Rep. Rashida Tlaib

Rep. Rashida Tlaib takes part in a Jewish-led protest outside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. on October 18, 2023.

(Photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The Attacks on Rashida Tlaib Are Attacks on the Ethos of Pluralist Democracy

Rashida Tlaib is pro-Palestinian. And that, apparently, is not okay.

Rashida Tlaib is a very controversial woman.

She is very outspoken—in her criticisms of Donald Trump (“Impeach the Motherfucker”) and her criticisms of U.S. foreign policy.

She is also very pro-Palestinian. Very.

This outrages many people, right-wing Republicans but also otherwise self-described liberal Democrats, many of whom are also Jewish-Americans.

Here’s the thing. Many of those Jewish-Americans are pro-Israeli. Very. They are indeed proud and outspoken Zionists. Some have children who serve in the IDF. Some are even admirers of Benjamin Netanyahu. They are now supporting Netanyahu’s government, which includes outspoken supporters of the violent expulsion of Palestinians and the seizure of their lands.

These Jewish-Americans are very pro-Israeli. And it seems like that’s okay. And it is. They have a right to their opinions.

But Rashida Tlaib is pro-Palestinian. And that, apparently, is not okay.

Did I mention that Tlaib is a Palestinian-American, indeed the only Palestinian-American in the 435-member House of Representatives?

Her mother was born on the West Bank and her father in East Jerusalem. Her elderly grandmother and other family members live in the West Bank village of Beit Ur al-Fauqa. This means that they experience Israeli Occupation and disenfranchisement daily. Let’s be frank: nothing about Zionism has been uplifting or empowering for her family and friends—nor was it intended to be.

Tlaib has denounced the Hamas killings of Israelis on October 7, but she also denounces the Israeli bombardment of Gaza that has killed perhaps nine thousand Palestinians. She says Palestinian lives matter too. She even says that the bombing campaign is “genocide”—a controversial and contested claim that is actually supported by a wide range of international lawyers and scholars of human rights, including Raz Segal, an Israeli Jewish expert on the Holocaust who thinks it is “a textbook case of genocide.”

Further, in a recent video that has received much hostile attention, she has committed the political sin of accusing President Biden of supporting genocide—every MAGA Republican says worse every day—and of including a scene of American pro-Palestinian protesters shouting “from the river to the sea.” The latter language is clearly incendiary. But it just as clearly has a range of meanings, as Yousef Mounayyer argued back in 2021 in Jewish Currents. And since there is no evidence that Tlaib advocates conquering Israeli Jews and driving them into the sea, her own explanation—that it is “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence”-- seems credible.

What Democratic Majority for Israel wants is not a Democratic majority but a Democratic Unanimity for Israel.

It is true, as Juliette Kayyem notes in TheAtlantic, that “By amplifying a loaded slogan, the Michigan representative isn’t helping anyone’s cause.” Perhaps the posting of the video represents an instance of unwise rhetoric or poor political judgment—though Tlaib’s constituency is unique, and her outrage and passion at this moment is surely as valid as any supporter of Israel’s. I would agree that at this moment especially, she 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 challenges. But that is for her to decide. And Tlaib’s real “crime” is not the video; it is her consistent advocacy of Palestinian rights.

And so she is the object of derision, scorn, denunciation, and political attacks—and the recipient of regular death threats—that have now led to her being censured by a majority of her House colleagues.

MAGA Republicans like Marjorie Taylor-Greene call her a “terrorist.” (Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said much the same thing last year.)

And liberal Democrats associated with a group called Democratic Majority for Israel, are running attack ads that say that she refuses to denounce Hamas murders and supports legislation to “rearm the terrorists,” and instructing Michigan voters to “tell Rashida Tlaib, she is on the wrong side of history and humanity.” The group’s leader, Mark Mellman, a major liberal Democratic pollster, has said that the group is not actively recruiting someone to run against Tlaib. But she is clearly facing calls to be “primaried,” and it has been reported by CNBC that a PAC funded by Linkedin co-founder Reid Hoffman is planning to fund a challenger.

None of these attacks are nefarious or illegal. People have the right to denounce politicians they don’t like and to oppose them or support candidates they do like.

At same time, the relentless and vitriolic attacks on Tlaib because of her stance on this one issue are deeply disturbing, and while they do not violate the letter of the law, they are in tension with its spirit, because they implicitly or explicitly attack two indispensable norms of pluralistic democracy that are often considered “guardrails” by supporters of democracy.

One norm is respect for the principled expression of differences of perspective and opinion when these are articulated openly as part of democratic public debate. The second is related—the principle of “representation” itself, the idea that a democracy requires the representation of constituent preferences and, broadly, the representation of diverse interests, and that competitive elections are good because they allow for broad representation.

Tlaib is a thrice-elected U.S. Congressperson who has been very clear about her views and quite obviously represents a constituency that contains a great many people—including many Arab-Americans—who either agree with her views or at least appreciate them and like that they are being given a hearing.

It is not simply that her views have “political validity” because her voters have affirmed them through democratic election and re-election.

It is also that her views represent a point of view that is the point of view of a great many American citizens, including but not limited to Arab-American or Muslim-American citizens, whether they live in Michigan or Minneapolis or Texas or North Carolina or Indiana or New York.

Democratic Majority for Israel, and other more explicitly hostile groups, such as AIPAC (American Israel Political Affairs Committee), are outraged that Tlaib cares as much about Palestinian people and their lives and freedoms—her people--as the many Jewish-American politicians who are supported by AIPAC care about Israeli Jews and their lives and freedoms.

Think about how arrogant that is.

And think about how anti-democratic in attitude it is.

The groups that are attacking Tlaib might claim to promote a “Democratic Majority for Israel.” But the obvious truth is that there is already a Democratic supermajority for Israel, a supermajority that includes every top Democratic leader including President Biden and his Secretary of State.

And then there is Rashida Tlaib, the lone Palestinian-American who, with Ilhan Omar and a handful of others, calls for a ceasefire and argues not that Hamas has anything to do with Palestinian freedom, but that Gazan lives are as important as Israeli lives, and Palestinian freedom is as important as Israeli freedom.

What Democratic Majority for Israel wants is not a Democratic majority but a Democratic Unanimity for Israel.

It considers even a few voices for Palestinians in Congress to be too “dangerous” to tolerate, and through its attacks it is trying to deny these few voices a hearing in the U.S. government and in the public sphere more broadly.

Back in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who passed away in 1975, became a best-selling author, because her 1951 classic, Origins of Totalitarianism, seemed to address exactly the situation facing liberal democrats in the U.S. and throughout Europe, explaining how and why disaffected individuals might be mobilized by leaders that prey on their fear and intensify their resentment.

Arendt argued that totalitarian politics was monologic, based on the idea that only one point of view was Correct and Acceptable. Totalitarianism brutally suppresses difference. But Arendt understood that monomania is dangerous even in its less brutal and oppressive forms. Indeed, she considered plurality the most important principle of a decent and free society, and dialogue and debate as the hallmarks of a decent politics.

What kind of liberal democracy can the United States be if there can be no room in Congress for the broadly Palestinian perspective that Rashida Tlaib, and she alone, represents?

“The power of judgment,” she wrote, “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 . . . . “

There is no question that Tlaib’s views, and her manner of expressing them, are challenging, alienating, even outrageous to a great many who consider themselves “pro-Israeli” and their friends.

But there is also no doubt that many “pro-Israeli” individuals hold and express views and use words (think “Judea and Samaria”) that are challenging, alienating, and outrageous to Tlaib and those for whom she speaks—and for many others as well.

What kind of liberal democracy can the United States be if there can be no room in Congress for the broadly Palestinian perspective that Rashida Tlaib, and she alone, represents? Must every single member of the House of Representatives be emphatically “pro-Israeli?”—and make no mistake, that is what is being demanded, that public figures approach the current Israel-Palestine conflict from the standpoint of Israel, and start and end every statement with an expression of solidarity with Israel.

If the answer is “yes,” than even those who believe themselves to be defenders of democracy do not know what they are doing—or they do know, and they are doing it anyway, which is worse.

We can only hope that some sense of political proportion and real political responsibility for democracy soon takes hold among the monomaniacs among us.

Groups like Democratic Majority for Israel have every legal right to do what they are doing.

But is it right?

Is it consistent with the need of U.S. foreign policy to truly understand a range of perspectives in the world?—and throughout the global South it is Rashida Tlaib’s views more than Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s that are respected, and with good reason.

And is it likely to strengthen American democracy, or to promote bitterness and recrimination, and weaken the broad Democratic coalition necessary to defeat Trumpism in 2024?

The answers to these questions seem pretty clear, and they are not heartening.

And we can only hope that some sense of political proportion and real political responsibility for democracy soon takes hold among the monomaniacs among us. For it surely is possible for people to advance their views without denouncing and politically defeating every individual who thinks otherwise.

Rashida Tlaib does not deserve to be demonized or censured. To shut her down is to silence an isolated and marginalized voice that deserves to be heard and that needs to be heard, especially now.

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