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'I have a right to speak up': Congresswoman McCollum not backing down to AIPAC

In exclusive interview with MEE, Betty McCollum says she will continue to push to protect Palestinian children despite AIPAC attack ads
AIPAC has likened Congress members critical of Israel, including McCollum, to Islamic State group (MEE/McCollum's official portrait)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Congresswoman Betty McCollum is not backing down from her criticism of AIPAC. 

After issuing a daring statement lambasting the pro-Israel group, the US legislator vowed to continue advocating for the human rights of Palestinian children and push against attempts to silence her.

In an interview with Middle East Eye, McCollum said AIPAC's attacks on Israel's Democratic critics in Congress prove that the organisation is not "inclusive or non-partisan" as it claims to be.

McCollum's remarks come as dozens of her Democratic colleagues gear up to attend the annual AIPAC conference that opens on Sunday. She said she did not ask anyone to skip the event. "Everybody has to make their own decision," but she herself will boycott the gathering.

'I am not going to look the other way and not acknowledge speech that is hateful which was directed towards me'

- Betty McCollum

"I choose not to attend. Why would I go to an organisation that thinks I'm a terrorist, thinks I'm worse than ISIS... I am not going to look the other way and not acknowledge speech that is hateful which was directed towards me," said McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat.

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The controversy started last month, when AIPAC - formally known as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee - ran inflammatory social media ads against legislators it called "radical Democrats". One of the posts featured McCollum along with Muslim-American congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. 

The post was accompanied with a petition suggesting that Congress members who oppose Israel are "more sinister" than the Islamic State militant group, known as IS or ISIS.

'I have a right to speak up'

On 12 February, McCollum issued an unflinching response accusing AIPAC of acting like a "hate group" that is using incitement to silence debate.

"Hate speech is intentionally destructive and dehumanising, which is why it is used as a weapon by groups with a stake in profiting from oppression," her statement said.

The congresswoman, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000, appears to have zero regrets about confronting the pro-Israel organisation head-on. 

"I live in a country which values freedom of speech and freedom of opinion," she told MEE, adding that it was important for her to reject attempts to "bully" and "belittle" those challenging governmental policies.

AIPAC's recent attacks against McCollum seem to stem from her introducing a bill that would ban US aid to Israel from being used to detain Palestinian children.

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"I am free to criticise the actions of my government here as a member of Congress who supports the safety and security of Israel as well as the Palestinian people," she said. 

"If I think that there's a policy decision that's detracting from the safety and security of people, I have a right to speak up and speak out about it."

The congresswoman also rejected accusations of antisemitism levelled against her, saying that making sure children are protected from the trauma of arrests and interrogations is the opposite of bigotry.

"To say that it's antisemitic to stand up for children's rights and human rights, that has nothing to do with antisemitism," she said. "Antisemitism is wrong, but it's not wrong to criticise a government's policy of detaining children."

HR 2407

McCollum's bill is currently in the Foreign Affairs Committee, which will decide whether to hold a hearing on it. The committee is chaired by Elliot Engel, a staunch Democratic supporter of Israel. 

McCollum said legislators take many factors into consideration before proceeding with a proposed piece of legislation, including its chances of passing. 

"We will, of course, be following up and asking for a hearing because we would love to shed light on to what's happening to these young Palestinian children in detention," the congresswoman said.

The bill has 23 co-sponsors, so far. Still, two legislators who initially backed it have withdrawn their support.

"A lot of people, when it comes to Middle East politics, they are hesitant to get involved because it is so complicated, and we have seen sometimes when you take a stand or make a step forward, there are people out there who are ready to vilify your action," McCollum said.

The Israeli military arrests as many as 700 Palestinians between the age of 12 and 17 annually, prosecuting them militarily "in violation of international standards", the bill states.

'If I think that there's a policy decision that's detracting from the safety and security of people. I have a right to speak up and speak out about it'

- Betty McCollum

The congresswoman introduced a similar measure in 2017, but after it failed to advance in the House, she reintroduced it to the new Congress last year.

"As someone who trained as a teacher, I think children are important and if we want to have peace in future generations, that means we need to invest in education and health care and opportunities for children," she told MEE. 

"When it was brought to our attention in 2015 what was happening to the Palestinian children, I wanted to make sure that my country, my government, was good enough to protect children. And that's how I started getting involved."

Demand for apology

From her early days in the House, McCollum has shown willingness to oppose AIPAC, leading her to cast some lonely votes. 

In 2006, she was one of 36 House members to oppose a bill that would have cut aid to the Palestinian Authority. The proposal passed in the House with the backing of 361 legislators.

Her first run-in with AIPAC dates back to that vote. At the time, the congresswoman demanded an apology from the pro-Israel group after she said an AIPAC representative told her chief of staff that "support for terrorists will not be tolerated".

'Antisemitism is wrong, but it's not wrong to criticise a government's policy of detaining children'

- Betty McCollum

"This response may have been the result of extreme emotion or irrational passion, but regardless, it is a hateful attack that is vile and offensive to me and the families I represent," McCollum wrote in an open letter to AIPAC at the time.

Sixteen years later, the congresswoman is still as fierce in rejecting AIPAC's tactics. 

After the latest episode, McCollum said her colleagues from both sides of the aisle were outraged by the ads, and so were the people in her district. "My constituents have been absolutely marvelous," she said.

"And I acknowledge and appreciate the support I've received from the Jewish community both nationally and at home in Minnesota.

"They may disagree with me on policy, but they don't disagree that I have the right to criticise the policies of a government if I think that government is doing something that harms children."

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AIPAC eventually issued an "unequivocal apology" for its posts, but fell short of addressing the concerns of the lawmakers who were targeted.

"The ad, which is no longer running, alluded to a genuine concern of many pro-Israel Democrats about a small but growing group, in and out of Congress, that is deliberately working to erode the bipartisan consensus on this issue and undermine the US-Israel relationship," AIPAC said earlier this month.

McCollum said the half-hearted apology was not sufficient.

"If they are to make an apology, it needs to be sincere, heartfelt, and it should come with a caveat - 'We will not repeat this mistake again'."

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