The US congress has a good claim to being the most loyal supporters in the US, if not the world, of whatever the Israeli government does. For the longest time the Israel lobby in the US, led by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was able to command the support of Congress for even the most right-wing Israeli government policies, however cruel and unjust towards the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories and Gaza. It managed this by contributing to congressional campaigns and working hard to defeat any congressperson who voiced even the mildest criticisms of Israeli policies.
The leadership of the Democratic party in the House of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer), along with their Republican counterparts routinely makes pilgrimages to the annual meetings of AIPAC to swear their undying loyalty to Israel. The Democratic leader of the Senate Chuck Schumer boasts openly that he sees himself as on a mission from God to be a guardian of Israel. This solid wall of top establishment support made even otherwise progressive politicians hesitate to say anything that might offend the lobby. Even mentioning the existence of the lobby was enough to bring down a rain of criticism on anyone who did so, that doing so was anti-Semitic. People who espoused politics that were progressive but stayed silent on the question of Palestine came to be called PEPs (Progressive Except for Palestine).
That wall of silence was broken with the publication in 2007 of a long article and book titled The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by two respected academics John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen R. Walt that exposed how the lobby influenced US policy. They were duly vilified but they weathered the storm and by doing so brought this topic into the mainstream discourse so now discussions of the lobby are routine.
But Congress continued to be a bastion of support and could be counted upon to pass almost unanimously any resolution in support of anything and everything the Israeli government did, however much it went against international law, UN resolutions, or basic human rights. They even invited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the joint session of Congress at a time when he was actively seeking to torpedo the Iran deal that Barack Obama was negotiating. George Orwells’s evocative phrase “like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern ” well described how they would fall in line when called upon to do so by the lobby. But as Alex Kane and Lee Fang write, even that is changing.
Two examples illustrate this. It may not be well known that all new members of Congress are invited on an all-expenses paid trip to go to Israel where they are treated lavishly. Although it is an ‘invitation’, the top leadership of both parties strongly urge them to go and new members are usually unable to resist the pressure. On these trips, the members are exposed to just the Israeli side of the story, ignoring or downplaying the Palestinian side. But this year, a new Palestinian-American member of congress Rashida Tlaib is issuing a direct challenge to the lobby by trying to organize an alternative trip.
RASHIDA TLAIB, A Democratic representative-elect from Michigan, belongs to a cohort of incoming members of Congress who’ve vowed to upend the status quo — even on third-rail issues in Washington like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To that end, Tlaib is planning to lead a congressional delegation to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, she told The Intercept. Her planned trip is a swift rebuke of a decades-old tradition for newly elected members: a junket to Israel sponsored by the education arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby group.
The AIPAC trips are among the lesser-known traditions for freshman members of Congress. They’re typically scheduled during the first August recess in every legislative session and feature a weeklong tour of Israel and meetings with leading Israeli figures in business, government, and the military. Both critics and proponents of the AIPAC freshmen trip say the endeavor is incredibly influential, providing House members with a distinctly pro-Israel viewpoint on complex controversies in the region. In recent years, the Democratic tour has been led by incoming Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Incoming Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., traditionally leads the Republican trip.
Tlaib, who is the first Palestinian-American woman to be elected to Congress, hopes to draw on her roots in the region to offer her fellow incoming representatives an alternative introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said her group will focus on issues like Israel’s detention of Palestinian children, education, access to clean water, and poverty. She may even take them to Beit Ur al-Foqa, the village where Tlaib’s grandmother lives, in the northern West Bank.
It is unclear who will join Tlaib on the trip. She is still working out the details of when it will take place and what advocacy organizations she will partner with to fund the delegation. But Tlaib is clear about one thing: She wants her delegation to humanize Palestinians, provide an alternative perspective to the one AIPAC pushes, and highlight the inherent inequality of Israel’s system of military occupation in Palestinian territories, which Tlaib likens to what African-Americans in the United States endured in the Jim Crow era. She is not planning any meetings with the Palestinian Authority or with Israeli government officials, a mainstay of the AIPAC trips.
Human rights activists contend that AIPAC’s trips are a major factor in tilting the scales in Washington, D.C. toward policies that reflect the interests of the Israeli government over Palestinians, helping policymakers to disregard Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, its settlements, and its military strikes against the Gaza Strip.
Tlaib is not stopping her defiance of the lobby with just this trip. She has also spoken in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Another new congressmember Ilhan Omar has also spoken in favor of BDS. The lobby has been working hard to make the case that supporting BDS is anti-Semitic and even getting states to pass laws that punish people in varying ways for doing so. There is now an effort to do so at the federal level.
Tlaib’s announcement of her pro-BDS position comes just weeks after Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., faced a firestorm of criticism, including accusations of anti-Semitism, for coming out in favor of BDS. Omar and Tlaib are the only two members of Congress to publicly support the movement, but their outspokenness is an indication of a shifting conversation in Washington about unconditional U.S. support for Israel, despite its harsh rule over Palestinians.
This new effort is due to the fact that popular opinion in the Democratic grass roots is at odds with the party leadership’s strong and unconditional support for Israeli policies. But the lobby is still powerful and likely to use its clout with the leadership of the two parties to try and suppress this movement. But it is getting harder and harder to do so as the Democratic party takes on more progressive stands that appeal to younger voters. Younger people, including many who are Jewish, feel the pull of justice to be stronger than the pull of tribal identity and thus are now far less likely to give unconditional support to whatever Israeli does and are openly critical of its policies and even using words like apartheid, something that would have been utterly unthinkable just a decade ago.