By Jessica Schulberg
Over the past few years, one member of Congress has stood up to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), denounced Israel’s policies, which she likened to “apartheid,” and pushed laws that would place humanitarian conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel. Human rights advocates praise her, and she is popular in her progressive district. But she is neither the face of the progressive left nor the bogeyman of Fox News. Unless you’ve lived in Minnesota — or read MinnPost — there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of her.
Her name is Betty McCollum, and she has represented St. Paul for almost 20 years.
President Donald Trump — who loves to attack Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first Muslim congresswomen, for her criticism of Israel — has never once tweeted McCollum’s name. That the Democratic congresswoman who leads the vanguard of progressive U.S. policy toward Israel in Congress is not the subject of constant bad-faith attacks from the right is a testament to her pragmatism. But it also exposes the inconsistency of the outrage campaign directed at Omar and the other members of the so-called “Squad,” a group of progressive first-term lawmakers who are all women of color.
“Rep. Omar has a history of launching virulent anti-Semitic screeds,” Trump claimed at a campaign rally in Minneapolis on Thursday. “She is a disgrace to our country and she is one of the big reasons that I am going to win and the Republican Party is going to win Minnesota in 13 months,” he continued.
Trump’s attacks on the Squad, which also includes Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), “are intentionally done to rile up the racist instincts of a portion of his base,” said Dylan Williams, of the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street. “This double standard that’s being applied to these congresswomen is very clear, and it’s not a standard that has been applied to other congressional critics of Israeli policy and the occupation.” Omar, who is Black, Muslim and an immigrant from Somalia, represents “a perfect storm of characteristics that they could try to attack and portray as the problem to a white evangelical base,” said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
“Rep. McCollum,” Munayyer added, “didn’t fit the poster.”
McCollum, who grew up in South St. Paul, trained as a social studies teacher. After she graduated, she had a hard time finding full-time work, so she took on long-term substitute teaching jobs and worked part-time at Sears. In 1984, McCollum’s toddler daughter fractured her skull falling off a playground slide that didn’t have enough sand at its base. The girl recovered quickly, but the city didn’t do anything about the playground until after McCollum pushed for it at a City Council meeting — a victory that prompted her to run for local office. She served on the City Council and in the Minnesota statehouse before she was elected to Congress in 2000.
There is no one moment that prompted McCollum to become one of the most outspoken members of Congress on Israel and Palestine. She tends to talk about the conflict as just one of the many human rights crises bedeviling the world. As a lawmaker, she has shown a particular interest in policy aimed at protecting vulnerable kids: She has worked to provide HIV-AIDS assistance to orphans, prevent child marriage and fix crumbling schools for Native American children.
In 2006, representatives of groups that provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinians warned McCollum of a looming humanitarian disaster. At the time, lawmakers were preparing to vote on the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, a bill ostensibly intended to isolate Hamas, the group that has been designated by Israel and the U.S. as a terrorist organization and that had recently won a majority in the Palestinian parliament. The bill, humanitarian workers explained, would make it harder for aid organizations to provide lifesaving medical care to Palestinians. McCollum listened and was one of two members who voted against advancing the bill out of committee.
The bill, which was backed by AIPAC, passed easily in the House. But McCollum’s dissenting vote set her up for a feud with one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country. On a Friday after the vote, McCollum’s chief of staff, Bill Harper, got a phone call from Amy Rotenberg, an AIPAC member who had met with McCollum on behalf of the organization. McCollum’s “support for terrorists will not be tolerated,” Rotenberg said, according to Harper. Rotenberg, who declined an interview, described Harper’s characterization of the conversation as a “serious distortion.”
“Bill Harper’s description of the conversation with me was false in 2006 and it is false now,” Rotenberg wrote.
McCollum was shocked. She wrote a letter to AIPAC’s executive director slamming the group for attempting to use “threat and intimidation to stifle legitimate policy differences.” She banned AIPAC representatives from her offices pending a formal apology from the lobbying group. It was a lonely time to go up against AIPAC. J Street, the left-leaning alternative to AIPAC, didn’t exist yet. Members told McCollum that she had “written her death sentence,” she said.
“I went, ‘OK, if I lose an election over standing up for medical supplies for kids, OK, I’m ready to go!’” McCollum said. “When I came back, the whisper kind of was, ‘You can survive!’”
McCollum never got a public apology, but she did eventually let AIPAC representatives back into her office. “But they don’t bully her or do what they do to other members,” said Brad Parker, a senior adviser at Defense for Children International Palestine.
McCollum wins reelections in her progressive district by huge margins — she received 91% of the vote in the 2018 primary and beat her Republican opponent by 36 percentage points. She has no interest in running for Senate, she said.
In 2015, when a group of activists started organizing in opposition to Israel’s military detention of Palestinian children, McCollum’s office was one of the first places they visited on Capitol Hill. Palestinian human rights is an outlier issue on Capitol Hill — “You don’t even have access to a lot of offices; they don’t want to deal with Palestinian organizations,” said Parker, whose group briefed McCollum’s team on the issue. “Those barriers don’t exist with Betty.”
They showed McCollum’s team 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 beaten, deprived of sleep and forced to sign confessions in a language they did not understand, without a lawyer present, the report said.
“It’s like, ‘Wait a second. We’re giving money, the U.S. government, to UNICEF, to do this report — and we’re giving money to the Israeli government to do the things that the report is about,’” Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, said. “What’s wrong with this picture?”
The U.S. currently gives Israel $3.8 billion a year in military aid. Since World War II, it has received more U.S. foreign assistance than any other country, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most countries that receive U.S. assistance are subject to extensive restrictions on how the aid is used. But for Israel, much of the money goes directly into its Ministry of Defense, with little American oversight, Harper said.
In 2017, McCollum introduced a bill to block U.S. aid to Israel from being used to “support the military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children in violation of international humanitarian law.” She reintroduced the bill in April, this time with language that would amend the so-called Leahy law, which prohibits the U.S. from providing military assistance to foreign governments that commit “a gross violation of human rights.” The current bill would also set aside money to fund nongovernmental organizations that provide physical, psychological and emotional treatment for Palestinian children who have been detained by the Israeli military.
Last March, the Minnesota delegation of American Muslims for Palestine traveled to Washington to meet with McCollum and talk about her bill. At the end of the meeting, McCollum tweeted out a picture of her posing with the group. The congresswoman didn’t think much of it — she tweets pictures of groups she meets with all the time. But Palestinian activists are used to being ignored by their elected officials, AMP chapter lead Mariam El-Khatib said. When El-Khatib saw the tweet, she thought, “Wow, she doesn’t mind being associated with AMP or Palestinians doing this kind of work.”
The bill has 21 co-sponsors, all Democrats. Two additional Democrats withdrew their names as co-sponsors. When Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) pulled her name, she tweeted that her “heart has always been with the children of Palestine” and that she was pushing leadership “hard” for a vote on a “resolution supporting a two-state solution.”
McCollum pushed back: “Rep. Dingell removed her name from HR 2407, calling it ‘counterproductive to a peaceful, two-state solution,’” McCollum tweeted. “Does ongoing U.S. funding for Israeli military detention and abuse of Palestinian children promote peace or human rights violations?”
McCollum estimates that if all of the members who told her in private they liked the bill were willing to support it publicly, she’d have another 20 co-sponsors. But she also knows the bill has almost no chance of making it out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by the staunchly pro-Israel Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) — much less becoming law. Engel and Dingell did not respond to requests for comment.
“It’s the obvious bill that still won’t get passed,” said Jaylani Hussein, head of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Last year, McCollum accepted an award from the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. During her acceptance speech, she described Israel’s nation-state law — which reserves the right to self-determination in Israel for Jewish people — as a system of apartheid. For a sitting member of Congress to use the word “apartheid” in reference to Israel is radical — almost inconceivable. But her comments attracted almost no national attention.
With the exception of fringe actors, such as Zionist Organization of American President Mort Klein, most of the people from the pro-Israel community who weighed in on her speech offered measured criticism. Steve Hunegs, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, expressed disappointment with her word choice and her decision to attend the event, but he also emphasized her past support for a two-state solution. He didn’t accuse her of anti-Semitism.
McCollum thinks the conversation about Israel is shifting among her colleagues. The leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who has vowed to annex parts of the West Bank — has Democrats concerned that prospects for a two-state solution are disappearing.
Without a two-state solution, “do we have apartheid in Israel?” McCollum asked. “Do we have something similar to Jim Crow laws, which we had a struggle with in this country and we’re still facing the repercussions that are with race relations? Do we not say anything?”
The conversation is slowly shifting, but it’s not hard to imagine what would have happened if Omar, the congresswoman who represents the district across the river from McCollum’s, had used the word “apartheid” in reference to Israel. Like McCollum, Omar has spoken out against the influence of AIPAC and criticized the right-wing government in Israel. But, unlike the more senior lawmaker, Omar’s critics usually assume the worst interpretation of her words.
In the week immediately following Omar’s “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” tweet — an observation that members of Congress are willing to infringe on Americans’ right to criticize Israel because of money directed their way by pro-Israel lobbyists — Omar was roundly accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes about the influence of wealthy Jews. Her name was mentioned in 21 Fox News shows, 51 CNN shows and five MSNBC shows, The Intercept reported. Her name also appeared in nearly 500 newspaper articles, according to a Lexis Nexis search.
Omar apologized after the “Benjamins” tweet and said she was grateful for colleagues and allies who educated her on the “painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.” Later that month, she spoke at a progressive policy town hall about her fear that her legitimate criticisms of Israel will be misconstrued as anti-Semitism because she is Muslim. She asked why she is allowed to criticize the influence of the National Rifle Association and Big Pharma but not the influence of the pro-Israel lobby. But people paid attention to only one line in her remarks: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
Omar was talking about an effective political lobbying operation — one that includes plenty of evangelical Christians and is opposed by lots of American Jews. But Omar’s critics, including some liberals, insisted she was questioning the loyalty of American Jews. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait proclaimed she no longer deserved “the presumption of good faith,” and Engel accused her of “invoking a vile anti-Semitic slur.” Within days, the House passed a resolution condemning all forms of anti-Semitism, listing “accusations of dual loyalty” alongside the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
McCollum’s staff say that the reason she doesn’t evoke the same reactions as Omar is because she is careful with her words and has spent years cultivating close relationships in Congress, including with leadership and members on the other side of the political spectrum. McCollum works “excruciatingly” hard to make sure that what she says about Israel is “based on evidence” and is backed on reports, Harper said. She goes out of her way to make clear that she is not attacking Jews or Israelis, but the policies of a government, Harper continued.
I asked more than a dozen policy advocates and Capitol Hill staffers who work on Israeli-Palestinian issues about the disparate treatment between McCollum and Omar. All of them agreed that McCollum is careful and that she benefits from close relationships with her colleagues. But racism and Islamophobia are also part of the reason why Omar faces vitriolic backlash every time she weighs in on Israel while McCollum has gone relatively unnoticed, almost all of the advocates and Capitol Hill staffers said.
“Undoubtedly, Rep. McCollum is one of the leading human rights champions on Palestinian human rights on the Hill, consistently for years, without fail,” said Beth Miller, the government affairs manager at Jewish Voice for Peace. “The fact that she has never been attacked in the way that Reps. Tlaib and Omar have been speaks to the racism and Islamophobia that is very present in this conversation.”
Even if Omar used the same language that McCollum has in criticizing Israel, she would still be maligned as an anti-Semite, Munayyer argued. “You can try to be as careful as you want with your language, obviously it’s important that everyone should be careful with their language on this issue,” he said, “but when no matter what you say, you’re being attacked because of who you are. It’s not about what you’re saying, it’s about you having a voice on this issue.”
From the outside, McCollum and Omar seem like the perfect duo to bring real change to the U.S. conversation around Israel: a veteran lawmaker who has goodwill among her colleagues and a fiery newcomer who isn’t afraid of raising hell.
“People like Reps. Omar and Tlaib — and, to a certain degree, Bernie Sanders — are bringing much-needed attention to the occupation in ways that we’ve never seen before in Congress. But you also need workhorses like Rep. McCollum to quietly build consensus around legislation,” a senior Democratic Hill staffer said. “As in any movement, the two roles are complementary. You can’t make real change without both an inside and an outside strategy.”
Omar, who, through a spokesperson, declined an interview, is a co-sponsor of McCollum’s bill — but most of the time, the two members do their own thing.
“Ilhan is on the other side of the Mississippi River, and we talk sometimes in the break room in between votes,” McCollum said, adding that the same was true with Omar’s predecessors. But, at times, McCollum has seemed visibly annoyed with Omar and the controversies that surround her.
In March, McCollum put out a rare statement on her Minnesota colleague: “Rep. Omar has the right to speak freely, and she also must take responsibility for the effect her words have on her colleagues, her constituents, and the policies Democrats seek to advance,” McCollum said. “Democrats have an important agenda to advance and for any Member of Congress to be successful it takes the support of at least 217 colleagues to pass a bill. No one does this job alone.”
McCollum’s chief of staff put it more bluntly, “My own take on it is that she really derailed a lot of our work,” Harper said.
But as anyone who has tried to talk, write or argue about Israel and the Palestinians knows, there’s no way to do it that will please everyone.
“Given how detached the D.C. debate on Israel-Palestine is from the actual reality of what goes on there, there may be no way we move this debate closer to reality in a way that avoids tension entirely,” said Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “We just have to do our best to be as honest and sensitive and constructive as we can, but it’s a debate we need to have.”