes to Upset Hoyer in Maryland Primary

Mckayla Wilkes is mounting a primary challenge against House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in Maryland’s 5th district. Hoyer is one of the most pro-Israel Democrats in the House and has represented the district for almost 40 years. Wilkes is running an unapologetically progressive campaign and Palestinian rights are important part of her platform. She was recently endorsed by JVP Action. “Hoyer represents the corporate wing of the Democratic party that is holding us back from real change,” said Jewish Voice for Peace Action Government Affairs Manager Beth Miller at the time, “Wilkes is part of the rising progressive left and would truly represent her district – and we’re proud to endorse her.”

Wilkes was nice enough to chat with me about Palestine, Hoyer’s foreign policy record, and COVID-19 this week:

On Palestinian rights being an important part of her campaign

Mckayla Wilkes: I see what’s happening in Israel and Palestine as a human rights issue. Being a black person in America, I understand what it’s like to be treated as a second-class citizen. So for me, it became a personal issue and I really believe that we shouldn’t put foreign policy on a back burner as a second-tier issue, so that’s why it’s really important for me to speak out. It’s just the right thing to do.

On Steny Hoyer’s awful foreign policy record

We differ so much on foreign policy. I believe in a peace-based foreign policy vs. Hoyer, who believes in a war-based foreign policy. He voted for the Iraq War, I would have opposed it. It’s really important for people to understand why we need new ideas when it comes to foreign policy, especially people in our district, because we really need to begin to take an anti-imperialist approach and focus more on helping others instead of bombing countries.

On anti-BDS laws

Hoyer was actually the co-sponsor of an anti-BDS bill and he’s on the record saying he doesn’t co-sponsor many bills, but that is one that he decided to co-sponsor. These bills completely uphold the status quo…the status quo that it upholds is one in which Palestinians aren’t part of any state at all and it’s just completely unacceptable that Hoyer would be someone to condemn a nonviolent tactic that’s trying to change the status quo.

Are things shifting on Palestine in Washington?

I feel as though this dialogue is beginning to open up, I think attention is being brought to it. I believe that our politics are changing. So, this is the perfect time to talk about these issues and champion these issues and to fight for human rights. To finally put foreign policy on the platform, instead of treating it like a second-tier issue.

On the COVID-19 crisis and what it says about our current system

I think it shows that our system is not centered around people at all. We are seeing every disparity possible highlighted; in the health care sector, in public education, with livable wages, and we’re also seeing the differences as they pertain to class. Certain people are able to sit at home because they work a different kind of job and we have others who have to go out on the front lines, like our grocery workers, our cab drivers, our Uber drivers, our Instacart drivers. The real heroes, our health care workers…we’re seeing them have to go out and risk their lives. It’s showing that we need an overhaul of our political system.

We see that with the recent stimulus package that they passed. They ran out of money for small businesses, but big businesses were still collecting millions of dollars. Some of them gave the money back, but it’s the principle that they were even allowed to get the money in the first place. “Regular people” were given a one-time, means tested payment of $1200, that everyone still hasn’t even gotten and everyone won’t receive it. It’s the same cycle over and over again, the big businesses are bailed out and the regular people are forgotten.

Even now as it pertains to health care, I have heard talks of congress expanding COBRA. How out of touch do you have to be to think that expanding COBRA is a solution to people not having health insurance, when COBRA is more expensive than employer-based insurance? We are at a point where we should be setting the stage for Medicare for All by expanding Medicaid and Medicare to everyone that is not insured right now. But instead, as always, they are going to hand out a big bailout to the health insurance companies by signing onto expanding COBRA. It really speaks to the strength of our campaign that we are looking at these issues. If there’s one upside to all this, it’s that a lot of people are starting to shift more to the left than they ever thought they would be. I think it’s because for so many people this is a shock to them. So many people have never been in these situations, but for so many other people this is just another day to them. Every day they have these worries and it’s starting to open up the eyes of everyone. This is what life was already like for a lot of people.

Israel’s Detention of Children

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, UNICEF is calling for countries to release all children in detention, including Palestinian children. Here’s some of the group’s statement:

We are seriously concerned over the continued detention of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities.At the end of March, 194 Palestinian children were detained by the Israeli authorities in prisons and detention centres, mainly in Israel, according to data released by the Israeli Prison Service. This is higher than the monthly average number of children detained in 2019. Of the total, the vast majority of these children have not been convicted of any offense but are being held in pre-trial detention….

Children in detention face heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, with physical distancing and other preventive measures often absent or difficult to achieve. Moreover, since the start of the COVID-19 crisis in Israel, legal proceedings are on hold, almost all prison visits are cancelled, and children are denied in-person access to their families and their lawyers. This creates additional hardship, psychological suffering, and prevents the child from receiving the legal advice to which they are entitled. For children awaiting trial, these pressures could put them under increased pressure to incriminate themselves, pleading guilty to be released faster.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), who is the author of a historic bill calling for an end to child detention in Israel, tweeted her support for the call. “I support UNICEF in calling on Israel to release all Palestinian children in its military prisons. The COVID-19 pandemic and the abuse inflicted on these children justifies their immediate release.”

Democrats Not Prepared to Do Anything About Annexation

This week at the site, I wrote about how a few Democratic Senators (Chris Van Hollen, Tim Kaine, and Chris Murphy) are leading a letter to the Israeli government detailing their opposition to the potential annexation of the West Bank. The letter (which had been signed by seven additional Senators) is tame and forgettable. However, it does vaguely imply that there could be political consequences if the annexation plan moves forward.

The lawmakers quickly realized that they made a mistake. You can oppose annexation, expansion of settlements, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, or anything else Israel does. You can criticize Netanyahu and the Israeli government. You can even say some nice things about Palestinians. However, you can’t actually suggest the country that gives Israel over $3 billion a year should actually do something about any of this. Every part of the letter that hinted at an end to bipartisan support or broached the topic of conditioning military aid was promptly removed. It wasn’t much to begin with, but the watered-down version is completely useless.

The predominant Democratic position on this issue was comically summed up in an issue of the Jewish Insider’s Daily Kickoff this week. Mondaire Jones is a young Democrat running for Rep. Nita Lowey’s seat in New York’s 17th district:

The congressional aspirant, who rejects the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, supports giving security aid to Israel “no matter what.” His hope is that such aid will not be used in an effort to annex any part of the West Bank, which the Israeli government has indicated it plans to do as early as this summer. “But that is not a conditioning,” he hastened to add, lest his words be taken out of context.

The alterations to that Senate letter didn’t stop the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) from developing an action alert around it. The pro-Israel lobbying group sent an email out to its supporters declaring that it also opposes annexation, but stands firm in its commitment to do absolutely nothing about it ever:

There is nothing wrong with senators communicating their opposition to annexation — DMFI has done exactly that. But Joe Biden was right when he called the idea of further conditions on U.S. security assistance to Israel a “gigantic mistake.” The U.S.-Israel relationship benefits both countries. That fundamental relationship, grounded in shared values and shared interests, should not be threatened. Moreover, in dealing with Israel such threats are counterproductive.

Odds & Ends

✍️ Stuck inside, but looking for something constructive to do? The No Way To Treat A Child campaign has a published a fantastic guide for writing a letter to your local paper on behalf of Palestinian children.

“Letters to the editor, one of the most widely read parts of newspapers, can reach, educate, and inspire a broad audience,” it explains, “That’s why they’re such a powerful tool for advocating for the rights of Palestinian children. Local politicians often monitor the letters in their local papers to understand what their constituents care about, so it can also be a good tool to influence their views.”

Please shoot me an email if your effort gets published.

👨‍⚖️ Earlier this month, during a Supreme Court hearing on Trump administration NGO restrictions, Brett Kavanaugh threw out a weird hypothetical question. “Suppose the U.S. government wants to fund foreign NGOs that support peace in the Middle East but only if the NGOs explicitly recognize Israel as a legitimate state,” he said, “Are you saying the U.S. can’t impose that kind of speech restriction on foreign NGOs that are affiliated with U.S. organizations?”

It’s impossible to decipher what’s going on in the mind of Brett Kavanaugh at any given time and I’m not prepared to contemplate such a terrifying abyss, but the Jewish Telegraph Agency‘s Ron Kampeas thought “Kavanaugh’s question could be seen as reflecting the increasingly important role that Israel’s well-being has taken in mainstream conservative political thought over the past two decades.” Maybe. We probably can’t count on Kavanaugh to be on the right side of justice if a BDS case ever makes its way to the Supreme Court, but I think we already knew that.

🇺🇸 This week over 50 progressive and antiwar groups sent a letter to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, calling on him to adopt a “principled foreign policy…that prioritizes diplomacy and multilateralism over militarism.” The letter, which was spearheaded by Demand Progress, has a specific section devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

We call on you to use a combination of pressure and incentives, including leveraging the annual $3.8 billion in U.S. military funding to Israel, to get all parties to come to an agreement that upholds U.N. Security Council Resolutions and international law, including non-exhaustively: ending Israel’s military occupation; disbanding Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; ending the Israeli military blockade of Gaza; and ending all attacks on civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinian.

National Iranian American Council Action was one of the signatories. “This timely letter reflects the will of most Americans who demand peaceful resolutions to disputes abroad and greater resources devoted to pressing issues at home,” said its Senior Research Analyst Sina Toossi in a statement, “The next administration would be wise to adopt these principles for an enlightened foreign policy that would restore U.S. leadership and foster vitally needed global cooperation to address the challenges of our time.” 

🇵🇸 An AIPAC-endorsed letter that calls on the United States to defend Israel against investigations by the International Criminal Court has been signed by 69 Senators and 262 House members. This is essentially just a way to deny Palestinians the tool of international law while seeking justice. A lot of former 2020 candidates signed the letter: Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

🇮🇱 Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Lee Zeldin, and Donald Trump Jr. are celebrating the second anniversary of  the U.S. embassy moving to Jerusalem today by holding a Zoom fundraiser. Attendance will cost you $1,000.

🇵🇸 Tomorrow is Nakba Day and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the BDS MovementJewish Voice for Peace and the South African BDS Coalition are marking the 72nd anniversary of the catastrophe by holding a Zoom rally. Guests will include Roger Waters, Ken Loach, Chief Mandla Mandela, Janna Jihad and DAM. You can register to attend the rally here. It will also be livestreamed on Facebook.

Take care of one another. Wash your hands and wear a mask,