Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), an outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, accused the influential lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee of being a hate group that weaponizes anti-Semitism to silence dissent.
Last month, AIPAC started running paid Facebook advertisements with pictures of McCollum, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). The ads warned that the “radicals in the Democratic Party are pushing their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people,” according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency. The ads included a link to a petition urging supporters to “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.”
“AIPAC claims to be a bipartisan organization, but its use of hate speech actually makes it a hate group,” McCollum said in a statement on Tuesday. “By weaponizing anti-Semitism and hate to silence debate, AIPAC is taunting Democrats and mocking our core values.”
The implication that McCollum and her colleagues represent a bigger threat to Israel than ISIS “is not a call to action, it is incitement,” McCollum said. Omar and Tlaib, who are the first Muslim women elected to Congress, have faced racist threats and attacks — including from the president. “Hate speech is intentionally destructive and dehumanizing, which is why it is used as a weapon by groups with a stake in profiting from oppression,” McCollum continued.
AIPAC removed the most offensive ads and apologized on Saturday for “the inaccurate assertion that the poorly worded, inflammatory advertisement implied.” But the group reiterated its claim that a certain group of members in Congress are “deliberately working to erode the bipartisan consensus on this issue and undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
No one from AIPAC has reached out to McCollum to apologize or discuss the Facebook advertisements, McCollum spokeswoman Amanda Yanchury told HuffPost in an email.
McCollum is currently pushing a bill in Congress that would place humanitarian conditions on America’s billions of dollars in military aid to Israel. Tlaib and Omar are among the bill’s 23 cosponsors. McCollum decided to pursue the long-shot legislative effort after reading a 2013 UNICEF report that described Israeli soldiers removing Palestinian kids from their homes in the middle of the night, blindfolding them, and taking them to an interrogation center. The kids were deprived of sleep and forced to sign confessions in a language they could not understand without guidance from a lawyer, the report found.
McCollum has long been one of the few members of Congress willing to criticize Israeli policy and stand up to AIPAC’s bullying. But her statement on Wednesday represents the strongest rebuke from a sitting member of Congress of a group that has a reputation of being untouchable on Capitol Hill.
“There’s always this narrative that AIPAC is not an organization you can criticize or else it will cost you politically,” Omar Baddar, the deputy director of the Arab American Institute said in an interview. “McCollum is proving that you can absolutely criticize AIPAC and criticize Israel’s human rights violations and go on to have a successful career.”
McCollum first challenged AIPAC in 2006 when a member of the group accused her of supporting terrorists because she voted against a bill AIPAC was backing. McCollum responded by banning AIPAC from her office pending a formal apology.
At the time, McCollum’s colleagues told her she had “written her death sentence,” she told HuffPost last year. “When I came back, the whisper kind of was, ‘You can survive!’”
Despite McCollum’s example, it is harder for members like Tlaib and Omar to criticize AIPAC’s influence on U.S. foreign policy without being accused of anti-Semitism. Omar learned this the hard way last year when she spoke at a progressive policy town hall about how it is acceptable for members of Congress to criticize the gun lobby and the pharmaceutical lobby but not the influence of the pro-Israel lobby. Critics — including her fellow congressional Democrats — took her remarks out of context and accused her of questioning the loyalty of American Jews.
“Being a brown Muslim in Congress means there’s a very different standard,” Baddar said. “No question they are more vulnerable because of that and end up having to watch how they engage in attacks about that.”