By Hatem Abudayyeh – Aug 27, 2021
On 10 June, the US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN) mobilized to stage a sit-in protest at the Chicago office of US Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat.
The protesters demanded that Schakowsky co-sponsor HR 2590, the Palestinian Children and Families Act, a bill written and introduced by US Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota. If passed, the bill would help protect the rights of Palestinian children and their families.
It would prohibit Israel from using US taxpayer dollars to “support the military detention of Palestinian children, the unlawful seizure, appropriation, and destruction of Palestinian property and forcible transfer of civilians in the West Bank, or further annexation of Palestinian land in violation of international law.”
There has not been as promising a piece of legislation conditioning US aid to Israel for many years. Although we recognize that HR 2590 will not lead to the end of settler-colonialism, apartheid and Zionism in Palestine, we support it as a start.
McCollum’s bill has 29 co-sponsors from the US House of Representatives, including a number of progressives, and can be used as a tool for organizing and education.
Since she was not on site, Schakowsky’s staff pressed us to leave the office, but we held our ground and began chanting until she was reached by phone on Capitol Hill. As national chair of USPCN and a constituent of hers who opposes her position on Palestinian rights and freedom, I was tasked to demand that she co-sponsor HR 2590.
We engaged in a seven-minute conversation that was relatively civil until she was pressed to explain why she would “fall all over herself” to equate the violence of the Israeli occupation with Palestinian self-defense, which is what initially prompted the launching of our campaign to challenge her historical support for Israel.
When Israel embarked on its 11-day assault on Palestinians in May in which at least 260 Palestinians were killed, including at least 66 children, Schakowsky published a toothless statement calling for an end to the violence from both sides. Tellingly, she asserted (emphasis mine): “We have now seen nearly 500 rockets fired indiscriminately at Israeli cities, sending civilians running for their lives. Israel has legitimately responded with retaliatory strikes in Gaza.”
Calling the Israeli strikes “retaliatory” purposely distorts the timeline and is a clear defense of Israel’s aggression. The unified resistance, which includes all the Palestinian forces across the political and ideological spectrum – from the Islamic parties to the Marxist-Leninists and everyone in between – only significantly ramped up its response after Israeli forces stormed the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, attacking worshipers shortly before Eid al-Fitr and injuring more than 300.
Occupation forces also stepped up their criminal attempts at ethnically cleansing Palestinians living in Jerusalem neighborhoods Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. These forces provided months of cover and support for intimidating, white supremacist, Israeli settler violence that continued beyond May and into the summer.
In fact, the resistance even gave Israel a deadline for withdrawal from the al-Aqsa mosque compound and Sheikh Jarrah before initiating its defense operations. We insisted to Schakowsky that the Palestinian people have the right to defend themselves from Israeli military attacks on worshipers and Jerusalem residents.
Her tired, Zionist-talking-point reply? “Do you support Hamas?”
The call ended with Schakowsky failing to sign on to HR 2590, though she did state that she would take “yet another look at it” and talk to other House members. We continued our sit-in, shutting down the district office and insisting that we would not accept business as usual while our people were being ethnically cleansed and killed in Palestine.
The direct action was long overdue, as USPCN and other Palestinian and solidarity forces in Chicago and its suburbs have been asking Schakowsky to prove her progressive bona fides in favor of Palestinian rights for many years. Joining us at the sit-in protest were a number of network members, along with allies from the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Black Lives Matter-Chicago, Organized Communities Against Deportations, GoodKidsMadCity, Students for Justice in Palestine, Freedom Road Socialist Organization and other organizations.
An executive board member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Schakowsky has been a legitimate champion for many issues that we in the Palestinian-American community care about, including criminal justice reform and the rights of women, workers and immigrants. But when it is time to challenge Israel beyond symbolic, Democratic Party-inspired gestures – like boycotting then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech during Barack Obama’s presidency – she, like many of her colleagues in Congress, slips into a progressive except for Palestine stance.
We reject Schakowsky’s claims of “progressive” status while she supports the settler-colonialist, racist, white supremacist, apartheid policies of the Zionist state of Israel. We will continue to put pressure on her and other progressives across the US, many of whom have for too long received a pass from Palestinians and our supporters.
In addition to the sit-in, USPCN later organized a week of action that included call-in days to both Schakowsky’s Chicago and Washington, DC offices, another protest of her Chicago office (this time, they bolted the lock from the inside and would not allow us entry), and a Lights for Palestine picket at the entrance to the world-famous and super-busy Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive.
Schakowsky is not used to this kind of political pressure from the left. She is an elder statesperson in the US House of Representatives and is highly respected in a number of Chicagoland circles in which USPCN organizes.
But our friends and allies understand why we press her, and since our campaign includes the participation of immigrant rights, Black liberation, peace and justice, American Jewish anti-Zionist, student and other forces, she must be on notice.
And she should be concerned. Many Palestinians refer to the resistance that Israel encountered in May as the Unity Uprising.
The Unity Uprising inspired people across the world to stand up for Palestinian rights and against apologists for Israel.
The Palestinian resistance between the river and the sea to Israel’s occupation, colonization and ethnic cleansing helped mobilize tens of thousands of protesters in the US and hundreds of thousands around the world.
Some colleagues of Schakowsky’s in Congress came out forcefully during the uprising. For instance, Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri resoundingly condemned Israel from the floor of the House. She, Mark Pocan, Marie Newman and 22 other members sent a letter asking US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take action against “Israel’s imminent plan to forcibly displace nearly 2,000 Palestinians” from the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. Still others co-sponsored McCollum’s HR 2590.
But not Schakowsky. She still hasn’t co-sponsored McCollum’s bill months later.
USPCN is a street organization that believes in direct action while working to build a community base in the cities where we have chapters. We helped lead several of the mass mobilizations in the US during the Unity Uprising and have historically challenged Zionists at every turn, supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns by protesting Israeli dance troupes, basketball teams, academics and war criminal representatives of the apartheid state.
But diversity of tactics is also important. Legislative organizing helps project our campaigns to new audiences. Consequently, USPCN is a community-based backer of HR 2590.
We work closely with Defense for Children International-Palestine and the American Friends Service Committee – co-leaders of HR 2590 advocacy – to target not only Schakowsky, but other progressives in Congress across the country. Our Southern California chapter is looking to put pressure on Katie Porter, deputy chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
In the Bay Area, we are part of a coalition that works to hold Congresswoman Barbara Lee accountable on Palestinian rights. And our members in Wisconsin and Michigan will be asking Congresswoman Gwen Moore and have already asked Congresswoman Debbie Dingell to co-sponsor HR 2590 immediately.
The people are demanding an end to US and other imperialist governments’ military, financial and diplomatic support for Israel. They will target those like Schakowsky who claim to be progressive, but are blatantly providing such support to Israel.
When I was growing up, there was a very popular slogan that we chanted at Palestinian rights protests and rallies in the 1980s and 1990s during the grim days of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the 1987-1993 intifada. In November 1975, just a short time after the Vietnamese defeated US imperialism and liberated their nation, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379, by a vote of 72 to 35, determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”
Although non-binding, we took the UN resolution to mean that ours was a legitimate anti-colonial, anti-racist struggle like those in Vietnam, Algeria, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Following that vote, we routinely chanted: “Zionism is racism.”
In 1991, the UN revoked the determination, but especially in the years of Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and the resurgence of white supremacy, the world still sees the struggle in Palestine as one of white settler-colonialism, of racism, of Zionism.
Our campaign, on some level, exposes Schakowsky’s Zionism. It demands that she recognize the racism and white supremacy of the state of Israel and condemn it the way Cori Bush does.
Otherwise, Schakowsky cannot really call herself a progressive or an anti-racist.
As we said directly to Schakowsky during the sit-in: “At the very least, congresswoman, can’t we say that we don’t want [Palestinian] children to be tortured by the Israelis?”
More than two months later, Congresswoman Schakowsky still hasn’t been able to take this minimal step.
Hatem Abudayyeh is co-founder, Chicago chapter member, and national chair of the US Palestinian Community Network.
Featured image: Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky has been strong on many important progressive issues, but now is being pushed by constituents to do more for Palestinian rights and freedom. Chris Riha ZUMA Press
Hatem Abudayyeh has been with the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) since 1999, and was appointed Executive Director in 2003. The son of Palestinian immigrants who themselves were leaders in Chicago’s Arab community, Hatem was born in Chicago and coached varsity basketball and baseball as an administrative assistant at Mather High School before joining AAAN. He was elected Vice President of the Board of Directors of the Coalition of African, Arab, Asian, European, and Latino Immigrants of Illinois (CAAAELII) in 2006, is a founding Advisory Board member of the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), and sits on the National Coordinating Committee of the United States Palestine Community Network (USPCN).