Josh Zakim: Some Things Progressives Should Know

JCRC 2014 Israel Study Tour delegation. Jewish Journal photo JCRC 2014 Israel Study Tour delegation. Jewish Journal photo

Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim is running as a “reform” candidate for Massachusetts Secretary of State.  At the recent State Democratic Convention, where he got the party endorsement, Zakim received the support of many progressive delegates, including some members of Our Revolution Massachusetts (ORMA). 

But there are a few things people should know about Zakim that may raise doubts about his progressive credentials.

In 2014 he headed a delegation to Israel of state representatives and city officials paid for by a registered lobbying organization.  Although the State Ethics Commission forbids public officials from accepting more than $50 worth of value from lobbyists, it has maintained a glaring loophole in approving lobbyist-paid travel worth many thousands of dollars. In the view of many progressives, travel financed by lobbyists raises serious questions of ethics and influence-buying. Lobbyist-paid travel to Israel is the nearly exclusive beneficiary of the state Ethics Commission loophole.

But the 2014 Israel trip headed by Zakim was not just any lobbyist-paid junket. it was part of a long-standing campaign to provide a one-sided view of Israel and gain the support of elected officials for Israeli policies while ignoring the plight of the millions of Palestinians who suffer under Israeli rule. 

Recently, the same lobbyists who pay for trips to Israel pushed hard for Massachusetts legislation to punish supporters of First Amendment-protected advocacy to pressure Israel on its human rights practices.

Pro-Israel lobbying also supports the annual $3.8 billion in US military aid, plus hundreds of millions more in special appropriations and tax-deductible charitable donations.  Over the years this has cost Massachusetts taxpayers billions of dollars.  And these same organizations lobbied in Washington for the Iraq war and against efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran.  AIPAC, it should be noted, is a pro-war as well as a pro-Israel lobby.

Zakim has also been active with and honored by the Anti-Defamation League. (His father Lenny Zakim was New England Director of the organization.) The ADL was once primarily a Jewish Civil Rights organization, but in recent years its prime focus has been Israel advocacy. It has been instrumental in organizing and financing the training of US police officers in Israel, a practice that has rightfully drawn criticism from US activists because of the notoriously brutal methods of repression of Palestinians by Israeli security forces.

Zakim is no insurgent candidate.  He has the support of many establishment players in the Democratic Party, such as former State Treasurer Steve Grossman.  Grossman is a past chairman of both the state party and the Democratic National Committee – and former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 1992-1996.

When activist members tried to get the Democratic State Committee to adopt a resolution reaffirming long-standing US criticism of illegal Israeli settlements, Zakim joined Grossman and other party insiders in opposing and eventually blocking a vote on the question.  Similarly, at the 2017 Party Issues Convention, Grossman and the Party establishment maneuvered to block consideration of resolutions on War/Military Spending and Peace in the Middle East, both supported by ORMA.

The Secretary of State contest is not primarily about foreign and military affairs, but we might recall that Steve Grossman as Massachusetts Treasurer boasted about his role in promoting Iran Sanctions at the State House. 

By contrast, Zakim’s opponent, incumbent William Galvin, tangled with pro-Israel lobbyists in 2000 when he tightened state ethics standards, insisting that legislators who go on Israel trips paid by advocacy groups — including a trip organized by  Zakim’s father, Leonard Zakim — must fully disclose their expenditures.   Massachusetts Peace Action filed a formal complaint to the State Ethics Commission about similar lobbyist-paid trips to Israel, which continue to this day.

However, a broader question might be posed.

Can someone stand up for Civil Rights in the US while supporting a country where Palestinians under occupation have no rights at all?  Can a person defend vulnerable migrants at the US borders while turning a blind eye to the threated deportation of African asylum seekers in Israel?  Can someone oppose Trump’s southern border wall but ignore the hundreds of miles of Israel’s “separation barrier” in the West Bank? Can a politician be both a progressive and an unreserved supporter of Israel? 

There are many issues to be considered in the contest for Massachusetts Secretary of State.  But let’s not have any illusions that Zakim’s candidacy represents the Progressive choice.