Rashida Tlaib repudiates views of Israel lobby group J Street

Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib campaigns with Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar. The two winners of Democratic primaries are set to become the first Muslim women in the US Congress. (via Facebook)

This article has been updated since initial publication.

Rashida Tlaib has repudiated key positions of the Israel lobby group J Street, which endorsed her during her winning Democratic primary campaign for Michigan’s 13th congressional district.

This comes after days of controversy and questions about the political commitments required to secure the support of the liberal Zionist organization.

In an interview with In These Times on Tuesday, Tlaib was asked about questions this writer raised concerning the Palestinian American politician’s alignment with J Street.

Tlaib expressed clear public support for people who engage in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

“I‘m an ACLU card member,” she said, referring to the American Civil Liberties Union, a group that defends First Amendment rights. “I stand by the rights of people who support BDS. Allow the students to be a part of the movement. I am so proud of the Center for Constitutional Rights in support of student movements for BDS. If you don’t support freedom of speech, you’re in the wrong country.”

Tlaib’s emphasis here is on the right to engage in BDS activism, rather than expressing explicit support for the movement’s tactics. This may not go as far as some would like, however this addresses what her role would be as a lawmaker, which is to protect against unconstitutional efforts to curb free speech rights.

An early test will be the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, part of a wave of Israel lobby measures to crack down on the Palestinian-led BDS movement – which aims to pressure Israel to end its violations of international law and Palestinian rights.

Tlaib also came out clearly for a one-state solution – a single democratic state in all of what is now Israel, the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in which everyone has equal rights.

“One state. It has to be one state. Separate but equal does not work,” she said, citing America’s history of racial segregation that was challenged by the civil rights movement. “This whole idea of a two-state solution, it doesn’t work.”

Tlaib also asserted, “I do not support aid to a Netanyahu Israel,” stating more clearly what she told the UK’s Channel 4 on Monday.

Rejecting J Street

These stances put her directly at odds with J Street, which endorsed Tlaib on the basis that she supports “all current aid to Israel” – that 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” as well as “opposition to the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction movement.”

Through its political action committee, J Street had donated $3,000 to Tlaib’s campaign.

Tlaib also told In These Times that she is “very supportive” of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

While her position on refugees was never at issue, and is not cited in the endorsement, J Street rejects the return of Palestinians to lands and homes from which they were expelled solely on the racist grounds that they are not Jewish.

No aid is good aid

The interview is not without some rough patches: It is not only aid to Netanyahu’s Israel that is harmful.

The leader of Israel’s ostensibly center-left Zionist Union opposition coalition is Tzipi Livni.

Although she is often marketed as “dovish,” Livni holds hardline racist views that Palestinians have no place in a “Jewish state.”

Livni has also been internationally pursued for her role in war crimes when she was in the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which launched “Operation Cast Lead” against Gaza in 2008, that killed approximately 1,400 Palestinians.

US support for Israeli governments of all parties, whether from the Zionist left or right, has enabled and sustained Israel’s occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid. US military aid in the hands of a Livni government would be no less lethal to Palestinians than aid to Netanyahu.

Tlaib also made unfair comments about those who have been asking legitimate questions raised by the J Street endorsement.

“Palestinians are attacking me now, but I am not going to dehumanize Israelis,” she said. “I won’t do that.”

This writer is not aware of anyone calling on her to “dehumanize Israelis,” and asking for accountability is not an “attack.”

What is key, however, is that Tlaib’s statements to In These Times put clear distance between her and J Street, an organization that exists to oppose and undermine fundamental Palestinian rights under the guise of supporting “peace.”

Support from J Street – which Tlaib reportedly “sought out” – is incompatible with a commitment to human equality and liberation.

The JTA news agency reported Wednesday that J Street is “seeking clarification” from Tlaib’s campaign over her recent statements.

“We are clear and unequivocal with all the candidates who we consider for endorsement what our core principles and commitments are,” J Street senior vice president Jessica Rosenblum said. “We only endorse candidates who have affirmed support for them.”

Hopeful wave

People across the country are looking to Tlaib as part of a hopeful wave in which progressive voices from traditionally excluded communities are achieving political power.

Yet that hope is tempered by apprehension and skepticism that the vehicle for many of these candidates is a Democratic Party that has long abandoned working class communities in favor of corporate interests, and whose elites remain staunchly pro-Israel and opposed to equal Palestinian rights.

But hope was boosted again on Tuesday night by the Minnesota primary victory of Ilhan Omar, who came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia.

Omar’s platform expresses support for the “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians, but affirms that “without justice, there will never be peace.”

She pledges to “uplift the voices of Palestinians demanding an end to the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and end the siege of Gaza” and says she will “oppose the killing of civilians in Gaza and the expansion of settlements into the West Bank.”

Omar calls for reductions in funding to the Pentagon for “perpetual war and military aggression” in countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

Omar was not endorsed by J Street.

Both Tlaib and Omar are expected to win in November’s general election as they were nominated in safe Democratic seats. They would become the first Muslim women in Congress.

Standing firm

Tlaib has emphasized that her priority will be to fight for her district, which encompasses large parts of the City of Detroit as well as suburbs that are home to significant Arab American communities.

Although she won her primary, Tlaib trailed 10 points behind her closest opponent, Brenda Jones, in the City of Detroit where the population is more than 80 percent Black.

Tlaib understands that many of her constituents will not see Palestine as their first priority when gentrification, unemployment and underfunded public schools and basic services threaten the place of African Americans in a city that has long been a Black cultural capital.

But there is no doubt that people are looking to Tlaib nationally and even internationally for leadership on Palestinian rights in the US Congress, long a fortress for Israel and its ruthless lobby.

Tlaib and Omar are already facing fierce attack from Israel lobby groups and their allies, targeting them not only because of their stances but on the basis of their ethnicity, Muslim faith and because they are women.

A lesson worth learning early on is that Israel lobby groups can never be appeased: they require total surrender of Palestinian rights, and then they demand more.

Therefore if one is going to face the onslaught of the Israel lobby, it might as well be for clear, effective and moral stances – something any association with an anti-Palestinian group like J Street muddies.

By taking and maintaining clear positions on Palestinian rights and standing against any efforts to curtail the constitutional right to engage in BDS activism Rashida Tlaib will find that people across the country will rally to her side and defend her as she fights for what is right.

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The hate machine is in full operation against these candidates. I would not be surprised to see a late night apoplectic tweet from Comb-Over Caligula dogwhistling his trailerklans into action.

On the other hand, I'm so happy to read this article today. It really puts my mind at ease regarding the solidarity of the movement to free Palestine and establish one state.

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The hardest choice in the August 14 Primary for people in South Minneapolis has to be the choice between State Representative Ilhan Omar and State Senator Patricia Torres Ray for Congress in the 5th Congressional District.

Ilhan has national recognition as the first Somali representative in a State Legislature. She is endorsed by the DFL and Our Revolution. She supports abolishing ICE, is very progressive, and she brought home bacon for her district.
When Ellison was thinking about resigning as 5th District Congressperson a year ago, we supported Patricia for his seat:

“Five and a half years ago we ran a full-page photo of Senator Patricia Torres Ray on the cover of Southside Pride. In 25 years of publishing we have published a full-page photo on our cover only that one time—when a brave Latina first-term legislator stood in front of the Cub Store on Lake Street supporting the cleaning staff on strike. She was the only elected official there.”

“I was at a community meeting at a local restaurant two years ago. All the local politicians were giving short talks about the great things they were doing. Senator Torres Ray went out into the kitchen and brought back the staff of 15 or 20 Latinos. ‘These are the people who cook and serve your food. They clean up after you. They want to be able to get a driver’s license. That’s my bill in the legislature.’ ”

When Ilhan Omar ran against Phyllis Kahn, the incumbent who had served 44 years in the legislature, Patricia Torres Ray was the only elected official to endorse her.

Either of these two women would be a great choice for Congress. But we have to pick one. There is a danger if progressives split their votes between Ilhan and Patricia then the centrist Democrat, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, could win a plurality. It may only take 40% to win the DFL Primary for Congress, especially if progressives split their 60% between Ilhan and Patricia.
We have to choose one. Vote for Ilhan.

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I don't have a vote there, but I can't help noticing that your post is predominantly an encomium to Patricia Torres Ray, listing her dedicated acts on behalf of undocumented and striking workers. Yet at the end you ask voters to support her opponent Ilhan Omar. I'm not clear on why Omar is the preferred candidate given your emphasis on the achievements of her opponent.

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I went on beyond the character limit and had to cut the ending. The original reads:

"I believe we have to trust and respect the leadership in the DFL and Our Revolution and vote for Ilhan Omar for Congress.
But, we have to remember and respect the record and leadership of Patricia Torres Ray."

They are both progressives and both are giving important leadership to the local Latin and Somali communities. I think at a certain point you have to trust and support the leadership in Our Revolution and the local Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

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Having just watched her interview today (Aug 16, 2018) on Democracy Now, I have a clearer idea of where this candidate stands. She repeatedly stated that she will not "choose sides" between Israel and the Palestinians. That's really the essence of her stance, amidst a field of platitudes and irrelevant references. She won't choose sides. Which is to say, she's made her choice. Incidentally, the fact that she's female, or Muslim, or of Palestinian ancestry, or photogenic, or well-spoken- none of these qualities have any bearing on issues of personal character or political commitment. But when Rashida Tlaib repeatedly assures her audience that she won't "choose sides" between oppressors and the oppressed, I have to conclude that we're seeing a familiar pattern under the veneer.

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(1) Government has ZERO business interfering in Civilian boycotts.
(2) Boycotts are the most Democratic and PEACEFUL of actions.
(3) Boycotts are FREEDOM of SPEECH.
(4) Boycotts are FREEDOM of ASSOCIATION -- DISassociation.
(5) Boycotts are VOTING with dollars.
(6) Boycotts PEACEFULLY withhold "power/energy" from those with whom one disagrees without engaging in violence.
(7) In "Capitalism", the system we CLAIM to follow, where and with whom you spend your money is ENTIRELY up to YOU.
The Citizens United Supreme Court decision firmly established that the right to spend money is a form of free speech. That means that the right to NOT spend money is also a form of free speech. Organizing a boycott -- an act of NOT spending money -- is then protected free speech in the same way that soliciting campaign funds to spend on promoting a political candidate or partisan viewpoint is free speech.

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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.