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What’s behind Rep. Betty McCollum’s most recent run-in with AIPAC

After the group compared the St. Paul representative to ISIS, McCollum accused it of weaponizing antisemitism and hate.

Rep. Betty McCollum
MinnPost photo by Lorie Shaull
Rep. Betty McCollum: “By weaponizing anti-semitism and hate to silence dissent AIPAC is taunting Democrats and mocking our core values.”
They compared Rep. Betty McCollum to a terrorist group.

In late January, The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC, posted advertisements on Facebook that said the Fourth District representative was antisemitic and anti-Israel.

In addition to targeting McCollum, the ads implicated Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, the first two Muslim women in Congress. The advertisement linked to a website where AIPAC went further and suggested the trio were a greater threat to Israel than ISIS: “It’s critical that we protect our Israeli allies especially as they face threats from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and — maybe more sinister — right here in the U.S. Congress.”

On Thursday, McCollum responded. “By weaponizing anti-semitism and hate to silence dissent AIPAC is taunting Democrats and mocking our core values,” she wrote in a statement. “I hope Democrats understand what is at stake and take a stand, because working to advance peace, human rights, and justice is not sinister, it is righteous.”

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This is by no means McCollum’s first run-in with AIPAC. Yet McCollum’s Chief of Staff, Bill Harper, told MinnPost that the advertisements still caught him and the representative off guard. “Frankly, it’s just shocking to see your boss, and for Betty, to see yourself, in an ad like that,” he said.

Since 2006

In 2006, an AIPAC volunteer was on a call with Harper. At the end of the meeting, Harper maintains that the volunteer told him McCollum’s “support for terrorists will not be tolerated.” The volunteer has disputed the quote.

The issue in question was McCollum’s vote against H.R. 4681, a bill that imposed harsh sanctions on Palestine and designated the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority as a “terrorist sanctuary.”

McCollum has been a forceful advocate for a two-state solution, but she said in public statements the bill went above and beyond the necessary steps needed to move toward that goal.

Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar
REUTERS/Caroline Yang
AIPAC ads on Facebook implicated Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first two Muslim women in Congress.
“I am a supporter of a strong US–Israeli relationship and my voting record speaks for itself. This will not change,” McCollum wrote in a public letter, after the incident. “But until I receive a formal, written apology from your organization I must inform you that AIPAC representatives are not welcome in my offices or for meetings with my staff.”

McCollum has long staked out lonely territory on U.S-Israel relations.

Last year, McCollum voted against a resolution condemning Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), a movement that aims to apply political pressure on Israel through tactics like boycotting Israeli products.

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In 2017, McCollum organized a letter with 18 other members, sent to then-Secretary of State John Kerry about the mistreatment of Palestinian children. Israeli security forces have detained more than 10,000 Palestinian children since 2000, and the U.S. State Department has documented numerous instances of human rights abuses against Palestinian minors in Israeli prisons since at least 2013. Last year, McCollum reintroduced H.R. 2407, which would prohibit the use of U.S. military funding by Israel to detain Palestinian children.

An apology

In early February, AIPAC released a statement responding to the controversy generated by the ad, and representatives from the organization spent part of last Wednesday meeting with Democrats on Capitol Hill. They apologized, but not to McCollum. Instead, they suggested that their language should have more precisely implicated Democrats like McCollum, instead of the whole party.

“We offer our unequivocal apology to the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress who are rightfully offended by the inaccurate assertion that the poorly worded, inflammatory advertisement implied,” the statement read.

McCollum’s chief of staff, Harper, said that AIPAC’s statement clearly was not an apology. “It was an attack, and they were covering their bases,” he said.

McCollum didn’t receive a public apology from AIPAC in 2006, either. And because of this escalation, on Friday, she told +972 Magazine, a left-leaning, Tel Aviv-based publication, that she has no plans to meet with AIPAC in the future: “Why would I meet with someone who thinks that I’m worse than a terrorist?”