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 law.
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.