When Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Dist. 12) joined 16 of her colleagues in voting against H. Res. 246, which would formalize the House of Representatives’ opposition to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), she was fully aware that she was opening herself up to harsh criticism. That she did so regardless, she said, is an indication of how strongly she feels about the issue.
“For me, this was a very tough vote, and I thought about it a lot,” Watson Coleman told NJJN in a phone interview from her Washington office. “What it came down to is my support of boycotts as free speech, supported by the First Amendment, and which have been powerful tools that have won rights. As a black woman, I’ve seen what boycotts can do. Without them, I’d probably still be sitting in the back of the bus and you would not be talking to an elected African-American congresswoman.”
By choosing to stand with an almost negligible minority of congressional representatives who voted against the bipartisan measure on July 23 — it passed 398-17 — Watson Coleman, in her second term representing parts of Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset, and Union counties, put a figurative target on her back, with critics labeling her a supporter of BDS. That, she said, is not accurate.
“I do not support both the BDS and what it stands for,” Watson Coleman, 74, a resident of Ewing, said. “I also don’t think it will be effective. I support a two-state solution in the Middle East, and I hope that someday comes to be.”
Naturally the vote drew the ire of some New Jersey Jewish leaders and others such as Monroe Mayor Gerald Tamburro, whose town is in her district and has a sizable Jewish population. In a letter to NJJN last month, Tamburro wrote that he was disappointed by Watson Coleman, “the only member of Congress from New Jersey to vote against this resolution,” and “the international BDS movement must be opposed by all those who support Israel’s right to exist, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the policies of its current government.”
The first African-American woman elected to Congress from New Jersey, Watson Coleman said she understands the reaction to her vote but insists Jewish leaders and her constituents know she stands firmly in the Jewish state’s corner.
“In fact, I have been to Israel twice, the last in 2017, and am scheduled to go there again soon,” she said. “Each time I go, I learn more about it. The Jewish community has no concerns about my support for Israel.”
During the upcoming November trip to Israel she referenced, she will be traveling with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), whom she serves with on the House Committee on Appropriations.
Watson Coleman told NJJN she wants to see conditions in the West Bank and that of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. The Israeli government has increasingly come under fire of late with claims that it has allowed discrimination against Ethiopian citizens to fester.
“The Ethiopian Jews are of interest to me as a people of color,” she said. “I’m curious to see how the community is getting along. I feel that’s a responsibility I have.”
And Watson Coleman took issue with Israel’s refusal to allow her congressional colleagues, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), to visit the country — following a not-so-subtle push by President Donald Trump — tweeting on Aug. 15 that the ban “was disgraceful” and “damaging to the U.S.-Israel relationship, and smacks of racism.” She also tweeted that “Trump’s encouragement of this decision is outrageous!”
An active member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a co-founder of the Congressional Caucus of Black Women and Girls, she was sworn into her first term in January 2015 and said she is proud of her record standing up for minority rights. Like many others in the Democratic caucus, she said that Trump’s rhetoric is one of the causes of an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in N.J. and around the country, and she is in favor of holding impeachment hearings. In that removal from office is extremely unlikely, she said the change will likely have to be at the ballot box.
“We have to elect a new president,” Watson Coleman said. “This president seems to be against everyone who is not a rich white man.”
In contrast to her harsh criticisms of Trump, Watson Coleman praised the work of Democratic N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy in fighting racism and bigotry.
“The governor has been very effective in standing up against anti-Semitism, racism, and issues with the LGBTQ community,” she said.
And she’s quick to remind her constituents that while she may differ on some policies of the Israeli government, she is a “staunch supporter” of the Jewish state.