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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.