Thursday, November 11, 2010

My meeting with Henry Waxman (thanks, Eldad)

Disclaimer: I wrote the following a couple of hours after my encounter with Congressman Henry Waxman today. This is not verbatim, it is not a transcript, but it is my recollection of the conversation. I've kept in everything from our discussion as I remembered it - including the things I said that could have been much better.

It's not every day you see a Representative of the House outside of the coffee shop you're about to enter. Well, at least not one as recognizable as the liberal titan Henry Waxman. But there he was: talking on his phone on the street corner, only ten feet away from me.

Dear lord, I thought to myself. Should I say something to him? Should I say something about ending military aid to Israel, ending the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan? Oh god, I should, but I hate confrontations.

The congressman continued to walk around on his phone, talking to someone who was probably Very Important about a Seriously Important Subject. Should I say something?

Waxman went into a next door restaurant and sat down to eat with another man, someone I didn't recognize. Oh damn, there went my opportunity, I thought. I don't want to interrupt his lunch – that would be rude.

And I almost walked away. But then I thought: Our two wars and occupations are rude - they don't give a damn if they interrupt anyone's lunch. I'm never going to get this opportunity again. So I quickly contacted some friends and asked – what should I say to Henry Waxman? Several people told me: just tell him you're young, you're Jewish, and you're disappointed in the way congress has dealt with Israel and Palestine. Let the conversation go from there.

I waited around for a few minutes outside, deliberating with myself if I should spark what was sure to be a tense conversation in a crowded place. And just as I was about to chicken out – this was a Congressman, after all – I saw Mr. Waxman and his companion exit the restaurant, walking directly towards the car I was standing next to.

Excuse me, I said as Waxman approached, before I really realized what I was doing, are you Henry Waxman?

Yes I am, he replied, strolling up to me, ready to talk with this random citizen on the street. This was actually a pleasant surprise – I was expecting him to shake my hand and then quickly rush off to whatever Important Meeting he had next.

It wasn't to remain pleasant for very long.

My name's Brian Van Slyke, and I'm a young Jewish American, I said.

Okay, nice to meet you, he said as he stuck out his hand for me to shake.

I took his hand and shook , and the words just spilled out: I just want to say that I'm really disappointed in the way your Democrat-led congress has dealt with the Palestine/Israel issue.

Well, there was no going back now.

He nodded his head slowly, as if he already knew where this were going.

I can't believe that Congress continues to provide Israel with 3 billion dollars in military aid every year, I continued. To me, this is in direct opposition to the promotion of freedom, democracy, and human rights you liberal Democrats claim to promote.

He stood up a little straighter and his eyes widened – this certainly wasn't what we was expecting to hear.

That money is supporting an apartheid wall, it is being employed to expand Israel's illegal colonies, it is maintaining a deadly and unjust occupation, it -

Wait a minute, he said, waving his hand. Let me stop you right there before you take your rhetoric too far.

Okay, I had had my say – I was ready to hear his response.

There are nations in the Middle East that want nothing more than to wipe Israel off the map, and that money we give is to protect them from that threat. The Separation Wall was installed to stop terrorist attacks. It was put up and it has stopped Palestinians from blowing themselves up and killing innocent Israelis.

I could almost see him mentally going down the AIPAC checklist of responses.

You can't - I began to interject.

Wait a minute, he insisted, waving his hand again. Let me say what I have to say. You said your part, let me say mine. That was fair, I thought. I don't like when people interrupt me, so I was willing to respect that for him as well – even though he had certainly cut me off only moments ago.

He went on: And the settlements, he seemingly emphasized his watered-down choice of the words - settlements – to contrast my far more accurate term (colonies), well they are another story. If you are talking about the settlements in Jerusalem, that's one thing. If you're talking about the settlements in the West Bank, that's another. The settlements in East Jerusalem are a difficult matter, as they are in the capital of that state [Israel]; but if you're going to have a Palestinian state, they are going to want East Jerusalem for their capital. The settlements in the West Bank, well I certainly agree that those have to stop in order to bring about a two-state solution. But the Separation Wall, that has saved innocent people's lives.

This was just too much – I had so many rebuttals boiling inside of me that I nearly blurted them all out at once. But I took a deep breath and decided to take him point-by-point: I think you're completely wrong there. That Wall, which is enforcing apartheid rule, is not maintaining peace but fostering misery. It makes life unbearable for many Palestinians – it has stolen countless Palestinian land; it has cut families and towns off from each other; trips to work or school that were once normal now take hours or are just impossible to make at all. Its destroying lives, towns, and economies while stealing land. You can't say that's saving innocent lives because -

He cut me off: Look, before terrorists were killing Israelis in buses and now they're not.

I'm sorry, I said, slightly indignant, I let you finish, so will you let me finish what I was saying?

No, you said your thing, then I said my thing, and now I have to go. We don't have time to talk about this whole issue in this small discussion. By the way, I think you're understating some of your case and overstating other parts. He, along with the man he had been dining with, started to make towards the car next to me. But I wasn't ready to let him get off that easily.

The military aid to Israel which you and the rest of congress provide is the thing that is killing innocent people. That money goes to build weapons that kill Palestinians, bulldoze homes, and maintain Gaza as the world's largest open air prison camp! It -

There are Arab nations in the Middle East that want to destroy Israel! He stammered, still heading towards the car. Some of those include Palestinians!

Now, that just made no sense. He was obviously frustrated.

First of all, I began (okay, I was losing my cool too – my voice was on the rise), that just has no basis in reality! Palestinians don't have a nation. You can't just make things-

They were supposed to! Israel withdrew from Gaza and said have this country, we will help you build an economy - but their will was to elect Hamas! He was reaching for the car door, opening it, but still facing me and arguing.

There were so many absurd statements in that single sentence that I was simply flabbergasted. Honestly, my next reply should have been more thoughtful, but I was just at a loss for words. I had no idea how to reply to a man that was so detached from reality.

You honestly don't understand the situation, do you? You don't seem to know the issue at all, it's as though-

I know what apartheid is! He insisted as he climbed into the passenger seat and his companion entered the driver's side. I know what apartheid looks like. That is not apartheid.

He closed the door without another word.

I bent down and looked into the window, but he refused to make eye contact with me and stared straight ahead as his companion put the keys into the ignition.

No, I raised my voice loud enough so that the car window wouldn't be a barrier. You know who knows what apartheid looks like? That would be Desmond Tutu! I'm pretty sure Desmond Tutu is more familiar with apartheid than yourself. And he says that there is apartheid in Israel and Palestine!

The congressman just shook his head and did not respond. The engine had started and his companion, who hadn't said one word the whole time, shifted the car into drive.

By the way, that's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I continued, perhaps louder than I should have, Nobel peace prize winner, who lived under and struggled against apartheid in South Africa. Are you really going to disagree with Desmond Tutu on what apartheid looks like?

The car drove off without another response.

I looked around and saw that there were people looking at me oddly – but I didn't feel ashamed, I just became aware that my heart was pounding from nervousness and adrenaline. I was glad that I had overcome my initial trepidation.

I finally went and got that coffee I was initially after.

I don't think our little argument will change Congressman Waxman's mind in anyway, nor do I suspect that he will he wake up tomorrow suddenly aware of the errors of his way. Yet, I do think our encounter shook him up. I'm fairly positive that the last person he would've expected to challenge him on military aid to Israel would be a young Jewish kid on the street. But alongside my Jewish peers that openly challenged Prime Minister Netanyahu just yesterday, I think we're beginning to show the old guard that we do not share the loyal-to-Israel-no-matter-what mentality. Instead, that identity is rapidly fading for many Jews who are instead reclaiming their long legacy of standing for social justice.

So, I hope Mr. Waxman tells his colleagues – Democrats and Republicans alike – of this unfortunate, annoying, and surely frustrating occurrence. And this is the message I hope he carries: whether you are the Prime Minister of Israel speaking to a massive gathering of Jews, or you are a Congressperson outside of a coffee shop who happens to meet a young Jew, it is no longer safe to assume that we all abide by the blind allegiance to a state that falsely claims to speak for everyone of us. Rather, our allegiance is to our fellow human beings, and especially to those that are oppressed - and that means challenging the apartheid and colonialist policies of Israel wherever we find them.

I hope they are beginning to understand that we are everywhere.

Brian Van Slyke is an activist as well as an educator. He has facilitated workshops and classes on everything from organizing protests to the history of colonialism and slavery. He was raised by a Jewish mother who taught him solid non/anti-Zionist principles.