One year ago, I watched election results coming in for Virginia's
Fifth Congressional District, where my friend and colleague Tom
Perriello was challenging incumbent Virgil Goode, Jr. CNN kept
flipping the winner because the vote was close. Finally, Tom emerged
with a 727-vote victory. I was elated, because I knew Tom and knew
his deeply rooted principles. And daring to accept that there might
be something to this overall atmosphere of change and hope espoused by
the President-elect, I felt encouraged by the seemingly new direction
and new leaders the country was embracing.
Two years earlier, I met Tom in Afghanistan when he arrived as a
consultant with the United Nations to explore transitional justice
possibilities for the country. I was already working for a human
rights organization, promoting rule of law, women's rights and
transitional justice. Tom had done similar work in Liberia helping
launch a truth and reconciliation commission.
We quickly saw eye to eye on the work and became friends over
discussions about the role of law in achieving justice in extremely
difficult conflict and post-conflict circumstances. I took Tom hiking
in the hills overlooking Kabul and we strategized on how to strengthen
the justice sector in Afghanistan. Of course, my work on Palestine
came up and Tom usually brought the discussion to the role of
international law and the need for accountability on all sides -
considerations that clearly help protect civilians, particularly
Palestinians living under occupation.
A year later, back in the US, Tom invited me to join a group of
dynamic young social entrepreneurs for a strategy/brainstorming
meeting that led to the creation of Avaaz - a kind of MoveOn.org for
the international community to organize for human rights, the
environment and other progressive causes. One of the first campaigns
launched by Avaaz was to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza in
January 2009 and for a robust international response to assure the
lasting cessation of violence.
Shortly after that founding meeting of Avaaz, I received an email from
Tom explaining that he was going to run for Congress in a long-shot
attempt to unseat a conservative Republican. It was a surprise, but
Tom was insistent he was going to retain his principles and values if
he won. He was excited about the prospect of making real change if
Obama became President. I shed my typical cynicism and encouraged
friends to contribute to his campaign.
Fast forward one year, to the present, and I have been shocked and
disappointed to learn that my friend Tom - a staunch supporter of
international law, human rights and equality for all - has voted as a
Congressman in favor of apartheid. On the face of it, House
Resolution 867 "Calling on the President and the Secretary of State to
oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration of the
'Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza
Conflict' in multilateral fora" was a typical AIPAC-inspired (or even
written) resolution to push the US Congress to support Israel when it
got into hot water internationally. Already the White House and State
Department have rejected the Goldstone Report, named for preeminent
South African justice Richard Goldstone, a well-known Zionist and
staunch supporter of Israel. Human rights organizations around the
world support the report, and the credentials of the commission were
outstanding. Judge Goldstone himself has repeatedly pointed out that
the report also calls to task Hamas for violations of international
So why did Tom vote in favor of H.Res. 867 and how is this apartheid?
I believe Congressman Perriello's vote resulted from the
almost-obligatory fealty to AIPAC displayed by members of Congress -
and perhaps his desire to get reelected.
Incumbents have learned over the years not to cross AIPAC if
re-election is important to them. This is not a tangential
correlation - ask former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, former Senator Charles
Percy and former President George H.W. Bush what happened to them when
they took stands helpful to securing Palestinian rights. So the logic
behind his vote is pretty simple.
But is winning everything? Even when it means voting for apartheid?
Where do accountability to self and the bedrock principles we
discussed in the Kabul hills enter the equation?
If the Goldstone Report concerned any other country than Israel as the
main perpetrator and any other people as victims than the
Palestinians, there is no doubt that the Report would be fully
endorsed in Congress and perhaps there would be House Resolutions
praising the work of the commission, supporting the role of the UN in
investigating war crimes, and affirming the need for the US government
to take action to support implementing the findings. That this
resolution was introduced against the Report because the primary
victims were Palestinian is an extension of Israel's policies of
discrimination that set Palestinians apart as a people with inferior
rights. Voting in favor was akin to a stamp of approval that
Palestinian lives are not equal: yes, they were killed, but so what,
their deaths are not worth investigating. Such blatant disregard for
a specific people's humanity and human rights in favor of another
people's superior rights and privileged standing can only be
understood as apartheid. Congressman Perriello and his colleagues
have turned their backs on international law and human rights. They
failed to offer a word of support for Palestinian freedom and the
lives of the more than 300 Palestinian children killed by Israel in
the winter war.
President Obama, unlike a well-trained and increasingly sycophantic
Congress, has set out to change America's image in the world. This
image is not undermined because of our relationship with Ireland,
Thailand or Chile - or even by North Korea, Iran, Pakistan or
Afghanistan, despite the seeming inadequacy of US policy to meet these
challenges. No, the consistent lack of US credibility in the world
spans Democrats and Republicans and is a consequence of our
relationship with Israel and the exceptionalism applied to an occupier
nation foisting apartheid on the Palestinians. Most of the world
grasps immediately the hypocrisy of the Congress when it votes against
the carefully documented work of Judge Goldstone, who has devoted his
life to fighting racism and apartheid.
When my friend Tom told me he was trying to become a Congressman, he
assured me that he would maintain who he was. The man I knew was
someone who fought for justice, who worked tirelessly to promote
international law and human rights, and who was aware of the reality
of Congress but determined to be different. Congressman Perriello, I
am afraid, has become like so many of his colleagues, a mere tool of a
hard-right AIPAC agenda that has no business dictating American
policy. He has become part of an American dog wagged by an Israeli
and AIPAC tail.
Voters are again disengaging because they continue to see too much
business as usual. Tom is just the latest manifestation of a
politician abandoning core beliefs.
What is most disappointing, perhaps, is not that my friend Tom is
missing in this incarnation of Congressman Perriello - who seems
willing to trade fundamental human rights for political expedience -
but that in the end I was right to be cynical.