Editor’s Comment

The Tlaib controversy, in context

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

UNITED STATES - MAY 9: Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., walks up the House steps for a vote in the Capitol on Thursday, May 9, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Before her election to Congress in 2018, Rashida Tlaib vocally supported BDS, unlike her colleague and fellow ‘squadmate’ in the 116th Congress, Ilhan Omar, who waited until after the election to announce her support for the movement to ostracize Israel.

Some have said that Rep. Tlaib’s comments this week — that Palestinians “provided” land to Jews are shocking but unsurprising. After her January tweet: “they forgot what country they represent,” in reference to pro-Israel lawmakers, and after her photo-op with Abbas Hamideh, an avowed supporter of Hezbollah, and after her campus speeches pushing for BDS and plumping for Students for Justice in Palestine, what more can be expected?

On Tuesday morning, The Daily posted its second episode with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, in conversation with podcast host Michael Barbaro. On the criticism of her comments and those of Rep. Ilhan Omar (“It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!” and ”I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it’s okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” and “Israel has hypnotized the world”) she tells Barbaro that her critics’ opprobrium is “rooted in racism, it’s rooted in the fact that I am brown, Arab, Muslim, saying Palestinians should be free.”

Reps. Tlaib and Omar claim that they’re just criticizing Israeli policy or the “right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu,” but there’s rarely if ever actual criticism of Israeli policy. There are just irresponsible statements that seem bent on provoking reaction. And predictably, headline-grabbing content is produced and the issue of Israel and the Palestinians, sans substance, reinserted into the national discourse. Positions are taken and partisanship is advanced. Israelis and Palestinians are no better for it.

In truth, Rep. Tlaib’s support for BDS combined with her stated view of the origin of Israel betrays the sense that she knows little of the movement she supports, or of the land she calls ancestral. After the First World War, the Arab league instituted a boycott on Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine. This is, properly understood, the origin of the BDS movement. It’s not “a call from Palestinian civil society” issued in the mid-2000s, as it proclaims. Arabs provided Jews land, you see, except they were formally boycotting them and opposing their immigration to Mandatory Palestine, or waging war.

This week’s controversy is by now well-known: Tlaib’s comment on Yahoo News’s Skullduggery podcast was that “it was my ancestors, Palestinians, who lost their land … their existence in some ways had been wiped out … all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post the Holocaust.” The Palestinians, she says, “provided” that haven. But this is “ahistorical,” as Amb. Michael Oren puts it, because “the Palestinians massacred Jews, violently opposed their search for shelter, and collaborated with the Nazis.” In The Atlantic, the historian Benny Morris tells readers, “the historical reality was quite different from what Tlaib described: The Palestinians indirectly, and in some ways directly, aided in the destruction of European Jewry.”

In Tablet, Liel Leibovitz shares the stories of Atara Abramson, Ya’acov Goldwasser, and Avraham Asher, three Jews who were murdered by Arab forces in Mandatory Palestine. Leibovitz writes that in addition to these three, “There were 433 more Holocaust survivors killed by Palestinians and Jordanians violently opposing the creation of a safe haven for Jews in what had historically and spiritually been their homeland. To attempt and rewrite their well-documented experiences is to victimize them yet again, an unforgivable and deeply anti-Semitic act.”

The public debate, though, hasn’t been on these terms. In the Washington Post and elsewhere this controversy has been labeled a partisan one. The statements of Reps. Liz Cheney and Steve Scalise, made use of Tlaib’s contextual gaffe about her “calming” feeling when she thinks about the Holocaust. It’s not what she meant, in proper context, but it’s still an odd thing to say. Able to claim Republicans took her comment out of context, Democratic leaders fell in line behind Tlaib. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted:

Republicans’ desperate attempts to smear @RepRashida & misrepresent her comments are outrageous. President @realDonaldTrump & House GOP should apologize to Rep. Tlaib & the American people for their gross misrepresentations.

This partisan crossfire catches Jews and their history in the middle. Jews and allies (see the Meghan McCain controversy last week) can’t criticize Tlaib’s historical revisions, or Omar’s dual loyalty charges without being called racist. Republicans, especially the President can’t criticize Tlaib’s ahistorical origin without getting whataboutism in return.