The Minnesota Congresswoman Who Can Criticize Israel…

St. Paul’s Betty McCollum is rad­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive on U.S. pol­i­cy toward Israel. Why don’t you ever hear about it?

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By Jessica Schulberg

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) has stood up to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 
Rep. Betty McCollum (D‑Minn.) has stood up to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 

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 U.S. 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’ve lived in Minnesota — or read MinnPost — there’s a good chance you’ve nev­er heard of her. 

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

President Donald Trump — who loves to attack Rep. Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.), one of the first Muslim con­gress­women, for her crit­i­cism of Israel — has nev­er once tweet­ed McCollum’s name. That the Democratic con­gress­woman who leads the van­guard of pro­gres­sive U.S. pol­i­cy toward Israel in Congress is not the sub­ject of con­stant bad-faith attacks from the right is a tes­ta­ment to her prag­ma­tism. But it also expos­es the incon­sis­ten­cy of the out­rage cam­paign direct­ed at Omar and the oth­er mem­bers of the so-called “Squad,” a group of pro­gres­sive first-term law­mak­ers who are all women of col­or.

Rep. Omar has a his­to­ry of launch­ing vir­u­lent anti-Semitic screeds,” Trump claimed at a cam­paign ral­ly in Minneapolis on Thursday. “She is a dis­grace to our coun­try and she is one of the big rea­sons that I am going to win and the Republican Party is going to win Minnesota in 13 months,” he con­tin­ued. 

Trump’s attacks on the Squad, which also includes Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D‑Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D‑Mass.), “are inten­tion­al­ly done to rile up the racist instincts of a por­tion of his base,” said Dylan Williams, of the left-lean­ing pro-Israel group J Street. “This dou­ble stan­dard that’s being applied to these con­gress­women is very clear, and it’s not a stan­dard that has been applied to oth­er con­gres­sion­al crit­ics of Israeli pol­i­cy and the occu­pa­tion.” Omar, who is Black, Muslim and an immi­grant from Somalia, rep­re­sents “a per­fect storm of char­ac­ter­is­tics that they could try to attack and por­tray as the prob­lem to a white evan­gel­i­cal base,” said Yousef Munayyer, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. 

Rep. McCollum,” Munayyer added, “didn’t fit the poster.”

Rep. Betty McCollum was told she'd "written her death sentence" by slamming AIPAC.
Rep. Betty McCollum was told she’d “writ­ten her death sen­tence” by slam­ming AIPAC.

McCollum, who grew up in South St. 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 bedev­il­ing the world. As a law­mak­er, she has shown a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in pol­i­cy aimed at pro­tect­ing vul­ner­a­ble kids: She has worked to pro­vide HIV-AIDS assis­tance to orphans, pre­vent child mar­riage and fix crum­bling schools for Native American chil­dren

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 group that has been des­ig­nat­ed by Israel and the U.S. as a ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion and that had recent­ly won a major­i­ty in the Palestinian par­lia­ment. The bill, human­i­tar­i­an work­ers explained, would make it hard­er for aid orga­ni­za­tions 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 orga­ni­za­tion. McCollum’s “sup­port for ter­ror­ists will not be tol­er­at­ed,” Rotenberg said, accord­ing to Harper. Rotenberg, who declined an inter­view, described Harper’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion 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.

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, didn’t 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’m 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 don’t bul­ly her or do what they do to oth­er mem­bers,” said Brad Parker, a senior advis­er at Defense for Children International Palestine.

McCollum wins reelec­tions in her pro­gres­sive dis­trict by huge mar­gins — she received 91% 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. 

In 2015, when a group of activists start­ed orga­niz­ing 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 don’t even have access to a lot of offices; they don’t want to deal with Palestinian orga­ni­za­tions,” 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 cen­ter. 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’s like, ‘Wait a sec­ond. We’re giv­ing mon­ey, the U.S. gov­ern­ment, to UNICEF, to do this report — and we’re giv­ing mon­ey to the Israeli gov­ern­ment to do the things that the report is about,’” Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, said. “What’s wrong with this pic­ture?”

The U.S. cur­rent­ly gives Israel $3.8 bil­lion a year in mil­i­tary aid. Since World War II, it has received more U.S. for­eign assis­tance than any oth­er coun­try, accord­ing to the Congressional Research Service. Most coun­tries that receive U.S. 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 Defense, with lit­tle American over­sight, Harper said.

In 2017, McCollum intro­duced a bill to block U.S. 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 U.S. 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 orga­ni­za­tions that pro­vide phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tion­al treat­ment for Palestinian chil­dren who have been detained by the Israeli mil­i­tary. 

Last March, the Minnesota del­e­ga­tion of American Muslims for Palestine trav­eled to Washington to meet with McCollum and talk about her bill. At the end of the meet­ing, McCollum tweet­ed out a pic­ture of her pos­ing with the group. The con­gress­woman didn’t think much of it — she tweets pic­tures of groups she meets with all the time. But Palestinian activists are used to being ignored by their elect­ed offi­cials, AMP chap­ter lead Mariam El-Khatib said. When El-Khatib saw the tweet, she thought, “Wow, she doesn’t mind being asso­ci­at­ed with AMP or Palestinians doing this kind of work.” 

The bill has 21 co-spon­sors, all Democrats. Two addi­tion­al Democrats with­drew their names as co-spon­sors. When Rep. 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 U.S. 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’d 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’s the obvi­ous bill that still won’t get passed,” said Jaylani Hussein, head of the Minnesota chap­ter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. 

From right, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) address the members
From right, Rep. Don Beyer (D‑Va.), Rep. Betty McCollum (D‑Minn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D‑D.C.) address the mem­bers of the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, on Dec. 4, 2015.

Last year, McCollum accept­ed an award from the U.S. 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 empha­sized her past sup­port for a two-state solu­tion. He didn’t 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’re still fac­ing the reper­cus­sions that are with race rela­tions? Do we not say any­thing?”

The con­ver­sa­tion is slow­ly shift­ing, but it’s 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. Like McCollum, Omar has spo­ken out against the influ­ence of AIPAC and crit­i­cized the right-wing gov­ern­ment in Israel. But, unlike the more senior law­mak­er, Omar’s crit­ics usu­al­ly assume the worst inter­pre­ta­tion of her words.

In the week imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing Omar’s “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” tweet — an obser­va­tion that mem­bers of Congress are will­ing to infringe on Americans’ right to crit­i­cize Israel because of mon­ey direct­ed their way by pro-Israel lob­by­ists — Omar was round­ly accused of traf­fick­ing in anti-Semitic tropes about the influ­ence of wealthy Jews. Her name was men­tioned in 21 Fox News shows, 51 CNN shows and five MSNBC shows, The Intercept report­ed. Her name also appeared in near­ly 500 news­pa­per arti­cles, accord­ing to a Lexis Nexis search. 

Omar apol­o­gized after the “Benjamins” tweet and said she was grate­ful for col­leagues and allies who edu­cat­ed her on the “painful his­to­ry of anti-Semitic tropes.” Later that month, she spoke at a pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy town hall about her fear that her legit­i­mate crit­i­cisms of Israel will be mis­con­strued as anti-Semitism because she is Muslim. She asked why she is allowed to crit­i­cize the influ­ence of the National Rifle Association and Big Pharma but not the influ­ence of the pro-Israel lob­by. But peo­ple paid atten­tion to only one line in her remarks: “I want to talk about the polit­i­cal influ­ence in this coun­try that says it is OK for peo­ple to push for alle­giance to a for­eign coun­try.”

Omar was talk­ing about an effec­tive polit­i­cal lob­by­ing oper­a­tion — one that includes plen­ty of evan­gel­i­cal Christians and is opposed by lots of American Jews. But Omar’s crit­ics, includ­ing some lib­er­als, insist­ed she was ques­tion­ing the loy­al­ty of American Jews. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait pro­claimed she no longer deserved “the pre­sump­tion of good faith,” and Engel accused her of “invok­ing a vile anti-Semitic slur.” Within days, the House passed a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing all forms of anti-Semitism, list­ing “accu­sa­tions of dual loy­al­ty” along­side the neo-Nazi ral­ly in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the mas­sacre at a syn­a­gogue in Pittsburgh. 

McCollum’s staff say that the rea­son she doesn’t evoke the same reac­tions as Omar is because she is care­ful with her words and has spent years cul­ti­vat­ing close rela­tion­ships in Congress, includ­ing with lead­er­ship and mem­bers on the oth­er side of the polit­i­cal spec­trum. 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. 

I asked more than a dozen pol­i­cy advo­cates and Capitol Hill staffers who work on Israeli-Palestinian issues about the dis­parate treat­ment between McCollum and Omar. All of them agreed that McCollum is care­ful and that she ben­e­fits from close rela­tion­ships with her col­leagues. But racism and Islamophobia are also part of the rea­son why Omar faces vit­ri­olic back­lash every time she weighs in on Israel while McCollum has gone rel­a­tive­ly unno­ticed, almost all of the advo­cates and Capitol Hill staffers said. 

Undoubtedly, Rep. 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. “The fact that she has nev­er been attacked in the way that Reps. Tlaib and Omar have been speaks to the racism and Islamophobia that is very present in this con­ver­sa­tion.”

Even if Omar used the same lan­guage that McCollum has in crit­i­ciz­ing Israel, she would still be maligned as an anti-Semite, Munayyer argued. “You can try to be as care­ful as you want with your lan­guage, obvi­ous­ly it’s impor­tant that every­one should be care­ful with their lan­guage on this issue,” he said, “but when no mat­ter what you say, you’re being attacked because of who you are. It’s not about what you’re say­ing, it’s about you hav­ing a voice on this issue.”

From the out­side, McCollum and Omar seem like the per­fect duo to bring real change to the U.S. con­ver­sa­tion around Israel: a vet­er­an law­mak­er who has good­will among her col­leagues and a fiery new­com­er who isn’t afraid of rais­ing hell.

People like Reps. Omar and Tlaib — and, to a cer­tain degree, Bernie Sanders — are bring­ing much-need­ed atten­tion to the occu­pa­tion in ways that we’ve nev­er seen before in Congress. But you also need work­hors­es like Rep. McCollum to qui­et­ly build con­sen­sus around leg­is­la­tion,” a senior Democratic Hill staffer said. “As in any move­ment, the two roles are com­ple­men­tary. You can’t make real change with­out both an inside and an out­side strat­e­gy.”

Omar, who, through a spokesper­son, declined an inter­view, is a co-spon­sor of McCollum’s bill — but most of the time, the two mem­bers do their own thing. 

Ilhan is on the oth­er side of the Mississippi River, and we talk some­times in the break room in between votes,” McCollum said, adding that the same was true with Omar’s pre­de­ces­sors. But, at times, McCollum has seemed vis­i­bly annoyed with Omar and the con­tro­ver­sies that sur­round her. 

In March, McCollum put out a rare state­ment on her Minnesota col­league: “Rep. Omar has the right to speak freely, and she also must take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the effect her words have on her col­leagues, her con­stituents, and the poli­cies Democrats seek to advance,” McCollum said. “Democrats have an impor­tant agen­da to advance and for any Member of Congress to be suc­cess­ful it takes the sup­port of at least 217 col­leagues to pass a bill. No one does this job alone.”

McCollum’s chief of staff put it more blunt­ly, “My own take on it is that she real­ly derailed a lot of our work,” Harper said. 

But as any­one who has tried to talk, write or argue about Israel and the Palestinians knows, there’s no way to do it that will please every­one. 

Given how detached the D.C. debate on Israel-Palestine is from the actu­al real­i­ty of what goes on there, there may be no way we move this debate clos­er to real­i­ty in a way that avoids ten­sion entire­ly,” said Matt Duss, a for­eign pol­i­cy advis­er to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.). “We just have to do our best to be as hon­est and sen­si­tive and con­struc­tive as we can, but it’s a debate we need to have.”