Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, is treading where few in Congress dare: crossing the powerful pro-Israel lobby to condemn Israeli action and support Palestinian Arabs.
Nielson was the star of a press conference called Thursday by the Palestinian Academic Freedom Network in the National Press Club to try to pressure Israel into reopening long-closed Arab universities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.Nielson has already introduced a resolution calling for such action.
He succeeded in attaching similar wording last year to a foreign-aid bill calling for Israel to reopen elementary and secondary Arab schools closed since the Intifada Arab uprising began in 1987. Israel ordered them opened just a day after Nielson's resolution passed.
Meanwhile during the weekend, Israeli authorities reopened one of six universities closed for 30 months because of Palestinian uprising. The reopening of Ramallah College is seen as a test case.
"This was the first resolution of any kind that ever passed the Congress that in any way indicated Israel could improve some way," Nielson said. That is because pro-Israel groups wield enormous power in Congress by making heavy campaign contributions and mobilizing large numbers of vocal citizens for lobbying.
Despite such power, Nielson is confident Congress will pass his resolution calling for university reopenings because he says Israel is clearly wrong in keeping them closed - and even pro-Israel members of Congress are "quietly embarrassed" by it.
"This is not anti-Israel, it is pro-education," Nielson said. "Education should not be used as a political tool."
He said the universities have been closed for three academic years - idling 16,000 university students and hurting 40,000 high school graduates who cannot attend a university.
Israel also will not allow faculty to visit campus or use libraries or perform research or travel abroad to academic conferences. It has even outlawed holding any classes off campus, saying schools help foster unrest. Those who hold illegal classes anyway are hampered by lack of books and raids and arrests.
Nielson wrote in a letter to other House members recently that such "policy that fosters resentment is only likely to heighten tensions in the area," and serves only to keep a generation of Palestinians illiterate.
Nielson said that while many House members have said they support his bill - and 41 have co-sponsored it so far - many have asked him to have it passed on a "voice" vote so they will not have to register what some might see as an anti-Israel vote.
"That indicates they are embarrassed. If they were not embarrassed, they would not worry about a recorded vote," he said.
Michel Shehadeh, a founder of the Palestinian Academic Freedom Network, added that because the United States sends $3.5 billion in aid to Israel a year, it "has moral responsibility to put pressure on Israel to open universities and keep them open."
Nielson also complained his task is made harder by what he sees as a pro-Israel bias in the press. "If Israel does something wrong . . . it's always called retribution; whereas if it's Arabs, it's an unprovoked attack."