There has been much euphoria over the Michigan primary win on Tuesday that sets up Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib to become the first Muslim woman to enter Congress if, as widely expected, she wins the general election in November.
“As the child of immigrants and an Arab, Tlaib is acutely aware of the issues that impact our community,” the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said in a message congratulating her. “In Congress, we know she will continue to be a strong advocate for the community, and we look forward to working with her.”
That has been a widely shared sentiment – backed by an assumption that because she is a Palestinian American, Tlaib can be counted on to be a strong voice for Palestinian rights.
But hard political experience tells us otherwise, and the time to look at Tlaib’s troubling relationship with a leading pro-Israel organization is now.
Raining on the parade
The euphoria over Tlaib reminds me of the ecstasy when Barack Obama was elected president.
People assumed that despite his cautious and even reactionary political positions, his identity as a Black man, the son of a Kenyan immigrant father, and his history as a community organizer in Chicago would somehow seep through into his policies.
Many expected that after the campaign was over, the real, progressive Obama – who was absent in the campaign – would emerge in the White House to fulfill all the fantasies of his supporters.
There’s no need to recount in detail here how Obama became “deporter-in-chief,” a friend of Wall Street, and, despite his Nobel Peace Prize, an avid militarist whose administration dropped more than 26,000 bombs on countries around the world in his last year in office alone.
When it came to Palestine, Obama was clear during the campaign: he was staunchly pro-Israel and that’s how he would govern.
He kept his promise – starting from his failure to condemn Israel’s Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza just prior to his presidency, to his administration’s decision to resupply Israel with bombs during its summer 2014 slaughter in Gaza of more than one in every 1,000 of the territory’s residents.
And of course he ended his term by giving Israel a $38 billion military aid package, the largest in history.
I tried to warn people in my March 2007 article, “How Barack Obama learned to love Israel,” but my experience generally was that people didn’t want to hear it, and I was often accused of raining on the parade.
Though I risk hearing the same thing now, I am no more willing to overlook the disturbing political views of a candidate just because she is Palestinian American.
Endorsement by J Street
Rashida Tlaib is endorsed and supported by the liberal Zionist Israel lobby group J Street through its political action committee JStreetPAC.
JStreetPAC brags that during the 2016 election cycle it “distributed a record $3.6 million to its 124 endorsed candidates for Congress, making it the largest pro-Israel PAC for the fifth cycle running.”
On its page soliciting donations to support Tlaib’s campaign, JStreetPAC states: “When it comes to the peace process, she believes that the US should be directly involved with negotiations to reach a two-state solution.”
“Additionally, she supports all current aid to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, particularly to fund initiatives that ‘foster peace, as well as economic and humanitarian services,’” JStreetPAC notes.
This means that notwithstanding her emphasis on “humanitarian” aid, Tlaib supports all current US military aid to Israel, including Obama’s record-breaking giveaway.
It is this aid that perpetuates Israel’s military occupation and colonization and negates the prospects for any kind of peaceful and just outcome.
This means that Tlaib supports the US funding or supplying the bullets that Israel has been using to kill and maim thousands of Palestinians during the Great March of Return protests in Gaza.
This means Tlaib, in effect, supports the US supplying the warplanes and bombs Israel used Wednesday night when Inas Muhammad Khamash, a pregnant 23-year-old, was killed in an airstrike on central Gaza along with her young daughter Bayan.
Some have understandably questioned whether J Street is accurately reflecting Tlaib’s views.
But unless the candidate clearly repudiates those positions we must accept that they are indeed hers.
J Street does not endorse candidates – much less give them money – without careful prior vetting.
Indeed, J Street explains:
“To be eligible for JStreetPAC endorsement, a political candidate must demonstrate that they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, active US leadership to help end the conflict, the special relationship between the US and Israel, continued aid to the Palestinian Authority and opposition to the boycott, divestment [and] sanctions movement.”
“In evaluating candidates for endorsement, we interview both the candidates and their opponents about their views on issues related to American policy toward Israel and the Middle East,” the Israel lobby group adds.
Interestingly, JStreetPAC doesn’t seem to require that candidates explicitly support “all current aid to Israel” – which suggests Tlaib is taking a more pro-Israel position than is asked of her.
In her victory speech, Tlaib vowed to “fight back against every single oppressive, racist structure that needs to be dismantled.” Given her endorsement by J Street, it is fair to ask if that includes Israel’s racist, oppressive structures sustained by American aid.
Against Palestinian rights
According to a 15 July filing with the Federal Election Commission, the Rashida Tlaib for Congress committee had received $3,000 this cycle from JStreetPAC.
True, that is a small portion of the more than $1 million she has raised, but it’s also a low price to tie yourself to an organization with clear anti-Palestinian views. It is perhaps only a downpayment.
A key tenet of J Street’s position is rejecting the right of return for Palestinian refugees solely because they are not Jewish and therefore constitute a “demographic threat” to Israel.
J Street even panders to the odious racist claim that Palestinians “would flood Israel with refugees and undermine it as a homeland for the Jewish people.”
Tlaib has not said much about Palestine during the campaign, but when she has spoken it has not been comforting.
“We need to be honest about the dehumanization on both sides, frankly,” Tlaib told The Washington Post. “And more importantly, we need to be not choosing a side.”
Is Tlaib serious that we should be neutral and not “choose a side” when it comes to Israel’s brutal military occupation, colonization and apartheid in her parents’ homeland?
If she is taking the liberal Zionist “both sides” line now, falsely equating a colonial occupier with its victims, does anyone expect her to be more courageous when she is in Congress and raising money for reelection?
It is striking that Tlaib, a Palestinian American, by accepting J Street’s endorsement, policies and money, is staking out an even more cautious position than progressive flag-bearer Senator Bernie Sanders.
DSA has endorsed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Yet DSA, as an organization, has not demanded any sort of discipline on such a fundamental issue from the candidates its members are putting time and effort into supporting.
Ocasio-Cortez caused her share of euphoria when she defeated the incumbent to win the Democratic nomination for a US congressional seat in New York City last month.
Like Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez is expected to win the general election.
What made Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory even more extraordinary is that it came after she harshly criticized Israel’s “massacre” of Palestinians in Gaza.
But since her win, Ocasio-Cortez has backed away from supporting Palestinians.
Now, DSA members and chapters are asking Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA National Electoral Committee in an open letter to fully support Palestinian rights, in line with the organization’s resolution.
“The occupation of Palestine is in many ways a complex issue,” the letter states. “However, some things are black-and-white: Always side with the oppressed. Always oppose settler-colonialism. Never split hairs or play devil’s advocate for apartheid.”
They are right to hold her accountable. It is naive to believe that just because a candidate “comes from our community” or “looks like us” that they will necessarily “stand up for us.”
But if people don’t demand that politicians clearly reflect those changes in their policies and actions now, then when will it happen? In 10, 20, 50 years? What will be left of Palestine by then?
The Israel lobby group J Street isn’t acting on faith. It did the hard work of securing firm political commitments from Rashida Tlaib in exchange for its support: a clear political transaction.
But what commitments have all the Arab American, Muslim American and Palestinian American groups congratulating her received?
Surely opposing military aid to Israel and supporting the Palestinian people’s right to nonviolent struggle through BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – are minimum positions they should demand from candidates like Tlaib.
Those who want to break the cycle of euphoria and disappointment epitomized by Obama need to learn the lessons and hold their politicians accountable – before it is too late.