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HomeCommentaryOpinion: What More is Eleanor Holmes Norton Waiting For?

Opinion: What More is Eleanor Holmes Norton Waiting For?

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Over the past five months, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly told constituents that she’s “deeply concerned” about Israel’s operations in Gaza. In November 2023 she signed onto a congressional letter expressing “profound concerns” over Israel’s aerial bombardment in Gaza.

And yet her acknowledgement of the humanitarian crises unfolding before our eyes stops short of any meaningful action. When a group of fellow DC residents and I met with Norton in January, she told us: “I’m just not ready [to call for a] ceasefire at this moment. It doesn’t mean I’ll never be ready, but not at this moment.”

What moment is she waiting for? The situation in Gaza has only worsened catastrophically. Israeli forces have killed thousands more Palestinians, targeted journalists operating in Gaza, and bombed areas where they previously told civilians to take shelter. Original reporting from the Washington Post declared that “Israel has waged one of this century’s most destructive wars.”

I’ve attempted to trace every imaginable reason for why she hasn’t called for a ceasefire, and none hold up to scrutiny.

It’s true that powerful lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) works ruthlessly to unseat politicians who don’t tow a hardline pro-Israel stance. Most AIPAC-backed candidates in 2022 won their races. Longtime Democratic operative Daraka Larimore-Hall told me that “the number one reason we’re not seeing more bravery on this issue is that people are afraid … that if you go too hard against [AIPAC] or don’t do what they want, they’ll pour into your opponent.”

But Norton has no real reason to fear AIPAC. She has been in her seat for over 30 years. The closest challenger during that time only got 23 percent of the vote, and all the races have been entirely uncompetitive since at least 2010. Of the 428 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including the non-voting delegates like Norton, she’s among the top ten most senior members. Larimore-Hall acknowledges Norton’s relative security: “The activist base and proud Democrats speaking out [are] making it easier for someone to look at [AIPAC spending] and say ‘I see where my base is going and it’s not going to hurt me.”

Norton is showing herself to be out of step with her colleagues in the House, especially her fellow caucus members. The three leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have all called for a ceasefire. And in the Congressional Black Caucus, Norton shares the title of most senior member with Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who has called for a ceasefire. The second most powerful member, Sanford D. Bishop, Jr., has too.

If Norton is worried about alienating her Jewish peers in Congress, she should note that nearly one quarter of the 25 Jewish democrats in the House have called for a ceasefire. Norton’s own faith affiliation, the Episcopal Church, has even called for an immediate ceasefire.

Her refusal to call for a ceasefire puts Norton at odds with her biggest funders year in and year out: public labor unions. UNITE HERE has donated to her campaign no less than 9 times, with contributions totaling at least $22,500. Local spokesperson Benjy Cannon told me in a statement: “Local 25 has signed on to the US Labor Movement’s call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and we encourage all of our elected allies to do the same.”

It’s important to note that Norton describes herself as a longtime supporter of Israel. Her mentor and former boss Bayard Rustin, a longtime civil rights leader, put out a full-page ad in the New York Times in 1970 entitled “An Appeal by Black Americans For United States Support to Israel.” Norton was one of the signatories and later joined Rustin’s Black Americans to Support Israel Committee.

But no country is above criticism. Were she to shift her position today, she would not be alone. Signatories of the same letter who later took on more pro-Palestinian stances include John Conyers, Jr., Dorothy I. Height, and Shirley Chisholm. If Norton is clinging to Rustin’s legacy, she ought to remember that Height was her mentor too.

If Norton thinks she’s protecting her legacy by not calling for a ceasefire, the opposite might actually be true. Longtime local activist Kymone Freeman, who announced that he’s running for her seat, has said: “I think you should be there until you no longer represent the will of the people you represent, and this is an issue where she falls short.” At least two other candidates plan to challenge her this year, and some longtime DC voters are wondering whether it’s time for Norton to give up her seat.

Norton no longer represents her constituents, the Democratic base, or even the majority of Americans, who overwhelmingly support a ceasefire. At this point, I see two options: publicly call for an immediate ceasefire or step down.

Tanya Paperny is a writer, editor, translator, artist, and community builder in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Washington City Paper, and elsewhere. The child of Soviet Jewish refugees, she has a passion for family stories and social change. More at tpaperny.com

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