The American congresswoman who can criticise Israel

Oct 22,2019

McCollum is the first and only US lawmaker to ban AIPAC representatives from her offices.

By Jessica Schulberg

Saint Paul’s Betty McCollum is radically progressive on US policy toward Israel. She described Israel’s state law as a ‘system of apartheid.’ Why Do not you ever hear about it?

Over the past few years, one member of Congress has stood up to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), denounced Israel’s policies, which she likened to “apartheid,” and pushed laws that would place humanitarian conditions on US military aid to Israel.

Human rights advocates praise her, and she is popular in her progressive district. But she is neither the face of the progressive left nor the bogeyman of Fox News. Unless you have lived in Minnesota — or read MinnPost— there’s a good chance you have never heard of her.

Her name is Betty McCollum, and she has represented Saint Paul for almost 20 years.

McCollum, who grew up in South Saint Paul, trained as a social studies teacher. After she graduated, she had a hard time finding full-time work, so she took on long-term substitute teaching jobs and worked part-time at Sears.

In 1984, McCollum’s toddler daughter fractured her skull falling off a playground slide that didn’t have enough sand at its base. The girl recovered quickly, but the city didn’t do anything about the playground until after McCollum pushed for it at a City Council meeting — a victory that prompted her to run for local office. She served on the City Council and in the Minnesota statehouse before she was elected to Congress in 2000.

There is no one moment that prompted McCollum to become one of the most outspoken members of Congress on Israel and Palestine. She tends to talk about the conflict as just one of the many human rights crises bedevilling the world.

Against anti-Hamas bill

In 2006, representatives of groups that provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinians warned McCollum of a looming humanitarian disaster. At the time, lawmakers were preparing to vote on the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, a bill ostensibly intended to isolate Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group that has been designated by Israel and the US as a terrorist organisation and that had recently won a majority in the Palestinian parliament.

The bill, humanitarian workers explained, would make it harder for aid organisations to provide lifesaving medical care to Palestinians. McCollum listened and was one of two members who voted against advancing the bill out of committee.

The bill, which was backed by AIPAC, passed easily in the House. But McCollum’s dissenting vote set her up for a feud with one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country.

On a Friday after the vote, McCollum’s chief of staff, Bill Harper, got a phone call from Amy Rotenberg, an AIPAC member who had met with McCollum on behalf of the organisation. McCollum’s “support for terrorists will not be tolerated,” Rotenberg said, according to Harper. Rotenberg, who declined an interview, described Harper’s characterisation of the conversation as a “serious distortion.”

“Bill Harper’s description of the conversation with me was false in 2006 and it is false now,” Rotenberg wrote.

Death sentence

McCollum was shocked. She wrote a letter to AIPAC’s executive director slamming the group for attempting to use “threat and intimidation to stifle legitimate policy differences.” She banned AIPAC representatives from her offices pending a formal apology from the lobbying group.

It was a lonely time to go up against AIPAC. J Street, the left-leaning alternative to AIPAC, did not exist yet. Members told McCollum that she had “written her death sentence,” she said.

“I went, ‘OK, if I lose an election over standing up for medical supplies for kids, OK, I am ready to go!’” McCollum said. “When I came back, the whisper kind of was, ‘You can survive!’”

McCollum never got a public apology, but she did eventually let AIPAC representatives back into her office. “But they do not bully her or do what they do to other members,” said Brad Parker, a senior adviser at Defence for Children International Palestine.

McCollum wins reelections in her progressive district by huge margins — she received 91 per cent of the vote in the 2018 primary and beat her Republican opponent by 36 percentage points. She has no interest in running for Senate, she said.

Tortures of Palestinian kids

In 2015, when a group of activists started organising in opposition to Israel’s military detention of Palestinian children, McCollum’s office was one of the first places they visited on Capitol Hill. Palestinian human rights is an outlier issue on Capitol Hill — “You do not even have access to a lot of offices; they do not want to deal with Palestinian organisations,” said Parker, whose group briefed McCollum’s team on the issue. “Those barriers don’t exist with Betty.”

They showed McCollum’s team a 2013 UNICEF report that described Israeli soldiers removing Palestinian kids from their homes in the middle of the night, blindfolding them and taking them to an interrogation centre. The kids were beaten, deprived of sleep and forced to sign confessions in a language they did not understand, without a lawyer present, the report said.

“It is like, ‘Wait a second. We are giving money, the US government, to UNICEF, to do this report — and we are giving money to the Israeli government to do the things that the report is about,’” Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, said. “What is wrong with this picture?”

The US currently gives Israel $3.8 billion a year in military aid. Since World War II, it has received more US foreign assistance than any other country, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most countries that receive US assistance are subject to extensive restrictions on how the aid is used. But for Israel, much of the money goes directly into its Ministry of Defence, with little American oversight, Harper said.

Bill in support for Palestine

In 2017, McCollum introduced a bill to block US aid to Israel from being used to “support the military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill-treatment of Palestinian children in violation of international humanitarian law.”

She reintroduced the bill in April, this time with language that would amend the so-called Leahy law, which prohibits the US from providing military assistance to foreign governments that commit “a gross violation of human rights.” The current bill would also set aside money to fund nongovernmental organisations that provide physical, psychological and emotional treatment for Palestinian children who have been detained by the Israeli military.

The bill has 21 co-sponsors, all Democrats. Two additional Democrats withdrew their names as co-sponsors. When Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) pulled her name, she tweeted that her “heart has always been with the children of Palestine” and that she was pushing leadership “hard” for a vote on a “resolution supporting a two-state solution.

McCollum pushed back: “Rep. Dingell removed her name from HR 2407, calling it ‘counterproductive to a peaceful, two-state solution,’” McCollum tweeted. “Does ongoing US funding for Israeli military detention and abuse of Palestinian children promote peace or human rights violations?”

McCollum estimates that if all of the members who told her in private they liked the bill were willing to support it publicly, she would have another 20 co-sponsors. But she also knows the bill has almost no chance of making it out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by the staunchly pro-Israel Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) — much less becoming law. Engel and Dingell did not respond to requests for comment.

“It is the obvious bill that still will not get passed,” said Jaylani Hussein, head of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Apartheid Israel

Last year, McCollum accepted an award from the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. During her acceptance speech, she described Israel’s nation-state law — which reserves the right to self-determination in Israel for Jewish people — as a system of apartheid.

For a sitting member of Congress to use the word “apartheid” in reference to Israel is radical — almost inconceivable. But her comments attracted almost no national attention.

With the exception of fringe actors, such as Zionist Organization of American President Mort Klein, most of the people from the pro-Israel community who weighed in on her speech offered measured criticism.

Steve Hunegs, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, expressed disappointment with her word choice and her decision to attend the event, but he also emphasised her past support for a two-state solution. He did not accuse her of anti-Semitism.

McCollum thinks the conversation about Israel is shifting among her colleagues. The leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who has vowed to annex parts of the West Bank — has Democrats concerned that prospects for a two-state solution are disappearing.

Without a two-state solution, “do we have apartheid in Israel?” McCollum asked. “Do we have something similar to Jim Crow laws, which we had a struggle with in this country and we are still facing the repercussions that are with race relations? Do we not say anything?”

The conversation is slowly shifting, but it is not hard to imagine what would have happened if Omar, the congresswoman who represents the district across the river from McCollum’s, had used the word “apartheid” in reference to Israel.

McCollum works “excruciatingly” hard to make sure that what she says about Israel is “based on evidence” and is backed on reports, Harper said. She goes out of her way to make clear that she is not attacking Jews or Israelis, but the policies of a government, Harper continued.

“Undoubtedly, Representative McCollum is one of the leading human rights champions on Palestinian human rights on the Hill, consistently for years, without fail,” said Beth Miller, the government affairs manager at Jewish Voice for Peace.

Source: Huffington Post