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Rashida Tlaib pushes for cease-fire in Gaza – and faces blowback

With her Palestinian grandmother living in the West Bank, one of her Palestinian American constituents dodging Israeli strikes in Gaza, and her fellow Democrats trumpeting strong support for Israel, Rep. Rashida Tlaib took the mic at an Oct. 18 rally to give the president of the United States a piece of her mind.

“I’m telling you right now, President Biden, not all of America is with you,” she shouted, standing in front of a banner reading “CEASEFIRE,” the Capitol dome behind it in the background. “I think the White House and everyone thinks we’re just going to sit back and let this happen.”

Well, Representative Tlaib, for one, is not sitting back. Even when other Democrats call her positions “offensive” and “despicable.” Even when she is hounded in the halls of Congress by a Fox reporter asking over and over if she has any comment on “Hamas terrorists chopping off [Israeli] babies’ heads.” And even though she faced a Republican effort Wednesday evening to censure her for “antisemitic activity,” “sympathizing with terrorist organizations,” and, among other things, leading those Oct. 18 rallygoers in an “insurrection” into a House office building. There, hundreds of Jewish, Muslim, Palestinian, and other protesters were then arrested for sitting on the floor with “cease-fire now” signs and chanting, “Not in our name.”

As the only Palestinian American serving in Congress, Ms. Tlaib has become the face of a small but vocal progressive minority challenging Congress’ long-standing bipartisan support for Israel. Their movement reflects growing sympathy for the Palestinian cause among Democratic voters, which earlier this year surpassed support for Israel. It is also the result of a gradual diversification of lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill, where many nonwhite members and aides express solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Nearly a month after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis, however, these progressives appear to have had little impact on U.S. policy toward its closest Mideast ally – though they may well have an effect on the 2024 elections.

Only 16 other lawmakers – all people of color – have joined Ms. Tlaib in supporting a cease-fire resolution brought by Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, while more than 400 voted in favor of one supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization and the governing authority of Gaza since 2006. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, more than 8,500 Palestinians have been killed so far in Israel’s military response. Ms. Tlaib says Israel’s campaign in Gaza – where Hamas is operating from within a crowded civilian population as well as underground tunnel networks – amounts to genocide.

“I think that history will write that she was the moral conscience of Congress right now – she and Cori Bush,” says Sandra Tamari, a Palestinian American organizer based in St. Louis, who got to know Ms. Bush during the 2014 Ferguson uprising after police killed Michael Brown.

“Every Democratic lawmaker who has not signed on to the cease-fire [resolution] or called for a cease-fire is on notice,” adds Ms. Tamari, executive director of Adalah Justice Project, which participated in the Oct. 18 rally and has staged sit-ins in the offices of Democratic members of Congress. “We will continue to disrupt business as usual.”

Censure vote blocked

The censure resolution was blocked from reaching the House floor by a vote of 222 to 186, with 23 Republicans joining all House Democrats.

After the censure resolution against Ms. Tlaib was tabled, a retaliatory one targeting its sponsor – GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia – was also scrapped.

Ms. Greene, who has previously faced accusations of antisemitism herself, criticized her Democratic colleague for saying that progressive values were at odds with backing “Israel’s apartheid government” and implying that the “suffocating dehumanizing conditions” created by Israel’s tight control of people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip led to Hamas’s “resistance” on Oct. 7.

The censure resolution also misleadingly claimed that Ms. Tlaib had said the Holocaust gave her a “calming feeling” when, in context, the “feeling” in that 2019 comment was linked to Ms. Tlaib’s view that her Palestinian ancestors lost their land in order to create a safe haven for Jews after World War II. Controversially, she does not support a two-state solution to the conflict but rather one state for both peoples, which would mean Israel would no longer be a Jewish-majority state.

“I will not be bullied, I will not be dehumanized, and I will not be silenced,” said Representative Tlaib in response to the censure resolution. If passed, such a resolution requires a member to stand in the well of the House while it is read aloud. Only a dozen members of Congress have ever been censured.

The U.S., whose refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Europe after the Holocaust led many of them to seek refuge in their historic homeland instead, has been a strong supporter of Israel since it declared independence in 1948. The military aid it provided, beginning in the late 1950s, helped Israel win key wars which expanded its territory to include the previously Arab-held areas of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza Strip, and – for a time – the Sinai Peninsula.

For the past decade, the U.S. has given Israel more than $3 billion annually in military aid, with additional defense funding such as $1.5 billion in 2022 to replenish the interceptors for its Iron Dome missile defense system that provides an aerial shield from Hamas attacks.

After the Hamas attack last month, the Biden administration requested an additional $14 billion in emergency aid. The aid, which the administration proposed as a larger package that includes help for Ukraine and U.S. border security, is caught in a partisan battle on the Hill. Newly elected GOP Speaker of the House Mike Johnson wants to separate out aid for Israel and pay for it with purported budget cuts.

Chink in the pro-Israel armor

Going forward, a key question is whether this progressive chink in Congress’s iron-clad support for Israel could grow larger.

“I think we have to put all this in proportion and not overstate it,” says David Makovsky, an expert on U.S. policy toward Israel at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noting the “overwhelming support” for Israel in both parties.

But Hadar Susskind, a progressive Jew and president of Americans for Peace Now, says he has seen a shift over the past 25 years.

“I do think the politics in Congress are changing,” says Mr. Susskind. He adds that a broadening spectrum of advocacy groups lobbying on the Hill and organizing trips to Israel has fostered a greater diversity of congressional views on Israel. The lobbying group J Street, for instance, stands as an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the influential bipartisan lobbying group which is staunchly pro-Israel.

Still, there remain major ramifications for challenging American support for Israel. The day after the Oct. 18 rally, congressional staffers put out a letter calling for a cease-fire. Reportedly, 411 of them supported the letter, but all anonymously.

The cease-fire debate

Progressives say they are supported by the majority of Americans, pointing to a poll released Oct. 20 by progressive think tank Data for Progress that showed 80% of Democrats, 57% of independents, and 56% of Republicans “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that the U.S. should call for a ceasefire and de-escalation in Gaza, and use its leverage to prevent further civilian deaths.

“It’s absolutely shocking to me that we’re not able to get traction for the most basic demand of a cease-fire,” says Ms. Tamari, whose organization held a sit-in in the office of Rep. Ro Khanna, a leading progressive who spearheaded an end to U.S. support for Saudi-led bombing of Houthi rebels in Yemen. Even so, he has yet to sign on to Ms. Bush’s cease-fire resolution.

Critics say a cease-fire would strengthen Hamas, enabling it to regroup, and undermine Israel and other parties’ leverage in negotiations for the release of more than 200 mainly Israeli hostages, including dozens with dual nationalities. Gaza’s civilian Palestinian population is also essentially being held hostage by Hamas, they argue. Hamas has not held elections since coming to power in 2006 and violently ousting their political rivals in 2007.

“If you want a better future for Gaza, you want to make it a future that is a post-Hamas future,” says Mr. Makovsky, a former senior adviser at the State Department on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

At the same time, progressives – including many staffers sharing anguished accounts anonymously with the Instagram account @dearwhitestaffers – say they are disturbed and demoralized by what they see as a lack of empathy for Palestinian lives from Mr. Biden and members of Congress. Already, the reported death toll in this conflict is nearly four times that of the 2014 war, which lasted twice as long and included a major ground offensive.

Ms. Tlaib has come under strong criticism for her refusal last month to delete a tweet blaming Israel for a hospital strike despite U.S. and Israeli assessments pointing to a misfired Palestinian rocket. Six days later, she explained why, backing an independent investigation.

Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal says a major factor behind why more of the caucus’s 100-plus members have not supported the cease-fire resolution is how little space there is in the U.S. to have a real conversation about what’s happening, in part due to pressure from Israel-related groups that pour significant money into election campaigns.

“There’s difficulty holding that both things can be true … that you can be against Hamas and against the attacks and condemn all of that and call for the hostages to be released, and you can stand up for all parties following international humanitarian law,” says Representative Jayapal. That lack of nuance and recognition of the complexity of the situation leads to labels that can be tough to survive politically.

Lara Friedman, a former U.S. foreign service officer in the Middle East and now president of the Foundation of Middle East Peace, says that absent support from the Biden administration or leading advocacy groups, those supporting a cease-fire will be called anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and pro-Hamas. “That’s a hard place to put yourself,” she says.

What Biden’s defenders say

Biden supporters, for their part, say he has not been duly credited for his work urging Israel to exercise restraint, and pushing for humanitarian aid to the estimated 2.2 million civilians in Gaza.

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia says he thinks that’s the main reason the president traveled to Israel last month – not just to convey support, which can be done from afar, but to look his counterparts in the eye and urge restraint.

He sums up the president’s message as: “ ‘Look, learn from our own mistakes after 9/11. When we broadened it beyond the perpetrators of the attack, we lost the support of an awful lot of people around the globe.’”

But the president’s approach has fallen far short of what progressives and Arab Americans would like to hear. A poll released yesterday by the Arab American Institute notes that Arab Americans account for hundreds of thousands of voters in key swing states, including Ms. Tlaib’s home state of Michigan. It showed Arab American support for President Biden plummeting to 17% from the 59% who supported him in 2020.

“We showed up and you betrayed us,” said Ms. Tlaib at an Oct. 20 rally near the Capitol. Then she assured those present: “You will always have a sister in Congress that will speak truth to power.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Nov. 2 to reflect the tabling of a resolution to censure Ms. Tlaib Wednesday evening.

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