Progressive Vermont Rep. Becca Balint visited Israel on AIPAC trip – Mondoweiss
After the 2022 midterms Haaretz correspondent Ben Samuels wrote a piece titled, “Five New Progressives That AIPAC Will Be Watching Like a Hawk.”
Samuels identified Democrats headed to Congress that the lobbying group might look to target over their criticisms of Israel or defense of Palestinian rights. One of these progressives was Becca Balint of Vermont, a former state senator and local activist, who was elected to replace Rep. Peter Welch after Welch was elected to replace Sen. Patrick Leahy in the Senate.
Balint is the first female representative of the state and its first openly gay one. She was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, backs the Green New Deal, co-sponsored the Medicare for All bill, and is a vocal advocate for reproductive rights. She’s expressed a commitment to global human rights which she says is inspired by her father, a Holocaust survivor.
“This moment of watching the rise of autocrats and authoritarianism, it’s not theoretical for me,” she told the Times of Israel last year. “It’s impacted my family directly and [it’s important] to make that connection for people, that it’s not something that happened so long ago and it’s still impacting us now, and it can be a guidepost for how we do things in this moment.”
Like virtually every Democratic politician, Balint is an opponent of the BDS movement. However, she checks all the boxes for an AIPAC target. She’s backed by the liberal group J Street and she’s been more direct about the Palestine issue than most, referring to the “mechanisms of occupation – home demolitions, unjust detentions, displacement of families through illegal settlement expansions, ongoing bombings of Gaza, the strangling blockade of Gaza and harassment at checkpoints” that have made the lives of Palestinians “unbelievably challenging.”
So, why did Balint just get back from an AIPAC-organized trip to Israel?
Last month House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) led a delegation of 24 House Democrats, most of them in their first term, to the country on a trip sponsored by the AIPAC-linked American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF). The group met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, opposition leader Yair Lapid, and Palestinian Authority PM Mohammad Shtayyeh. In a statement on the trip Jeffries, “reaffirmed [the Democrats’] commitment to the special relationship between the United States and Israel, one anchored in … shared democratic values and mutual interests.”
The visit provided a much-needed PR boost for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has faced increasing criticism within the United States. During a press conference with the group he cited the trip as a rebuke to Israel’s critics. “I wanted to thank you for your position on antisemitism, for your position on the mendacious attack on Israel as an apartheid state, for your support for Israel’s security and for supporting the President’s effort to expand the peace,” he declared. “These are hectic times but they’re also full of promise.”
Balint’s office says the congresswoman also met with LGBTQ activists, a Palestinian peace activist, and toured an Iron Dome battery.
Unlike other attendees Balint was mum about the visit across her social media platforms.
Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP) member Wafic Faour told Mondoweiss that local activists were surprised when they saw that Balint was going on the AIPAC trip. He says multiple VTJP members wrote to the congresswoman, calling on her to visit Palestinian communities and Palestinians under occupation, but didn’t get a response.
“I voted for her as progressive voice for Vermont,” said Faour. “Before my vote, I questioned her campaign office about her standing on Palestine/ Israeli question. They [voiced support for] Palestinian rights..and never taking money from AIPAC. Since winning, she has never accepted to meet us to discuss this issue.”
Balint’s office didn’t respond to an inquiry about the trip from Mondoweiss, but she did address the issue in an interview with the Vermont alternative weekly Seven Days.
Balint said she had “deep concerns” about Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, his government’s “anti-Arab, anti-LGBTQ” policies, and his expansion of illegal settlements. She says she went on the trip to learn more about the region and that her positions on the issue deviate from many of her colleagues.
“I was on this trip with people who absolutely disagree with me,” she explained. “And we had very spirited conversations about the judiciary, about the situation in the West Bank in Gaza in terms of the settlements writ large … I want to be in those conversations, and I don’t want to be dismissed as someone who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And I think Vermonters expect me to do my homework.”
“It’s not lost on me that we give a lot of aid to Israel,” she added. “It was important for me to try to get as much information from different perspectives … because it is so complicated.”
Vermont experienced extreme flooding last month and Balint said she chose to focus her social media on information on recovery efforts on the week of the Israel trip. “When you look at what we were putting out on social media … we’re trying to be really sensitive to the fact that that is the most important thing for a broad section of my constituents,” she told the paper.
Political consultant Peter Feld told Mondoweiss that a widespread fear of AIPAC has developed among progressives, especially since the group is now eyeing primary challenges against Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). He notes that the group’s impact is often misunderstood by Democrats. For instance, AIPAC spent over $4 million on Michigan’s 11th district Democratic primary in 2022, supporting Haley Stevens over Andy Levin. Stevens prevailed, but polling indicated that she would have probably sailed to victory without the group’s help as a result of redistricting. Nonetheless, AIPAC framed the result as a thrilling win that showcased the power of pro-Israel lobbying.
“Basically AIPAC has projected great strength, progressives have been timid and nonstrategic, and this is part of that,” said Feld.
Balint’s isn’t the only House member whose participation raised eyebrows. One of the lawmakers who joined Jeffries and Hoyer was Shri Thanedar (D-MI), the new representative for Michigan’s 13th district. AIPAC spent over $4 million backing one of Thanedar’s primary opponents, Michigan state Senator Adam Hollier.
Part of AIPAC’s opposition to Thanedar was a resolution he cosponsored as a Michigan House member that referred to Israel as an apartheid state. Thanedar has since distanced himself from that position and publicly embraced the United States’s “special relationship” with the country.
In an interview with Jewish Insider shortly after the trip, Thanedar said he had gone through a “big learning experience” on Israel and recited a number of talking points regularly associated with the country.
“[Israel] certainly is a vibrant, liberal democracy. No doubt about that,” he told the country. “And they are an important ally of the United States. It’s a dangerous region. Israel is really the only democracy surrounded by some hostile elements.”
“It highlighted why protecting or helping Israel defend herself, by herself, is very essential and critical to our national security and our national interest,” he continued. “It’s a relationship that is mutually beneficial.”
“I can only say AIPAC got what it paid for,” says Feld.
Thanedar denied that he joined the trip to fend off an AIPAC-backed challenger in the next election. ““The primary seems so far away,” he said. “I just got elected, and I’m just finishing the first six months of my work in Congress. My job is to help my constituents.”
Balint will travel back to Israel in February, this time for a trip organized by J Street.