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Defending and Respecting Rashida Tlaib’s Standpoint Does Not Mean Abandoning My Own
In the same spirit of real engagement with which I have defended her, I also take issue with some of what she has been saying.
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In the same spirit of real engagement with which I have defended her, I also take issue with some of what she has been saying.
Rashida Tlaib has been long been demonized and denounced for her general outspokenness and her strong and unyielding defense of Palestinian rights and Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. In the weeks since Hamas’ vicious October 7 attacks, the vitriol leveled against her has increased exponentially.
I consider the attacks on her nasty, intellectually unserious, and contrary to a basic principle of pluralist democracy—the principle that fellow citizens with whom one disagrees are not thereby existential enemies to be attacked and defeated. I also think that the refusal to listen to Tlaib, and understand where she is coming from, is an awful way to respond to the ongoing crisis in Israel-Palestine, by blinding U.S. foreign policy to Palestinian perspectives and deafening U.S. political leaders and citizens to the criminal death and destruction now being rained down on Gaza by the Israeli military, even as Hamas continues its dangerous but much less deadly rocket attacks and continues to hold over 200 innocent civilians hostage in the manner of a terroristic pirate gang.
For these reasons I have defended Rashida Tlaib in three recently published pieces, insisting that censuring her means censuring democracy and seeking to silence the U.S. Congress’s only Palestinian voice, and also insisting that it is essential more generally to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and antisemitism, and to stop demonizing the former.
The same ethos of “thinking from the standpoint of the other” that should ethically require Tlaib’s critics to listen to her without demonizing her should also ethically require her to realize that these words genuinely engender fear, anxiety, and even defensive aggressiveness in many Jewish people.
In doing so, I have drawn on something that political theorist Hannah Arendt said long ago about properly political thinking: “The power of judgment finds itself... in an anticipated communication with others with whom I know I must finally come to some agreement. From this potential agreement judgment derives its specific validity... It needs the special presence of others ‘in whose place’ it must think, whose perspectives it must take into consideration...”
This has led some critics to charge me with a kind of “relativism,” and of suspending my own critical faculties in order to lionize the perspective of a victim-claiming Palestinian “Other.” I have been asked: “Why must you validate what Tlaib says simply because she is a Palestinian, and can’t you think for yourself?”
The question is fair. But it rests on a misunderstanding of both Arendt and my appeal to her.
First, Arendt writes about thinking from the standpoint of others, not some singular, essentialized Other. Plurality of opinion is central here, within any group and indeed even within any person, for human beings are very capable of holding a range of opinions that are not always perfectly consistent—something ordinarily called ambivalence, and something that political crusaders of all stripes consider anathema. To listen to and think from the perspective of Rashida Tlaib is to listen to her, what she says, and how and from where she says it, not to imagine that she speaks for all Palestinians or that there is an essential “Palestinian victim” (or that victimhood is the essence of Palestinian identity). It also means trying to understand how what she is saying or doing relates to and differs from what others, including other Palestinians—and especially Hamas–are saying and doing.
Second, to think from the perspective of others, and to take their perspectives “into consideration,” is not simply to submit to those perspectives, to deny one’s own experience and standpoint, or to suspend one’s own critical faculties. It means to understand, and by doing so to expand one’s own perspective, not to uncritically agree with some other perspective. For thinking is a process, and it is possible to seriously consider a range of possibilities before deciding, often provisionally, on one of them. This too political crusaders despise; they prefer always that people respond instantly to triggers and slogans that are easier to mobilize and to drive to extremes.
If Rashida Tlaib were promoting antisemitism, or celebrating the October 7 massacre of Israeli Jews (and not all of the victims were Jews), or extolling the virtues of Hamas, or calling for a Jihad against Jewish people, it would be impossible for me to defend her in the way that I have done—though I would still hold that First Amendment protections apply to her no less than to anyone else, and that the physical threats she receives for saying what she thinks are both immoral and illegal.
But that is not what Rashida Tlaib has been saying.
She has by and large been calling for a cease-fire and a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a linkage between the two, insisting that the “resolution” of the current Israel-Gaza war must also address the broader conflict—which has long preceded this war—in a way that ensures the rights and dignity of Palestinians. (And please note: a not insignificant number of her House Progressive and Justice Democrat colleagues, most of them neither Palestinian nor even Arab, have joined with her in this appeal for justice).
Having listened to her, I have defended her because I believe her perspective is important and valuable, but also because I basically agree with most of what she says.
But not all of it. Her recent and much-criticized video made this clear to me and, in the same spirit of real engagement with which I have defended her, I also take issue with some of what she has been saying.
I do not believe the video—in which she accused President Joe Biden of supporting “genocide,” and included footage of a mass pro-Palestinian rally chanting “from river to sea, Palestine will be free”—is antisemitic. Nor do I think it represents a call to drive Israeli Jews into the sea. I believe her when she says that for her the slogan is “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence.” For there is no evidence of her advocating violent attacks on Jews or even Israeli Jews—and not all Jews are Israeli Jews.
But from my perspective—and I do not imagine that she shares this perspective, because she and I are different people—that video is problematic in two ways that are politically consequential and warrant criticism.
The first problem involves questionable political judgment.
In the video, Tlaib contravenes the very Arendtian sentiment that I have invoked to defend her, by employing language that has a range of meanings, some of which are obviously very disturbing and triggering to her principal “Others.” I do not agree with some of my Jewish-American friends who assert that “from the river to the sea” is “obviously” an eliminationist call for the conquest and expulsion of Jews or at least the violent defeat and destruction of Israel. But it is obvious that this is how most American Jews and their allies, and virtually all Israeli Jews, interpret this phrase—as not simply a statement to which they might object, but as a rallying cry that threatens them, especially in Israel but not only there, for there is no doubt that the slogan has furnished an occasion for acts of antisemitism in many places in the Middle East but also Europe and the U.S. (There is also no doubt that many of Tlaib’s critics are hypocrites who either support or turn a blind eye to right-wing Zionists who employ a very similar rhetoric to justify their vision of a Jewish state that runs “from the river to the sea”—and these hypocrites are even more culpable, because they are actually making headway in their efforts to dispossess and displace Palestinians.)
And the same ethos of “thinking from the standpoint of the other” that should ethically require Tlaib’s critics to listen to her without demonizing her should also ethically require her to realize that these words genuinely engender fear, anxiety, and even defensive aggressiveness in many Jewish people, who have two good reasons to feel this. One is that the Holocaust was not that long ago, and its intergenerational legacies are no less powerful for Jews than memories of what Palestinians call “the Nakba” are for Palestinians. The other is that the most politically organized force promoting the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is Hamas, a violent, Islamic fundamentalist, and terroristic organization whose charter preaches jihad and is explicitly antisemitic, and whose militants just murdered 1,400 Israeli citizens and kidnapped another 200-plus as hostages.
I agree with Juliette Kayyem, who notes that “by amplifying a loaded slogan, the Michigan representative isn’t helping anyone’s cause.” To be clear, Tlaib’s constituency is distinctive, and her outrage and passion at this moment is surely as valid as any supporter of Israel’s—and there is no shortage of passion and hyperbole these days. But Tlaib’s posting of the video represents an instance of unwise rhetoric and poor political judgment, for it was bound to inflame her adversaries but also to discomfort many allies or potential allies. It is possible that mobilizing her own base is now more important to her. That too is a judgment call. But I believe that Tlaib might do well—for her own sake and for the sake of her cause—to avoid “loaded slogans” and focus more on the concrete injustices that she rightly opposes, for doing so can spare her much grief and allow her to gain more support for what is really a quite reasonable perspective.
It would represent a real contribution if Tlaib would distance herself from many of those supporters who are much more radical than she, not necessarily by issuing blanket denunciations, but simply by being much clearer about what she supports.
At the same time, I also believe that the video’s slogan, even generously interpreted as merely unwise, is problematic in a second and more directly political sense, related to the rhetoric and even the vision of “One Palestine” that it invokes.
I believe that Tlaib speaks sincerely and for a great many when she says that this slogan is “an aspirational call” for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence. But I think Tlaib does not simply mean by this a hope that all the individual human beings who live between the river and the sea will eventually enjoy freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence. For the statement “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” means that from the river to the sea, Palestine will be Palestine, in other words, it will not be Israel.
Tlaib, like a great many, including even some American Jews and Israeli Jews, clearly means that it should become a single, secular democratic state. And in ideal terms this is not simply a legitimate idea but the only idea that corresponds to modern conceptions of liberal democratic legitimacy.
I understand the appeal of such a “one-state solution,” especially for someone like Tlaib. For the so-called “two-state solution” is deeply problematic and has become little more than a platitude. On the one hand it reinforces an illiberal Israeli state that is the state of its Jewish citizens, in which its non-Jewish citizens are second class citizens, while imagining a Palestinian state that is so fragmented, interlaced with Jewish settlements, and powerless as to not be very “statelike” at all. This is normatively problematic. On the other hand, normative problems aside, “the two-state solution” was the product of a time that has long passed, and however desirable it might seem to some, especially among the much-weakened Israeli peace movement and a Biden administration that seems to be grasping at straws, this “solution” seems almost impossible under current circumstances, which include heightened fears and resentments and the weakening of the political forces for political decency and reason on both “sides” of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
But to be equally clear: I consider the so-called “one-state solution” to be no more realistic a “solution” to the awful war or the underlying crisis. It has the advantage of sounding more universalist and thus more liberal democratic—and thus more legitimate to everyone who rejects tribalism and is serious about human rights. It has the additional advantage of making young people who want to express their legitimate outrage at the unjust treatment of Palestinians feel like they are actually for something noble and not simply against “Zionism.” But it has these advantages only by obscuring three fundamental problems.
The first is simple: There is no strong political will for this on either side.
As critics have noted, mainstream Zionism has always centered politically on a kind of Jewish ethno-nationalism for which Palestinians are of secondary concern at best. But it is no less true that the driving force of the Palestinian movement has always been Palestinian nationalism and not cosmopolitan universalism—the sincere efforts of public intellectuals like the late Edward Said, and many others, notwithstanding. In an ideal world it should be possible for Jews and Palestinians everywhere “between the river and the sea” to be equal citizens of a liberal democratic state called Israel-Palestine or Palestine-Israel or Canaan or Utopia or whatever—just as Rashida Tlaib and I are equal citizens of the United States. But we do not inhabit such a world. And in theworld in which we live, the major political forces on both “sides” have no interest in a single, secular democratic state. What we have now are two competing forms of nationalism, one of which currently dominates the other, and neither of which has demonstrated anything that can credibly be regarded as a liberal democratic universalism. The situation is tragic. But it is the situation from which any reasonable political solution now and in any foreseeable future must proceed.
This leads to the second, related problem with the notion of one state “between the river and the sea”—the “right of return” to which it is almost automatically linked. During the time when there were serious discussions about mutual recognition linked to a “two-state solution,” some of them involving high-level diplomacy, it was understood that a Palestinian “right of return” would strictly speaking need to be compromised, for a range of reasons of which the most important is rather simple: In order for the Palestinians displaced in 1948 and their millions of descendants to return to the territory of Israel and even to their former homes, it would be necessary for millions of Israelis who have been born and lived and worked in Israel since 1948 to be somehow displaced or relocated. A literal Palestinian right of return would be literally impossible logistically speaking. (To be clear: In my view any just settlement would also require that all notions of Jewish “birthright” and “right of return” be similarly abandoned. There is no just basis, now, to maintain that the return of all Palestinian former-residents of Israel proper is impossible but the fictive “return” of many thousands of Jews whose families have lived in the U.S. or Europe for generations if not centuries is somehow rightful.)
To be fair, many Palestinian activists, and I would count Tlaib among them, are aware of these logistical challenges, and it is reasonable to assume that they might be amenable to forms of real reparation that compromise a literal interpretation of a Palestinian “right of return,” perhaps by building up the West Bank and Gaza as part of a single democratic state.
But as the “two-state solution” has politically languished—in large part due to the awful policies of the Netanyahu governments—the idea of a Palestinian compromise on the right of return seems to have languished as well. In recent days I have seen many videos in which individuals associated with Students for Justice in Palestine declare, in all seriousness, that Palestinians (and their descendants) ought to be restored the property and homes and neighborhoods that they lost in 1948, and that the “European Jews” who now occupy them ought to “go back to where they came from in Europe.” Such ideas are not literally “Nazi,” as some pro-Israeli activists say. Indeed, when coming from the mouths of young American protestors, some even Jewish, they are politically naïve more than anything else. But taken literally, the sentiments very directly threaten the more than 7 million Jewish Israelis who constitute approximately three quarters of the population of Israel, people who have already been legitimately shaken and outraged by the murderous Hamas attack on October 7.
Precisely because hers is a voice for justice, and there are many who support her, she perhaps bears a greater burden of responsibility to unambiguously perform the justice that she rightly seeks.
Further, right now the most powerful Palestinian organization in Palestine or anywhere else, Hamas, is very much committed to realizing this vision of a “Palestinian return” that displaces if not kills Israeli Jews, which it regards as settlers and occupiers everywhere in the territory of Israel-Palestine. And make no mistake, Israeli Jews are Israeli Jews, who have no other home and have no intention of leaving. And simply wishing them away is no more honest than Netanyahu now simply wishing that all Palestinians would simply go away or somehow not die when the IDF drops bombs on them. As a politics, this can mean only mass expulsion and slaughter.
Unfortunately, too many of those who are currently marching behind “Free Palestine” banners while chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” also regard Israel as nothing more than a gang of colonizing and marauding European settlers, and regard Hamas as a virtuous agent of “liberation.” Such people are not “terrorists” nor are they “accomplices” of terrorists. But they are supporters—whether knowingly or willingly, whether with hate for Zionism in their hearts or love of Palestinians or simple if naïve altruism—of a political project that is inherently dehumanizing and violent. And they are offering rhetorical promotion to a terroristic organization that is little different from the Taliban, whose “liberatory” virtues are on display every day in Afghanistan. I do not support the banning of these kinds of “pro-Palestinian” groups. But I definitely consider their Manichean approach to the conflict, and their uncritical celebration of “resistance” by any means, to be politically noxious and deserving of strong criticism.
But I do not believe that Rashida Tlaib is promoting such a harsh and Manichean approach.
I believe she is a humanist, and a progressive, who is serious about peace with justice and does not support terrorist violence or the ethnic cleansing of anybody, whether Palestinian or Jewish. But I also believe that her video, and her public position as a spokesperson for “Free Palestine,” can easily be mistaken for a position that sounds like it advocates the literal destruction of the Israeli state or the literal uprooting of both its political system and many or all of its Jewish citizens.
And in politics, the way things sound is largely the way they are taken to be. “Perception is politics.”
And so it would represent a real contribution if Tlaib would distance herself from many of those supporters who are much more radical than she, not necessarily by issuing blanket denunciations, but simply by being much clearer about what she supports, and by avoiding the kind of hyperbolic rhetoric that signals or seems to signal support for the complete national liberation of the entire land of “Palestine.”
This would be exceptionally difficult politically, especially at a time when Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel is killing and dispossessing tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza and pillaging the West Bank; when she is being viciously attacked for speaking up against this; and when those more radical people are among her most vocal supporters, while many more mainstream Democratic politicians have chosen to demonize her. The pressures Tlaib faces—concern for the safety and well-being of her family on the West Bank, outrage at the IDF bombing of Gaza, and the grief, anger, sadness, and relentless stress that is only exacerbated by her sense of responsibility as a member of Congress who alone “represents” Palestinians—must be enormous.
But the mark of real political leadership is the ability to sometimes do what it is very hard in the name of what is right or even merely politically wise, even when it means distancing yourself from supporters or explaining to them that some of what they are saying and doing is wrong.
I say this as a political ally (with little influence much less power!) who opposes the ongoing Israeli bombing and supports a cease-fire, the return of hostages, and a just peace—though I for one have no idea what this would look like beyond the cessation of the war. I also say this as one of many on the American left who is horrified by the way many young people, in the U.S. and elsewhere, and many “progressive” organizations, like Democratic Socialists of America, have continued to regard Hamas as a “liberation movement” whose murdering and kidnapping of Israeli Jews constitutes a legitimate tactic of “just war” against “Zionism.”
To associate with these positions, or even to seem to associate with them, is to associate with dogmatic idiocy and political barbarism, and to pour gasoline on a fire that is already burning out of control, a fire that indeed threatens to consume us all.
Rashida Tlaib is hardly responsible for either the fire or the gasoline, and those who currently attack her bear a substantial responsibility for both.
All the same, precisely because hers is a voice for justice, and there are many who support her, she perhaps bears a greater burden of responsibility to unambiguously perform the justice that she rightly seeks. This is not necessarily “fair.” It is never fair to hold those who are marginalized to a higher standard than those who do the marginalizing. But the “moral arc of history” does not automatically bend toward justice. To bend in that direction, it must be bent, by savvy political leaders who can speak their truth while also recognizing the limits of that truth, and who can thus transcend it. For only by doing so can such leaders expand the reach of the justice they seek and the alliances necessary to bring it closer to realization.