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Rep. Betty McCollum has become one of the strongest critics of Israeli policy in Congress

The St. Paul Democrat has frequently taken positions that put her at odds with her colleagues.

Rep. Betty McCollum
Rep. Betty McCollum has said that she is pro-Israel and supports Israel as a key U.S. ally. But she is different from other members of Congress in her consistent, vocal criticism of Israeli human rights abuses.
MinnPost photo by Lorie Shaull

Israel’s staunchest critic in Congress is from Minnesota. She has spent years talking about putting an end to human rights abuses around the world, including looking at human rights violations in Israel.

It’s not Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has been the target of criticism for her comments on Israel. It’s her colleague: Rep. Betty McCollum.

This year, McCollum, who represents Minnesota’s Fourth District, introduced the second iteration of a bill that would prohibit the use of U.S. military funding by Israel to detain Palestinian children: the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act or H.R. 2407.

Like most members, McCollum has said that she is pro-Israel and supports Israel as a key U.S. ally. But she is different from other members of Congress in her consistent, vocal criticism of Israeli human rights abuses — and for taking legislative action to try to address them.

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Detaining children

Since 2000, Israeli security forces have detained more than 10,000 Palestinian children. The U.S. State Department has documented numerous instances of human rights abuses against Palestinian minors in Israeli prisons since at least 2013.

McCollum’s bill, citing the State Department’s reports, says that the 2016 report noted “significant increase in detentions of minors” and also “highlighted the renewed use of ‘administrative detention’ against Palestinians, including children, a practice in which a detainee may be held indefinitely, without charge or trial, by the order of a military commander or other government official.” Organizations like The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all come to similar conclusions.

McCollum’s chief of staff, Bill Harper, said the reason for the bill is simple to articulate: “Human rights violations are being committed by the government of Israel. That’s why. Period.”

As a whole, the U.S. government currently provides Israel with $3.8 billion annually in military aid. McCollum’s bill doesn’t cut off that funding. Instead, it aims to cordon off money from being used to detain Palestinian children.

“Part of our foreign policy philosophy is the success and well-being of a nation is dictated in part how children are being treated,” said Harper. “So when this issue came forward, where we view this as a clear violation of human rights and the human rights of children, that’s the impetus of this for her.”

That emphasis has won the endorsement of at least 26 human-rights focused groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace.

“Palestinian children, like all children, should never be dragged from their homes in the middle of the night by armed soldiers, denied contact with their families, and held in military detention where they often are mistreated and abused,” said Beth Miller, government affairs manager at Jewish Voice for Peace. “Our tax dollars should not go toward funding this systemic abuse. By introducing H.R. 2407, Congresswoman McCollum is helping build conditions for justice and equality.”

But while McCollum’s bill may be popular with advocates, it’s less so with her colleagues in Congress. It has just 21 cosponsors in the House.

2006 and beyond

Being in a small minority in Congress criticizing Israeli policy is a familiar position for McCollum.

She was one of only 37 members of Congress who voted against the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, which imposed harsh sanctions on Palestine and designated the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority as a “terrorist sanctuary.” As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she joined one colleague in opposing the bill moving out of committee. And she made clear her reasoning then, saying the bill “would place so many restraints on aid to the Palestinian people, and so many restrictions on the administration’s ability to deal with the Palestinians, that even the State Department has opposed it.”

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That same year, when a volunteer for AIPAC lobbied McCollum, McCollum says that they told her office “support for terrorists” would not be tolerated, something she took extreme offense to (the volunteer disputed McCollum’s version of events).

“During my nineteen years serving in elected office, including the past five years as a Member of Congress, never has my name and reputation been maligned or smeared as it was last week by a representative of AIPAC,” McCollum wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2006, asking for an apology from the organization. She never received one publicly.

More recently, McCollum was also one of only 17 “no” votes against Rep. Bradley Schneider of Illinois’ resolution opposing the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), a movement that aims to apply political pressure on Israel through tactics like boycotting Israeli products.

Her understanding of the treatment of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities did not come out of nowhere. She released the first iteration of the bill in 2017, but prior to that, in 2015 she led a letter sent with 18 other colleagues to then-Secretary of State John Kerry about the mistreatment of Palestinian children.

“There could be no more clear demonstration of American commitment to Israel than the more than $3 billion of U.S. taxpayer funds which are invested annually to ensure the security of the Israeli people,” they wrote. “However, respecting and defending the human rights of children, regardless of their ethnicity, race, religion, or nationally, is a fundamental American value, as well as a priority for all Americans, that cannot be ignored.”

Israel and antisemitism

Despite her consistent criticism of Israeli policy, McCollum has received little scrutiny compared to Omar, whose brief statements on Israel often dominate the news cycle for weeks at a time.

At least some of Omar’s scrutiny comes from when she described her understanding of Israeli influence on American politics as “all about the benjamins.” The statement was condemned by a variety of Jewish groups as being rooted in an antisemitic stereotype. Omar apologized for the post.

Apologies nothwithstanding, Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have taken to frequently calling Omar “antisemitic.” In April, several House Republicans drafted a resolution explicitly to condemn Omar’s comments. To draw attention to the resolution, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, a cosponsor, hosted a press conference in which a speaker described Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan (the first and only two Muslim women in Congress) as “Jihadist congresswomen.”

The resolution itself critiqued Omar for saying, among other things, “Drawing attention to the apartheid Israeli regime is far from hating Jews.” McCollum and progressive Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace have also used the word “apartheid” in reference to the situation in Israel.

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“In her nearly two decades in Congress, Rep. McCollum has been a vocal and frequent critic of Israel’s policies and its treatment of Palestinians and, while she has garnered critique among the pro-Israel Jewish right, she has drawn nowhere near the ire that Rep. Omar has in her short time in Congress,” said Libi Baehr, who handles communications for the Minneapolis/St.Paul chapter of IfNotNow, a national progressive Jewish organization that opposes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“These disparate responses have far less to do with actually combatting antisemitism than they do with Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia. Omar faces a higher degree of scrutiny, and attack, because she is a black, immigrant, Muslim woman.”

Similar accusations were leveled at her predecessor, Keith Ellison, who is also black and Muslim.

For state Sen. Sandy Pappas, a DFLer who lives in McCollum’s district, the reason Omar has received so much scrutiny compared to McCollum lies somewhere in between their language and their identities.

“[Omar] hasn’t said anything that Rep. McCollum hasn’t said. I think it’s more because she’s new, because she’s a Muslim, because she’s a woman of color. And newbies are supposed to be quiet and mind their elders,” said Pappas, who is Jewish. “I think she could be a little more cautious in her statements, but that’s not her. She speaks truth to power.”

Pappas also pushed back against the notion that any criticism of Israel was inherently antisemitic.

“Israelis are not monolithic,” said Pappas. “American Jews are not monolithic either in how we view the Middle East. I feel kind of frustrated that anytime anyone is critical of Israel that they’re put in that antisemitic box.”

Pappas, who has family in Israel and travels there often, said that McCollum has been a steadfast advocate for peace in the region.

“I support her legislation. I think just as we need to be concerned about how our country is treating migrant children at the border, that the Israeli government needs to be responsible for how they’re treating Palestinian children. So I really see a parallel there.”

“I think it’s perfectly fine for people and Jews ⁠— Jewish legislators ⁠— to criticize the Israeli government when it’s appropriate.”

The bill is a vehicle

The prospects for McCollum’s bill in Congress are unclear. The first time she introduced the bill, in 2017, it had 30 cosponsors. This time, it has only 21.

Rep. Seth Moulton, who is now running for president, withdrew his support in a lengthy statement that acknowledges the detention of Palestinian children but argues that the new bill is too expansive in its enforcement mechanism. Rep. Rosa De-Lauro of Connecticut withdrew from the bill earlier last month after saying her staff accidentally co-sponsored it.

But the bill also has some new cosponsors, like Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Chuy Garcia of Illinois, and Omar.

Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, said that even if Congress doesn’t take up a vote on the bill, at the very least it generates conversation and shows where members are on the issue.

“We have an ally. A country in which we provide $3.8 billion in U.S. aid. We have a country that within the borders of Israel is a democracy. That shares many of our values. And yet nearly 3 million people live under military occupation,” he said. “And Israel’s military, the mightiest military in the region, is arresting children in the middle of the night. Detaining them, interrogating them, abusing them, some would say torturing. And inflicting what we characterize as systemic trauma. And this has gone on for 20 years at least.”

“The bill is a vehicle to discuss this issue. The bill is a vehicle to elevate and put this issue of the treatment of children on the table.”