After making his remarks critical of Israel, including a termite metaphor for the settlements, before a pro-BDS crowd in Philadelphia on July 25, 4th District Congressman Hank Johnson granted AJT Editor Michael Jacobs an hour-long interview at the Democrat’s Lithonia district office Wednesday, Aug. 3. The following is the transcript of that conversation.
AJT: What have been your experiences visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories?
Johnson: First, let me start by apologizing to you and to all of your readers for my very insensitive and ignorant remark. Ignorant is just unknowing, as opposed to stupid, but it was an ignorant remark. And now that I know about the history of insects, animals and things like that to describe Jewish people, I’m mortified by my use of the term, not referring to people, but referring to the settlement process. It just got way too close. It was inappropriate, ignorant, insensitive, and it offended and hurt a lot people. So my apologies — can’t extend them enough to the people who are my friends.
As far as my trip to Palestine, I was alarmed at the deterioration of conditions and the spirit of the Palestinian people, who want peace, but peace appears to be more and more unlikely, peace based on a two-state solution. It appears to be the prospects dwindling because of the ongoing construction and approval of new settlements. When you look at it on the ground, when you look at it on maps, when you look at the conditions on the ground, it makes the prospects for a two-state solution appear to be more and more remote with each and every settler and settlement that go in. And I want to see peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. I want to see peace come to the Middle East, and I feel that the Palestinian statehood issue is a driving force for much of the violence that we see emanating from that region. And I think if we can reach an agreement where there can be two states — one for the Palestinians, one for the Israelis — that would protect the Israeli state as a Jewish state. And I believe that the Jews have a right to have their state, and that state is Israel. That state is not going away. That state is in place. It is solid. It is viable, and I mean Israel exists, and it has a right to continue to exist. And the people of Israel have a right to live in peace and enjoy some prosperity. And those same rights are sought by the Palestinians. They want peace. They want to live with security, and they want to have some prosperity also. I think every person wants to live a long life and be happy and satisfied at the end of life. We all know we’re going to have to die, but it’s a human instinct to survive for as long as possible. And the Palestinians are no different; they want to do that also. But it’s a sense of dread and hopelessness about the future that causes people to be susceptible to the thought of “Why live here when I can go to heaven and live with Allah in peace?” There’s a choice that’s given to people, and the question is whether or not it’s attractive to them. And so they use their sensory perceptions to make that decision, and people when they decide the wrong way based on extremist ideology, they become violent, and they become a threat to us all. And so I think, taking an overall view, when we are able to solve the issue of two states, not one dominating another people, but two states, when we’re able to do that, I think it would do nothing other than to increase the prospects for peace in the region and the world. So those are my impressions. I’ve been to Israel three times, and I’ve been to Palestine once — well twice, actually, because I went in 2013. Although that was a trip to Israel, we went into the occupied territories and visited Ramallah and Hebron at that time. But that was a trip that we went to Israel. This last trip was a trip to Palestine; we just came through Israel and went directly to Palestine and stayed there I think four or five days.
AJT: What were the circumstances of this latest trip?
Johnson: It was a trip sponsored by the Humpty Dumpty Institute, and they are a nonprofit organization that — I guess the name says everything. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty fell out the wall. … That’s their mission, to be a force for peace throughout the world.
AJT: And it was several members of Congress?
Johnson: Yeah, there were four others in addition to myself.
AJT: Whom did you meet with?
Johnson: We met with President (Mahmoud) Abbas, Mr. (Saeb) Erekat, and we met with bankers, businesspeople. We met with people in the education sector. We met with young people, students, and we toured. We also met with individuals involved with the criminal justice — well, not criminal justice, because it’s not criminal justice, it’s more military justice — we met with folks who deal with that aspect of Palestinian life.
AJT: How much did you talk about the outbreak of individual terrorist attacks on Israelis?
Johnson: That was not a focus of this trip. We were looking at it and they were showing it to us from their viewpoint. We did get insight about how Palestinian young people are being killed by Israeli security forces and settlers, and in their view, these are wholly unjustified killings that occur regularly, with frequency and with impunity. I will say that nothing justifies violence, and I’m a man of peace myself, so I don’t support the use of violence by Palestinians or by Israelis against Palestinians which is unjustified. I mean you have justification — self-defense, defense of others, defense of property. I know that sometimes things happen and people have to take action to defend themselves, but I believe the defense applied against a threat should be commensurate with the threat. I don’t think gunfire is the way to go to quell rock throwing. If there is gunfire directed at someone else who has a gun, then that person in my mind is authorized to use equal force. So I make the point that I don’t condemn all use of force, but I think it should be commensurate with the force that one is seeking to repel.
AJT: So how do you respond to rock throwers? Do you want the troops to throw rocks or tear gas?
Johnson: Something has to be done when someone’s throwing rocks at you. But I’ll tell you, we can get caught up in the tit-for-tat violence and inappropriate conduct, but I want to focus on the causes. I want to remove those causes. I want to help remove those causes. We can all sit back in our armchairs from across the water and try to micromanage or microdirect what others do when we’re not there, and I certainly don’t seek to do that. But I can see a big picture, and we do need to solve some issues that produce tension, produce violence. We need to remove those conditions and thus remove the cause of the violence.
AJT: You tried to visit Gaza during this trip?
Johnson: Yeah, notice had been given that we would like to enter Gaza, and there was no denial of request until we were ready to go, so we were not permitted to visit Gaza.
AJT: Did they say why?
Johnson: Yeah, they said that we did not fit the criterion.
AJT: Did they get more specific?
Johnson: No, they did not. They did not. We are still seeking an answer as to what the criteria are.
AJT: Did you have specific people you were going to meet in Gaza, or was it just going to be touring around?
Johnson: There were some NGOs that were to escort us. We were to tour a Coca-Cola bottling plant that has been up and running in Gaza. The gentleman who owns that lives in East Jerusalem. We were going to tour his plant, among other things.
AJT: Your previous trip was in 2013 with J Street? And when was your first trip?
Johnson: The first trip was in 2011, and it was an AIPAC trip. And my second trip was in early February of 2013; that was with the House Armed Services Committee. … Then the third trip was just about three weeks after that.
AJT: How did Israel and the Palestinians become an issue that you are concerned with?
Johnson: I’m concerned about human rights issues around the world. The Israeli-Palestinian issue has been at the top, and it’s an issue that really screams out for attention and action. It’s been a long time coming for peace, and we’ve gotten so close on so many occasions, only for there to be setbacks and then to reach a point where there is no ongoing negotiation. I think it’s only natural for me to pay attention to this issue and to want to see it resolved. I believe in peace, and I believe that as a congressman I need to be working for peace, in addition to, of course, taking care of home. That’s what I ran on: taking care of home first. That was my campaign. We can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time; that’s what we’ve been doing.
AJT: Are there other regions you’ve been involved with as far as trying to find peace?
Johnson: Yeah, Colombia, where there are Colombians and indigenous people of Colombia. We’ve paid a lot of attention in that area, and of late we have been working to stop human rights abuses in Honduras against environmental activists and others.
You know, serving on the Armed Services Committee, I understand how our money works, how our defense money works. I think that to provide proper oversight, we’ve got to understand the ramifications of our spending and how it impacts prospects for peace. Other people may not be concerned about peace. Some folks are more concerned about war; I’m concerned about peace. I respect, understand and appreciate the need to be prepared for war, but at the same time, I understand the value of diplomacy and aid and cultural exchange as soft-power mechanisms that should be a first resort, and oftentimes they are neglected. They’re neglected tools in the United States’ toolbox. My philosophy as far as being on the Armed Services Committee is to ensure that we and our allies are prepared for the worst but at the same time understanding and being a voice for the use of all of the tools in the toolbox so that we can prevent war and armed conflict.
AJT: So as someone on the Armed Services Committee, what’s your feeling about the new 10-year memorandum of understanding being negotiated between Israel and the United States and how much military aid Israel should receive?
Johnson: Every vote that I’ve taken as far as military aid to Israel and any other type of aid to Israel, I’ve always voted in favor of it. I don’t really know the particulars of the agreement that’s being negotiated right now, and we’ll see what the final product is.
AJT: Based on your experience in Congress, do you have any sense of the proper level that Israel should be getting?
Johnson: I think the $3 billion a year that we have been giving to Israel, much of which is spent with our businesses here in the United States, or contractors, has been appropriate, and whether or not it needs to be more, I await that information with an open mind. I do know that Israel is our closest ally in probably the most dangerous area of the world, and we have to keep up. We have to be out ahead of our competitors who are vying for influence in the region. I don’t believe that the U.S. economy can exist on yesterday’s dollars. We have to continue investing, and as we do, we have to generate the revenues to pay the costs. It’s a fact of life: You’re not in a static environment. Cost increases are inherent in a defense budget. If you’re asking me whether or not I’m in favor of cutting aid to Israel, is that what you’re asking me?
AJT: I’m asking if you support an increase or have a particular number in mind.
Johnson: I’m not equipped to be able to give you precise numbers. We gotta see what is proposed, and I have an open mind. Of course, the U.S. economy does have some fiscal realities as well. Sequestration is still lurking, hovering over the head — now here I go with analogies again — hovering over the head of America. I mean we have certain practical realities that we have to deal with. So I’ll have to consider all of these things whenever the issue has ripened for a decision.
AJT: You said in Philadelphia and you hinted at it again today that you see a solution between the Israelis and Palestinians as being important to fighting terrorism. How do you think an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians would affect Islamic State attacking Nice or Paris or Orlando or San Bernardino?
Johnson: Just because you solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue doesn’t mean that you will eradicate terrorism and the world will suddenly become more peaceful. It just removes one stumbling block to peace. We have to continue to use our hard-power assets to defeat our enemies who are trying to kill us. And we also have to work to stem the conditions of hopelessness that attract so many to become adherents to extreme ideas. So we have to make sure that people across the world, and starting with the key regions, we have to — it’s ideas, and it’s education, and it’s economic opportunity. So when people can begin to feel like “OK, there’s hope for me. I can do better. The world can be better, and I can be happy in this world because I can make it. There’s nothing that is an immovable object in my way of the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If America can be a force to promote the ideas of peace and prosperity around the world and then not just talk about it but actually do it, if we can start to create a more peaceful society, not by directly confronting and defeating our enemies through hard power, but through the soft power of ideas and assistance and diplomacy, dialogue, we have to export those values. We can’t just in America be imperial in our thinking and in our relations with countries around the world. We have to have a sense of responsibility for other people and other nations in the world, and we help people when they need help. It’s not by giving a bunch of foreign aid, but it’s by the development of institutions that promote peace. So we know that education is very important. We know that just reaching out and having dialogue helps with understanding and helps with trust, trust building, so the things that organizations do here in America to promote their interests, that’s the same thing that America should do around the world with other countries to promote our interests. And in the final analysis, our interests are not different from the interests of other folks around the world. So things like greed and arrogance and hatred are ideals that we need to work against, and we need to work against those kinds of ideals out of ideals of friendliness, friendship, sharing, treating our fellow man as the way we would want to be treated, the Golden Rule, and we can do it on a microlevel, but our government has to do it on a macrolevel. This might sound utopian, but I don’t think it is. I disagree respectfully that what I said is utopian.
AJT: It’s just that not much of that has anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I haven’t seen attacks on the United States or Western powers that have been motivated by this conflict in a long time. We’ve seen a lot of Islamic fundamentalist and extremist terrorism, but their stated reasons have not had anything to do with Israel.
Johnson: I’m not trying to blame terrorism on the lack of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I did not intend to convey that impression or that suggestion. But it’s clear that the growth of terrorism is aided and abetted by the frustration born out of the establishment of the state of Israel and the failure to solve the issue of a Palestinian state. I think there’s a distinction there. I don’t want to blame because what we have is an issue that is a big issue; I don’t think we can deny that. The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the Middle East, and the Arab countries, which we’ve gone a long way toward solving, I mean that’s a big issue. Now, it’s not a coincidence that in that same area is born the extremist ideology, which is promoted, by the way, by the Saudis with their money. The Saudi Arabian monarchy derives its legitimacy from the promotion or from an ideology, Wahhabism, that they promote and spread. It’s Wahhabism that Muslim extremists base their activity on. Now Wahhabism was first established back in the 1800s, long before the establishment of the state of Israel. We have that factor right there; I know that. You can’t blame Israel for the proliferation of Wahhabism throughout the world. But, yes, it cannot be said that the conflict between Arabs and Palestinians and Israel is not a factor that contributes to the spread of radicalism, radical extremism. So you gotta look at all of these things together. And speaking of human rights issues in other parts of the world, I have been an opponent against the Bahrainian government. I’ve spoken out on those issues, how those people are treated. I hope you understand. … I do not seek to blame Israel, the Jews, for every problem that exists in the world; that is incorrect.
AJT: How and why did you wind up speaking before that group in Philadelphia? A large percentage of the people you were speaking to that day don’t want a two-state solution. They want a one-state solution, and that state isn’t Israel.
Johnson: The American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers — we’ve worked with the Quakers on a number of other issues, and they invited me to speak. I did not know; I assumed I was going to speak to a group of Quakers, and Quakers are peace advocates. They advocate for peace. Now I did not sense any one-state-solution people. Certainly, they may have been there, but I did not sense that it was a one-state-solution crowd. My assumption was that people want peace based on a two-state solution. … I think everything you can find about me, my writings or rantings might be a word that you might use, they’ve all been strictly in favor of a two-state solution despite how hopeless it might look. Even if the whole land is occupied by Israeli settlements, I’ll still be in favor of a two-state solution because there’ll be a way that we can work it out. There’s some way that we can work it out. I’m convinced, though, that a one-state solution would be much more difficult to achieve than a two-state solution. Neither prospect is a panacea. Both prospects, just to try to get people to live in peace in the area, given the history, given the religious texts that fundamentalists adhere to and given the experience with war and the hatred and everything that derives from warfare, the prospects for peace don’t look good. But that doesn’t mean you can’t work for it. And I just believe in the goodness that lies in the depths of every human being. I believe that if you can attach it, that’s what we should be about. Trying to dwell within the goodness and equality that we all have. We’re all equal. We all have the same conditions, life conditions, that range from low to high or from high to low and everything in between. So it’s easy for us to dwell within our lower conditions of anger and arrogance and ignorance and hatred. It’s much more difficult to try to elevate one’s condition into something that is more humane, more merciful, compassionate. Those kinds of conditions often are overwhelmed by the hatred and arrogance and ignorance. Those base conditions of living, we should all be trying to elevate ourselves out of, and so that’s what I think human beings should be about. Leaders have a special responsibility to make decisions based on loftier conditions of living as opposed to those hellish conditions of living, and so I being a leader choose to try to show the best side and try to look for that side in others, regardless of where they’re from or whatever religion they practice, whatever sexual orientation, no matter what color, no matter where they are from. Get away from those distinctions, and we’re still dealing with human beings, and I believe human beings should treat each other humanely. And our policies should be conducive to that. I think we certainly can create a safer world, even though it appears that with every passing day, peace around the world seems to be less achievable. I think mankind still has a responsibility to work towards it and make the world a better place in the process. It’s not going to change overnight. But we should try to leave it better when we leave, when we depart this life. We should have tried to make a positive difference. That’s about all you can do.
AJT: What is your feeling about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel?
Johnson: I am not a proponent of the BDS movement.
AJT: But you feel like you can work with people in the BDS movement?
Johnson: I think we must work with everyone. We can’t exclude anybody from dialogue.
AJT: I wanted to get more clarity on your thoughts about Israeli training of law enforcement.
Johnson: The situation on the ground in Israel is a whole lot different than it is here. In Israel I think crime is pretty low. Your prison system and your criminal justice process, I don’t know a whole lot about it, but I assume it’s similar to the United States. Within Israel, as far as Israeli security forces dealing with Israeli citizens, I assume that — well, I know that it’s a lot different than military justice. What the Israeli security forces face in the occupied areas and even from threats to Israel proper from outside forces, that’s a lot different than America and law enforcement here in America dealing with a whole set of different issues. Crime is probably more here than it is there. But we’ve had a creep toward militarization of police forces here in America, not just with equipment, but with philosophy, tactics, mind-set, and so that’s why community policing is an ideal that all police agencies should strive for. I know that it’s difficult to adopt a pure community policing strategy in many areas of the nation, particularly like a suburban community like this one out here where you don’t find a whole lot of sidewalks, dense development. A development pattern in a suburban area or a rural area is a lot different than an urban area. Community policing works better, it can be applied in a purer setting, in a denser area than it would be in a less dense area. So I realize community policing has its limitations in America, but the ideals of community policing are a lot different from a militaristic view of us against them and “We’re going out into the enemy territory.” That whole mind-set, as if you are in a war zone, is to be avoided, and I see it creeping and others do also see it creeping into law enforcement. That’s not to say that law enforcement doesn’t need the tools that it needs to protect us. So there’s got to be a proper balance. So this whole issue of militarization of law enforcement is one that deserves attention. So when law enforcement goes to a place like Israel, where conditions on the ground are different than they are here in America, one has to question the training and how it contributes to the mind-set of American law enforcement. And I think that’s a legitimate issue that law enforcement needs to be aware of and policymakers should be aware of and the American people should be aware of.
AJT: Do you think Mayor Reed was wrong when he said he was going to continue the police training programs with Israel?
Johnson: I’m not going to cross swords with Mayor Reed. I made a statement which I think many others are thinking about, including policymakers. I think people should be thinking about that. Now I’m not the mayor. I don’t control a police department, nor am I going to introduce any legislation that would micromanage police departments. I’m not going to do that. But I certainly can speak about it. I can ask questions. I can raise issues.
AJT: Have you reached out to Robbie Friedmann, who runs the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange, about what training police actually receive?
Johnson: No, I have not, and that’s a great idea. We need to do that. Once I filed the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, which would shut down the Pentagon’s 1033 program with respect to certain surplus military-grade weaponry being transferred directly from the Pentagon to law enforcement agencies without any civilian authority involvement, once I filed that legislation, then law enforcement, most of them don’t want to be part of a conversation with me. They think that I am anti-law-enforcement. They think that I am trying to stop law enforcement agencies from acquiring the type of equipment that they think they need in order to fight crime here, and that’s not what the legislation does. So I would love to talk to Mr. Friedmann, the Fraternal Order of Police. We’ve reached out to a lot of agencies. … I would love to have them come in here and sit down at the table just like you are so we can talk about the things that I see, and I’m amenable to other ideas and feedback. My mind is always open, and I have an open door to everybody even though we may disagree.
AJT: What else do you feel like you’ve learned from the reaction to what you said and meeting with various groups? What are you taking away from this incident?
Johnson: I take away from it, well, first, one has to strive to not offend people. Political correctness, which is something people dismiss, they talk about it and they say, “Oh, political correctness; you’re just being politically correct,” this was a great example of why political correctness is so important. And also what I’ve learned, what has been relearned by me, is that when you make a mistake, you own up to it immediately, and you apologize, and you move forward. I always, I knew that. That’s the way I’ve been raised. That’s who I am. But this was an affirmation of that. And as a result of that, I think I’ve gotten the chance to talk to a lot of people, and I’ve grown as a result of it. I’ve made new friends. And I think, I don’t think we should fight each other. Everything has been reaffirmed. The big lesson is, OK, just like midgets. OK, I talked about midgets. I had no idea that abnormally short people, or dwarves, as they prefer to be called, consider it to be a slur to say midget. I mean, I had no idea. So when I got some feedback on it, I went to the floor the next day. I didn’t have to. I interrupted a lady and said, “Can I have some of your time? I just got one thing I gotta say. Give me one minutes.” And she said fine, and I went up and used her time to apologize for offending abnormally short people. I didn’t have to do that. There was not even a big public furor or anything. But if only person was offended and I had used the mass media to do that, then I should use that same mass media to apologize, and so I did that. People use that against me, but, hey, what that does is demonstrate to everyone else. That’s increasing others’ knowledge that, hey, abnormally short people don’t want to be referred to as midgets, so let’s not call them midgets. But what I’ve done is a public service also, I think. I have demonstrated a zone that people should not go to. And as we see today, we are loosening our restrictions, and people feel like they can say and do anything. “I don’t care who it offends, and it’s OK.” And it’s not. And so I hope that this incident has sensitized people to avoid and to condemn folks who are insensitive. They may be knowingly so; they’re just appealing to certain buzzwords, in other words. People use buzzwords and then step back from them and say, “I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean that.” But, yeah, yeah, you did. You were appealing to a certain group of people. So this whole issue of being politically correct or that you don’t have to be politically correct anymore and the loosening of standards as far as how we talk about each other, I hope that I have exemplified the opposite. It’s not OK.
AJT: The key difference is the history of this district, in particular with Cynthia McKinney and the support you had from the Jewish community to defeat her.
Johnson: We should all strive to have forgiving hearts also. I think all people have the obligation to become better people, more humane, more compassionate towards each other. And if there’s someone, to use your word, is just stupid — which stupidity is different from ignorant — but if someone is just stupid or just knowingly hateful and you can’t appeal to their greater instincts, we should really just pray for them and be merciful and compassionate towards them and show them a better way through our actions. We should die trying to be the best people we can be even if it doesn’t work. It may not work in our lifetime, but something we did may have impact once we die. And we never know when we’re going to die. So, therefore, that’s how we should act. It’s bad that politicians feel like their jobs are at risk if they are honest with the people and admit that they are not perfect and admit to making mistakes. I think most people are good people, and you just have to deal with that. But there are some who are just not going to understand, and they’re going to use what you say or what you do to achieve their own ends, however illegitimate they may be. But you can’t care about that. You can’t let those things govern you. I try to be the best person I can be at all times, and if I fall short and hurt somebody, I’m going to apologize. I think we have to look at people as individuals and not stereotype each other: “He’s a black politician like Cynthia” and “All blacks think alike.” I think we have to avoid those kinds of generalizations, look at people for who they are. You can’t say all Jews think alike. We shouldn’t do that to each other.