Why is Rep. Barbara Lee, leader of the peace movement, being criticized by the left?
The latest induction ceremony for Sebastopol’s Living Peace Wall, erected to celebrate and commemorate advocates for peace and justice, has sparked a reaction at odds with its mission: Avoiding conflict.
The dissension stems from the inclusion of Rep. Barbara Lee, a veteran Democratic Congresswoman who represents Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda.
Heralded among wide swathes of progressives for her advocacy for the poor, the Black Lives Matter movement, gay rights, affordable housing and homelessness, Lee has more recently drawn the ire of those who say she has failed to stand up for the rights of Palestinians.
“We respect her for all the work she has done over the years, but on this issue? It’s PEP — Progressive Except Palestine. She’s a classic one,” said longtime North Bay activist Mary Moore of Occidental, herself a 2021 Peace Wall inductee.
It’s a simmering conflict that threatens to disrupt an event created to celebrate unity, not discord.
‘Everybody loves Barbara Lee’
Lee shot to prominence in September 2001 when she cast the lone vote against giving President George W. Bush open-ended authorization to use military force in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The vote in the House was 420-1 and the vote in the Senate was 98-0. Lee stood alone that day but has since been embraced and nearly canonized for her bravery and her prescience.
That vote is being examined, and exalted, anew as Americans mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks right after the U.S. withdrew troops after a 20-year military involvement in Afghanistan.
At the same time, a new documentary on Lee, “Speaking Truth to Power,” features stalwarts of the left, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Corey Booker and the late Rep. John Lewis, praising Lee for that historic vote and for her lifetime of advocacy.
But a contingent in the North Bay say the veteran congresswoman can’t rightfully be called an advocate for peace and justice because of her record on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Wall creator Michael Gillotti said he was caught off guard by the objection.
“We have never had this happen,” he said. “We chose Barbara Lee and everybody loves Barbara Lee.”
Gillotti, who met with the folks — many of whom consider each other allies in the left-leaning community — who oppose Lee’s position on Palestine, and called the points raised “legitimate.”
“But if you look at her overall person, her overall policy and her overall votes, she’s been a tremendous peacemaker,” he said. “My comment to them was ‘Who is perfect? Who is 100% perfect all of the time?’”
Since the project’s inception, Gillotti said the selection committee has been comprised of a Quaker, a retired minister, a Vietnam War combat veteran, a member of the peace and justice center and himself. They meet once a year. The people they select, typically a mix of North Bay residents and those with a larger audience, are then sent to the Sebastopol City Council for the final approval.
That’s so “we don’t put anyone too crazy on there,” Gillotti said. Never has a submission been rejected, he said.
In addition to Daniel Ellsberg and Dolores Huerta, inductees include Nelson Mandela, former Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey and former President Jimmy Carter.
Moore, 86, said she considered declining the honor because of Lee’s inclusion, but reconsidered.
“I feel like we are doing her a favor,” Moore said. “She has the chance to regain her legacy with the people she supposedly represents.”
Those opposed to Lee’s position have promised to be present at the ceremony, but vowed to be respectful.
Gillotti, who said Lee is expected to attend, said he has heard there will be signs, shirts and other forms of protest.
“To hijack the ceremony, to make it something we have never wanted it to be, which is a political rally, I think it’s insensitive. I object to that,” he said. “And yet they have the right to do that.”
Moore said she plans to address Lee directly in her remarks Saturday.
“I am going to turn to her and say, ‘I hope you will join us,’” Moore said. “I plan to be respectful, I really do.”
Politico has dubbed the heat being turned up on this issue “the latest Dem feud to watch,” adding that it is shaping into “a war between Justice Democrats and Democratic Majority for Israel.”
But for Therese Mughannam-Walrath, 74, it is personal. She was born in Jerusalem in June of 1947. She is Palestinian.
“I am older than the state of Israel,” she said.
A longtime advocate for the Palestinian people, Mughannam-Walrath’s name was etched on the wall in 2018 alongside those of Ellsberg and Huerta.
Mughannam-Walrath said Lee is not just a bystander on the issue but a powerful member of Congress who is former chair of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Black Caucus. Lee is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and co-chair of the Democratic Steering Committee.
Annual financial support of Israel to the tune of $3.8 billion compared with $235 million pledged to Palestine is incomprehensible, according to Mughannam-Walrath.
“To me, as a Palestinian, what is most offensive about this, it’s like throwing crumbs to the Palestinians and it is maintaining the occupation,” she said. “Someone with her intelligence — she is a Black woman — she gets how people suffer. That this is going on now, how can someone of her caliber and her political power ... how can she do this? I just don’t get it.”
Like Moore, Mughannam-Walrath said she had no plans to disrupt Saturday’s ceremony. It’s an opportunity to educate, she said.
“We have all agreed it would be hugely inappropriate to shame Barbara in any way when she is being honored,” she said. “We will be silent but very present witness to what she needs to do, what she needs to learn from all of us in relation to Palestine ... but there will not be any disruption, I hope and pray. We are using it as a challenge to educate people.”
Gillotti laments that Saturday’s ceremony, the first in two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, could be marred by protest, respectful or not.
“People love coming to them,” he said of the annual ceremonies. “They leave uplifted. It’s not a political rally. It’s a place where we honor people who work for peace.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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