Public Comment

On Tristan’s Case, Barbara Lee Gets in Gear

By Henry Norr
Wednesday April 01, 2009 - 09:34:00 PM

What a difference a week makes! In the previous issue of this paper, I criticized Rep. Barbara Lee for, among other things, failing to speak out promptly and strongly after Israel forces critically injured one of her constituents, Tristan Anderson, by firing a high-velocity tear-gas canister at his head in the aftermath of a non-violent demonstration in the occupied West Bank. 

Since that column appeared, the Congresswoman has: 

• Issued a new and much stronger press release, in which she declared, “It’s obvious that something went horribly wrong in the Village of Ni’ilin and I am determined to get to the bottom of this tragic incident.” (The only problem with that release was that the headline referred to the “Tristan Anderson incident in Israel.” With a little more practice I’m sure she and her staff will get it through their heads that the West Bank isn’t Israel!) 

• Met with the No. 2 and No. 3 officials in the State Department, Deputy Secretary James Steinberg and Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Jacob Lew, to question them about the incident. 

• Spoken by phone with Tristan’s parents, Nancy and Mike Anderson of Grass Valley, CA, who are now at his bedside in Israel. 

• Taken part in a conference call with East Bay activists seeking justice for Tristan and Palestine. 

• Addressed the issue on the floor of the House, where she said that she had asked the State Department for a public report on the incident and declared, “Those responsible for this tragedy—whether through negligence or intentional misconduct—must be held accountable.” 

• Posted a video of her House speech to her YouTube channel: LeeOnTristan. 

In short, at least on this issue, Barbara Lee has begun again to speak for me and, I hope, for you. I’m still sorry she didn’t stand up for Tristan sooner, but better late than never—in my book she deserves a lot of credit for what she’s done in the last week. 

Maybe—we’ll never know—she would have done the same even if friends of Tristan and of Palestine hadn’t mobilized to demand some action from her, but the timing certainly suggests that the grassroots pressure made a difference. It’s heartening to see that determined constituents can still have some effect on their representatives.  

Which is not to say I have any illusions that her efforts will have much influence on the State Department, much less on Israel. After all, the two Deputy Secretaries of State she spoke to were both selected by Hillary Clinton, who declared last year that “The United States stands with Israel now and forever.” Steinberg, according to the Wall Street Journal, was one of the principal authors of the shamelessly groveling speech Barack Obama delivered before the key Zionist lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), last June, just hours after he had locked up the Democratic presidential nomination. And Lew, who previously worked as Chief Operating Officer of Citigroup’s “Alternative Investments” unit, has substantial holdings in Israel bonds, according to his State Department financial disclosure statement. 

Altogether, it’s not likely that these characters are going to lean very hard on the Israelis, no matter what Lee says to them, and even if they do put in a few words, Israel will obviously blow them off. Hell, if the Israelis could get off scot-free when they killed 34 U.S. naval personnel and wounded another 170 aboard the U.S.S. Liberty, what reason is there to think the U.S. government will exact any price from them for attacking one lousy demonstrator? 

Still, it can’t hurt for Messrs. Steinberg and Lew and, with luck, their Israeli interlocutors to be reminded that there’s a growing constituency in this country that’s fed up with such atrocities. 

As for Tristan himself, he remains in the Tel HaShomer Hospital on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. “At this point,” his partner Gabrielle Silverman said on Tuesday of this week, “Tristan has been in the Intensive Care Unit for 18 days. He has had multiple life-saving surgeries, and is in critical condition although becoming more stable daily. We remain highly concerned about Tristan, considering his brain injuries, yet we know he is resilient and we hope he will recover.” Amen to that. 

For those of us who have worked to push Ms. Lee to stand up for Tristan, the challenge now is to get her to look beyond his case to the larger issues behind it—to acknowledge that the violence the Israelis inflicted on him is just a taste of what they do every week to the Palestinians, that that violence is part of a systematic, decades-long campaign of ethnic cleansing, and to recognize that it’s political support and economic assistance from Washington that make it all possible. 

I’m looking forward to the day when Lee heads to the House floor, and to YouTube, to say something like that. Or, better yet, the day she starts to use her House committee positions to challenge the billions of dollars the U.S. delivers to Israel annually and instead to demand economic sanctions until there’s justice for the Palestinians. 

That’s the day I’ll really be able to say that Barbara Lee speaks for me. 


Henry Norr, who is Jewish by background, can be reached at