Last week Rep. Barbara Lee issued a press release about the situation in Gaza. “I mourn the tragic loss of innocent lives in Gaza and Southern Israel, and am deeply concerned by the ongoing and escalating humanitarian crisis,” it began. The statement went on to call for an immediate ceasefire and for intensive U.S. efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and to promote a two-state solution.
While condemning Hamas for its rocket attacks, it also included unmistakable criticism of Israel’s response: “military actions will not resolve the conflict, restore the peace, or end the violence. They are more likely to set in motion another tragic cycle of death, destruction, and deprivation.”
Of course, the statement left out a lot: It made no mention, for example, of the brutal blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza for years, nor of the land theft and settlements on the West Bank that have made a two-state solution all but impossible. And it ignored the root cause of the whole conflict, the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homeland to make room for a Jewish ethnocracy.
By the standards of mainstream American political discourse, however, the statement was downright decent.
The problem is that it didn’t come out until Jan. 15; until then, Lee had made no public statement about the Gaza onslaught. When she finally issued it, the war had already raged for 20 days, and the Palestinian death toll had topped 1,000, including more than 300 children. By then even two of the three key planners of the war—Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni —were openly calling for a ceasefire; only lame-duck Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was holding out for more death and destruction. The International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and UN officials from Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on down had denounced Israel’s tactics; the President of the General Assembly, Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, had called the attack “genocide.” Nine major Israeli human-rights groups had already accused their own government of war crimes.
Here in the U.S., 500 rabbis had already signed a full-page ad in the New York Times demanding a ceasefire, and thousands of Ms. Lee’s constituents and other Americans—including many Jews—had called, petitioned, marched, and sat in to protest the Israeli attack.
In short, Barbara Lee’s call for a cease-fire, welcome as it was, hardly represented the kind of moral and political leadership we expect from her. She was simply catching up—barely and belatedly—with progressive opinion at home and abroad.
In fact, she wasn’t even keeping pace with the best of her House colleagues. Rep. Dennis Kucinich had denounced Israel’s “disproportionate response” from the very beginning of the war. When he introduced a resolution detailing some of the destruction, quoting pertinent passages of the 4th Geneva Convention, and demanding an immediate ceasefire and unrestricted humanitarian access to Gaza, eight House colleagues, including Lynne Woolsey of Marin, Dianne Watson of Los Angeles, and John Conyers of Detroit, had the guts to sign on as co-sponsors. Where was Ms. Lee? AWOL.
She had displayed similar reticence the week before, when the House took up a resolution—sponsored by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but undoubtedly drafted by AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) or some other branch of the Zionist lobby—one-sidedly denouncing Hamas and offering uncritical support to Israel. Lee had the integrity not to join the 390 of her fellow representatives who voted in favor, and she inserted some critical comments about the resolution into the Congressional Record. But she lacked the clarity or courage to join Kucinich and four other brave souls (including LA’s Maxine Waters and Republican Ron Paul) in daring to vote “no”; instead, Lee (like Woolsey) was among 22 Representatives who simply voted “present.” (The Senate, including Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, had already voted unanimously in favor of a similar resolution.)
As these votes suggest, Congress remains Israeli-occupied territory—an overwhelming majority in both houses stands ready to line up behind Israel no matter what it does. In that context, what does it matter how Lee votes?
In strictly legislative terms, the obvious answer is “it doesn’t.” No one can argue that a sixth “no” vote on Pelosi’s resolution or a ninth co-sponsor for Kucinich’s would slow the Israeli onslaught for even a second.
But when you look beyond the walls of Congress, there’s plenty of evidence that more and more of the American public is ill at ease with our government’s policy of all-out support for Israel, and that’s where Lee’s positions matter. Even if most of the mainstream media are as fervent as ever in their backing for Israel, there have been important, and unprecedented, defections among liberal commentators: consider, among others, the daring critical observations on Gaza, Israel, and U.S. policy by comic Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, constitutional lawyer and popular blogger Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com, and long-time State Department aide Aaron David Miller in Newsweek. (All three happen to be Jewish.)
Nor is this ferment confined to the media elite. A poll conducted in the first days of the Gaza offensive by the respected Rasmussen Reports found that Americans supported Israel’s resort to military force by only a relatively narrow margin of 44 to 41 percent, with 15 percent undecided. Among Democrats, the results were even more striking: only 31 percent endorsed the Israeli attack, while 55 percent said Israel should have relied on diplomacy instead. And those results were published on Dec. 31, before the worst Israeli atrocities became known.
In other words, Americans are, at last, starting to wise up to what’s going on the Middle East, despite the manipulations of most of our media. The problem, as the recent Congressional votes show, is that the changing public mood has so far had only the most minimal effect in Washington.
Dennis Kucinich, to his eternal credit, is trying to change that. If Barbara Lee were to join him in his forthright denunciations of Israeli barbarism, it would make a difference: considering the prestige her steadfast opposition to American militarism has brought her, and the leadership roles she has played in the Congressional black and progressive caucuses, her endorsement would add legitimacy to Kucinich’s positions and set an example for other politicians to follow. That, in turn, could reinforce the changes in public opinion, setting off a virtuous cycle that might someday force a real change in U.S. and thence Israeli policy.
Instead, sad to say, the example Lee has set since the Gaza attack began is one of timid waffling—a posture that accomplishes nothing. As Dante may never have said, but John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. did, “the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
We know Barbara Lee is better than that. Call her office at (510) 763-0370 or (202) 225-2661 and tell them you’re waiting for her to take a leading role in opposing U.S. and Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.
Henry Norr, a Jew by birth, has spent six month in occupied Palestine.