The assault on Rashida Tlaib

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (Michael Brochstein-ZUMA).jpg

David Finkel

Against the Current  /  November-December 2021

 “(I)n most aspects of life, Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians. Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy. In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” (Human Rights Watch)

Even while scrambling to hold their caucus together for votes on infrastructure bills, the Democratic Congressional leadership displayed a distinctive approach to party “unity” when it comes to subsidizing Israel’s war machine.

Not a single one of these leaders, whether “moderate” or “progressive,” stood up for Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) on September 23 after her courageous and principled one-minute statement opposing a $1 billion supplemental appropriation for Israel’s “Iron Dome” system. Tlaib was immediately and viciously denounced by her so-called colleagues in almost unprecedented personal terms.

Billed as a defensive anti-missile array, Iron Dome enables the Israeli state to engage in offensive actions at will with minimal fear of retaliation. This expenditure is in addition to the annual $3.8 billion U.S. subsidy to Israel entrenched during the Obama administration. (Originally included in the overall military budget, Iron Dome funding was removed in procedural maneuvers involving unrelated issues.)

“I will not support an effort to support war crimes, human rights abuses, and violence” by Israel against the Palestinian people, Tlaib proclaimed. She cited the reports of Human Rights Watch A Threshold Crossed. Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution”, April 27, 2021) as well as the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem (“A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid”)

There wasn’t the slightest doubt, of course, that the Iron Dome appropriation would pass (the vote was 420-9). But that didn’t matter to Congressmen Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), who immediately took the floor attacking Rashida Tlaib for the unforgiveable crime of calling our ally Israel an “apartheid regime.”

Said Fleischmann: “You just saw something on the floor I thought I would never see, not only as a member of this House, but as an American!” As Rashida Tlaib is proudly Palestinian-American, the racist subtext (if it’s right to even call it half-disguised) of Fleischmann’s “American” reference was crystal clear.

Deutch for his part ranted, “I cannot allow one of my colleagues to stand on the floor of the House of Representatives and label the Jewish democratic state of Israel an apartheid state…and when there is no place on the map for one Jewish state, that’s anti-Semitism.”

In a sardonic note on the episode, Peter Beinart commented that Deutch “is super woke. At first blush, that might seem strange. If ‘woke’ is merely a pejorative synonym for ‘left-wing,’ then Deutch’s defense of Israel wasn’t woke at all. But … wokeness doesn’t just mean leftism. It refers to a style of political argument that employs accusations of bigotry to silence legitimate debates.”

As Beinart observes, “the critics of wokeness rarely notice when Jews do the same thing to defend Israel.” (“Woke Jews”, October 4, 2021)

threats and complicity

What’s important here isn’t so much the remarks of a couple of Congress members eager to burnish their “pro-Israel” credentials. It’s the silent complicity of the Democrats’ failure to defend Tlaib’s integrity and right to state her opinion. These so-called leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, know that Rashida Tlaib is the target of unceasing hateful smears on social media and elsewhere, including all-too-credible death threats.

The small handful of representatives who voted “No” in Congress represent a much more sizable sector of the U.S. population that’s questioning the unconditional support of Israel as it continues its “crimes of apartheid and persecution.” What Rashida said resonates with more and more people:

“We cannot be talking only about Israelis’ need for safety at a time when Palestinians are living under a violent apartheid system and are dying from what Human Rights Watch has said are war crimes. We should also be talking about Palestinians’ need for security from Israeli attacks.”

It will take much longer, though, for the change in public sentiment to penetrate the military, corporate and lobby-infested corridors of Capitol Hill. As of now, stating as Tlaib did that “Israelis and Palestinians are equal people” deserving security is beyond what you’re allowed to think, much less say, in Congress — at least, not if you actually mean to do something about it.

The honor roll of progressive representatives who voted “No” also consists of Ilhan Omar (MN), Ayanna Presley (MA), Cori Bush (MO), Chuy Garcia and Marie Newman (IL), Andre Carson (IN) and Raul Grijalva (AZ).  The ninth vote was cast by quasi-“libertarian” Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie, who opposes foreign aid across the board.

Two “present” votes were cast by representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, both of New York, who pretty obviously were being threatened with all-out campaigns to destroy them in next year’s primary season.

The ‘antisemitism’  smear

Something must also be said here about the disgraceful “antisemitism” slander that rears its head whenever Israeli “crimes of apartheid and persecution” come up for discussion.

When Human Rights Watch denounces, for example, the Chinese regime’s violations of basic rights in Hong Kong or its crimes against the Uighurs, nobody (except Beijing’s propaganda machine) calls it “anti-Chinese.” Same thing if human rights are shredded by the governments of Iran, or Cuba, or Hungary…

But it’s only when Israel’s conduct is called out that “antisemitism” is invoked to derail any substantive discussion. Talk about a double standard.

Outside those grotesque scenes in Congress, however, it’s a pleasure to report that Rashida Tlaib has a significant support system. JVP Action, the political action arm of Jewish Voice for Peace, has issued an appeal thanking Rashida and the other “No” voters on the Iron Dome. JVP members in the Detroit area, including her home district, are stepping forward, as are other pro-Palestinian activists.

These events are taking place against a backdrop that reveals the Biden administration’s policy to be as morally bankrupt and reactionary as many of us knew it would be. In an article titled “Washington’s Three Gifts to Naftali Bennett,” Edo Konrad of the online +972 Israeli Mmagazine (September 26, 2021) sums it up.

In addition to the Iron Dome appropriation, Konrad cites the appointment of Thomas Nides as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel. Nides, formerly a managing director and vice-president at Morgan Stanley, is a strong supporter not only of Israeli “security,” but of the so-called Abrahamic Accords which entrench Israel’s alliance with the most reactionary and anti-democratic Gulf Arab oil kingdoms.

Wrapping it all in a neat package was Biden’s UN General Assembly speech, making clear that Washington’s support on paper for a “two-state solution” (i.e. the corpse thereof) will remain just that, with no action planned — in other words, a dead letter.

A threshold was indeed crossed in Congress: The vicious attacks on Rashida Tlaib, and even more the silent complicity of the House of Representatives “leadership,” say everything we need know about their pretensions.

David Finkel is editor of Against the Current