Rashida Tlaib dodges questions about pro-Israel endorsement

Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib was asked directly by the UK’s Channel 4 on Monday whether she would vote against US military aid to Israel if, as expected, she is elected to Congress in November.

Tlaib avoided the question at first, giving a lengthy answer about her Palestinian ancestry and emphasizing that she is “for equality for all, for making sure every single person there has every right to thrive.”

She also mentioned how her grandfather had been “displaced” but did not say by whom, and she talked about the suffering of “families when they are attacked, when they’re unarmed, when they don’t know what exactly is happening.”

Only when the interviewer asked a second time if she would vote against military aid to Israel, did Tlaib give a qualified answer: “Absolutely, if it has something to do with inequality and not access to people having justice.”

As she has done previously, she admonished those who say “let’s choose a side” between Israelis and Palestinians.

The interview – which can be watched above – did not address her views on BDS, the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Tlaib “sought out” J Street

Tlaib’s hesitant and ambiguous answers to Channel 4 came after a weekend of fiercely pushing back against questions and criticisms since an article by this writer highlighted how she had accepted an endorsement and donations from the political action committee of J Street, an Israel lobby group staunchly opposed to Palestinian refugee rights and BDS.

J Street has also given platforms to Israeli leaders, such as former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who were in charge when Israel launched the Operation Cast Lead massacre in Gaza in December 2008.

An independent UN inquiry found extensive evidence of war crimes in the assault that left around 1,400 Palestinians dead.

The J Street endorsement states that Tlaib supports “all current aid to Israel” – which necessarily means all military aid, the vast majority of US assistance.

J Street also states that to be eligible for endorsement by its political action committee, a 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/Sanction movement.”

J Street determines candidates’ views through an interview process.

The lobby group also strongly opposes the return of Palestinian refugees to the lands and homes from which they were expelled solely on the racist grounds that they are not Jewish. Tlaib has not expressed support for that position and J Street does not require it for endorsement.

A request for comment was sent to J Street and its political action committee JStreetPAC.

Steve Tobocman, described by Haaretz as Tlaib’s “close friend and political mentor,” told the Israeli newspaper earlier this month that Tlaib “sought out the support and received the endorsement of J Street.”

Tlaib worked for Tobocman when he was a senior member of the Michigan legislature and then won election as his replacement when he retired in 2008.

Tobocman is currently a member of the advisory council of the Michigan-Israel Business Accelerator, an organization sponsored by the Israeli government that aims to “promote business and investment opportunities between Michigan and Israel.” One of its areas of focus is “defense” – the weapons industry.

At the bottom of the group’s advisory council page is a solicitation for donations for the MIBB Educational Foundation, an affiliate that “works to counteract BDS efforts through education about Israeli technology.”

Tlaib has also received the endorsement of Foreign Policy for America, a political action committee that backs sanctions on Russia, the US “commitment to NATO” and other policies favored by Democratic Party elites.

Foreign Policy for America calls for arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be made conditional “on steps to prevent civilian casualties and alleviate humanitarian suffering in Yemen.” That is a laudable view, but the group makes no similar call regarding Israel – the biggest recipient of US military aid.

Notably, J Street’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami is on the board of Foreign Policy for America.

But while the Foreign Policy for America endorsement is listed on Tlaib’s campaign website, the J Street endorsement is not – perhaps an indication that her team recognized that support from a liberal Zionist group that opposes Palestinian rights would be a red flag for many.

Emotive appeals

In her first apparent responses via social media to The Electronic Intifada article on Thursday, Tlaib did not directly address the J Street endorsement. Instead she made emotive appeals to trust her based on her Palestinian ethnic heritage, as opposed to clearly expressed positions related to Palestine:

Over the weekend, Tlaib dug in, suggesting that expecting accountability for her policies on Palestine constituted a form of treason.

First, she retweeted a tweet from a supporter stating that it was “dangerous” to question her stances.

Then, in an exchange on Facebook with critics and supporters, Tlaib outright claimed that an “attack on me is an attack on Falastine [Palestine].”

She also derided those who have asked her to clarify her position as “haters” and asserted that she would not “respond to them anymore.”

This amounts to an extraordinary call for unconditional loyalty and obedience that is hard to reconcile with claims to be in the vanguard of a movement that is democratic, let alone progressive.

While dismissing her critics, Tlaib nonetheless looked forward to having her supporters present “when I place my hand on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, wearing my mother’s Palestinian thobe,” to be sworn in as a member of Congress.

As the would-be representative of a majority Black district, she did not address the symbolism of being sworn in on a book that belonged to a man notorious for his cruel enslavement of other human beings.

In another part of the exchange, Tlaib insisted, “I will never sell out,” or settle for “anything less than a free Palestine, equality and justice for all in the occupied territories and beyond.”

While those are general sentiments few can disagree with, they do not answer the concerns about the commitments and statements she already gave to J Street.

On that matter, she offered a confusing account: “J Street helped me, but never asked me once to waver on my stance (I absolutely don’t agree with every single position and they don’t of mine), but as they said, they liked that my answers to their questions were from personal experiences and helped humanize what is happening in Palestine.”

It is difficult to evaluate this given that Tlaib refuses to say publicly what her stance is on BDS, and has not revealed what she told J Street, which, as noted, only endorses candidates who commit to opposing BDS.

She did reveal part of what she told J Street about aid: “The US should leverage its aid and foreign investments to insure that recipients of the aid support American values of democracy and are honest brokers who respect international human rights and institutions and who are legitimately committed to peace.”

This is similar to what she told Channel 4, but it is not a call for ending US military aid to Israel.

And since US leaders always assert that Israel indeed shares American values of democracy and human rights and seeks peace, it doesn’t place any limitation on current aid.

It is also impossible to see how any US military aid can be “leveraged” for human rights, since American weapons are the lethal tools that have sustained decades of Israeli military occupation, colonization and apartheid, as well as chaos and wars around the world.

Blocking critics

Tlaib appears to suggest that it is her critics who have forced her to address issues around BDS and aid to Israel.

“Jumping out of this election with my stance on BDS, on aid to Netanyahu’s Israel (his racist and inhumane monstrous attack on a whole people), WILL just put darkness back into this moment,” she wrote on Facebook.

Yet it was Tlaib who forced the issue by accepting the J Street endorsement.

It seems that Tlaib is demanding freedom to signal support for positions espoused by pro-Israel groups while not having to answer to the community she wants to represent.

Pro-Israel advocates understand this: The Jewish Press on Sunday celebrated Tlaib’s refusal to address the questions raised by this writer’s article in The Electronic Intifada, which it dismissed as a “frothing-at-the-mouth, anti-Israel website.”

The Jewish Press added that while Tlaib is not likely “to sing Hatikvah at the 71st anniversary celebration of the Jewish state,” her position “does imply that she will be much closer to the Democratic Party’s consensus on Israel.”

It is hard to disagree with that assessment.

As a member of Congress, Tlaib may have to vote straight away on such bills as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a patently unconstitutional effort to muzzle supporters of Palestinian rights by targeting the BDS movement.

It is therefore in no way unreasonable to expect clarity on where she stands on this bill, following her endorsement by the anti-BDS J Street.

Public pressure on a politician to do the right thing actually strengthens them because it allows them to show that they have a base that will not tolerate abandonment of basic principles.

Instead, Tlaib has been busy blocking people who ask her questions about her positions.

She will also have an immediate opportunity to signal support for Palestinian rights by co-sponsoring Representative Betty McCollum’s landmark bill to ban US aid being used for the military abuse, torture and detention of Palestinian children.

Although that only deals with a portion of US aid to Israel, it’s a concrete start, and constituents could push her to immediately co-sponsor the McCollum bill.

Accountability

Since this writer’s initial article on Tlaib’s J Street endorsement was published, there has been a necessary public discussion that would not otherwise have occurred.

Activist Noura Erakat – like many others – has indicated that Tlaib should be given the “benefit of the doubt.”

One gives the benefit of the doubt to someone who has not been tested in their position of authority.

However, giving a public figure the benefit of the doubt after they have committed a major infraction – in this case seeking and accepting an endorsement and donations from a group that exists to oppose basic Palestinian rights – only serves as a cover-up and an incentive to make more damaging deals down the road.

To concede any ground to a racist organization like J Street would allow Tlaib or others who follow in her footsteps to be trotted out by Zionists and Israel apologists as examples of “good Palestinians” versus the “bad Palestinians” who support BDS as a tactic to achieve full Palestinian rights.

While Erakat did not object outright to the J Street endorsement, despite the commitments it required on the part of Tlaib, she did find it “problematic.”

Holding a public figure accountable does not require demonizing them, writing them off or labeling them a sell-out, as some have suggested. Nor should the response to valid criticism be rounding on those who ask questions as disloyal traitors.

Accountability does require asking questions and expecting clear answers and explanations when facts come to light that contradict the image and message a politician is marketing.

Answering such questions is a politician’s obligation to those they claim to represent.

And to the extent that Tlaib is posing as a representative of a progressive national movement that takes Palestinian rights seriously, as well as a representative of Michigan’s 13th District, it’s an obligation Tlaib still needs to demonstrate she is ready to meet.

Tlaib’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Electronic Intifada.

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Comments

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This is a really important and difficult article. Respecting BDS is crucial for being accountable to the self-determination of all Palestinians from all sections of the Palestinian people.

I am skeptical of the possibility of Rashida voting for the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. If Rashida voted for the IABA it would immediately discredit her with virtually everyone who supports Palestinian rights, eliminating her ability to influence us. I really don't think she'll do that. Instead, without necessarily intending to, she will help the Democratic Party exploit Palestine for votes while steering people away from BDS activism that inevitably will anger Democratic Party donors, in addition to setting the dangerous precedent you describe here.

I think what's tripped so many people up is the impulse to view this as an assessment of Rashida's personal character, instead of a political assessment. What matters is accountability to BDS. There are plenty of well-intentioned people, including Palestinians, who act unilaterally to do what they feel is pragmatic while choosing to be unaccountable to BDS. Rashida can be a wonderful person who works hard for her community, but she also appears to think that her election is more important than respecting the boycott, and is apparently unwilling to be open and accountable to the movement. Her answers to this criticism have been evasive as you say, and she seems to be doing everything she can to get people to think she'll respect BDS without saying so plainly and clearly.

It's upsetting and sad to see this unfold in real time.

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I didn't think her answers in the interview were problematic, although she does seem to be stumbling at times when trying to get her ideas across, which isn't a moral failing, it's just inexperience and hopefully she can get over that quickly. However, you hit on something that's very important, that no matter how good her intentions are, she may end up working against the interests of Palestinians simply because she is a member of the DNC and they will have leverage over her and will use it to the fullest extent possible to coerce her into serving the interests of their donors which includes the Israel lobby. This isn't even a criticism of her, it's the nature of the system right now, anyone who runs as a democrat will have to move heaven and earth to do any real good domestically, and stands virtually no chance of doing anything good on the foreign policy front, because plain and simple the party won't let them do that. It would be better to go outside of the party, but then again, the system has effectively made that illegal or impossible to do. It's a real catch 22, by design.

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I am of mixed feelings about this. I would like to see a Palestinian woman win this seat. I can see why she would not want to inspire a backlash should her comments about BDS or Israel military funding cause a flashpoint against her campaign. Other minority candidates have been defeated by such backlashes and I would not like to see us miss the opportunity to put a Palestinian woman in this seat.

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I am a big fan of Ali Abunimah and his work, I think he is an essential Palestinian voice for justice and could be compared to the greats of the civil rights movement favorably. I want to point out that her answers in the interview didn't seem problematic to me, she said "absolutely" when asked if she would vote against military aid to Israel, and stressed equality and how Israel is in the wrong but did not give any grounds for anyone to legitimately call her words hateful or biased. I find that she stumbles a bit at times while trying to convey her ideas, but I don't see any evasion or attempts to avoid the difficult questions. As for her accepting money from J Street or other pro-Israel/anti-BDS groups, that is a legitimate cause for concern, and indicates a problem above and beyond any interview or statements she has made. In short, I don't see anything problematic in what she is saying in the interview, I don't think it's even worth parsing the statements she makes defending herself because like I said, she is stumbling at times and therefore it's unfair to pounce on a misstep and condemn her on those grounds. I do think it's fair to question any money she gets from pro-israel groups, and to be vigilant about whether she is representing Palestinian rights correctly with her votes and not being influenced by the Israel lobby. As for her swearing in on the Jefferson Quran, I think she is signaling her patriotism, not endorsing slavery, we all know that the founding fathers were slave owners, and yet we recognize that their ideas about government had some value and should be celebrated and improved upon. That is why we revere the bill of rights even though it was obviously written by hypocritical slave owners.

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Let's give her a chance, and give her the benefit of the doubt. She is in an awkward position. Let's not expect too much now. Time will give us a better perspective.

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"Great questions. Wonderful research. Thank you. No shut your fucking mouth." Is that your comment??

Why did Tlaib block Professor Abunimah's questions? Terms like “frothing-at-the-mouth, anti-Israel website” and "haters" coming from a frothing-at-the-mouth, anti-Palestinian newspaper and a hater who hates constituents who pose important questions. Reminds me of Bernie Sanders trying to shout down a question about Palestine when he was running for the Presidency. She talks with J Street but not Electronic Intifada? What is her base?

Jeremy Corbyn came on strong but appears now to be throwing it all away.

Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib: don't play by Zionists rules.

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You're both right. She's correct in stating she is pro Palestinian. You are correct in pointing out the dangers of making deals with zionists.

The problem is the reality of the control zionists and their enablers have in government. How many congresscritters are there that don't accept and provide some form of zionist support? Not many. Not many at all. It's not that congress doesn't know how untrustworthy the Israelis are, just look at the issue of the Japanese F-22 that never was. It's that they willingly humiliate and denigrate the people of the US by subjugating their interests to those of a small handful of zionists...just look at the JCPOA for example. How many billions did Boeing alone lose by violating that UNSC resolution? It's gotten beyond ludicrous at this point.

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This is a very important article. It is a perfect example of how fundamentally undemocratic representative politicts are. Ultimately one must mold themselves in a manner they feel will put them into political power and keep themselves there. And within a representative system, like a Republic, there is literally no way to guarantee that a representative will represent the interests of the masses. The whole point of representative systems is to prevent democracy, & the US is no exception. If communities want to increase the chance of getting what they want from representatives then they will have to groom their own candidates and then put them up for office, rather than waiting for someone who looks like they are the right kind of person. Never forget, the ultimate problem is the system itself. And not this or that player within it.

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Nevertheless this is an important victory. We know where J-Street is coming from but there will shortly be an almighty explosion (assuming Trumps 'dream solution' is the nonsense we all expect) and J-Street will have to choose whether to support Netanyahu or to look at other options. In microcosm this is the gun that Netanyahu has held at the heads of the diaspora. Support me or face extinction. More and more are rejecting it. There can be a Jewish Homeland in a single democratic state in which all people are equal and which includes the Palestinians. A Jewish Homeland with democracy for Jews only is a further step towards fascism - and it will be increasingly rejected. The real challenge is for progressive Jews and Palestinians to come together - and that means driving a wedge between 'soft' Zionists and 'hardline' Zionists. Don't fall into the trap of seeing everybody trying to struggle with this immensely difficult historic and emotional legacy as an enemy. The hard line Zionists don't: that's why they win. Maximise your allies - isolate your enemy. Shed a tear at the same time for the immense courage of those brave people facing the bullets of the IDF - but don't allow them to provoke you into the cul-de-sac of stupidity.

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BDS is constitutionally protected. It is the smallest step for any candidate claiming progressive credentials to say they will do all they can to protect the rights of BDS supporters. And I reckon support for BDS in some form would not harm them electorally... though it might lose them establishment support. But that loss would only energize Democrats, especially the younger ones, sick and tired of the Israel lobbies interference in US politics and their party.
Voters would surely cut Tlaib slack for supporting the human rights movement that aims to redress the injustices that have so effected her family.
BDS to me is the litmus test of progressive politicians... I've only heard one candidate saying he supports the movement, the Maine candidate for senate Zak Ringelstein.

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Ali Abunimah

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.