Tlaib denounces anti-Semitism while calling on Israel to 'do better'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib reiterated Wednesday that her criticism of Israel does not equate to hostility against Jews, saying she's been the first to speak out against anti-Semitism "in a room sometimes where people don’t even want to talk about it."

"When I criticize (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu’s discrimination, inequality, human rights violations, saying you have to do better and we have to look at real equality and even desegregating certain communities," Tlaib said, "that, to me, does not make me charging toward the Jewish faith at all. And I'm very conscientious of that." 

Speaking to The Detroit News editorial board, she compared the situation to criticism of President Donald Trump's policies and how that "doesn't make you less loyal to America. You just want a better America." 

"I’m always pushing back against it," the Detroit Democrat said of anti-Semitism. "But this is going to continue happening because I’m Palestinian."

Her remarks followed a sometimes emotional first three months in office during which Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, came to the defense of Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, over statements on Israel that made colleagues on both sides of the aisle uneasy. 

U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib speaks about her first few months in office while meeting with The Detroit News Editorial Board in Detroit on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

Tlaib pushed back against the initial wording of a House resolution this month meant to rebuke Omar for what critics called anti-Semitic remarks, pressing for broader language that ultimately condemned all "hateful expressions of intolerance." 

"We shouldn't have a hierarchy of who's being hated the most in this country right now," she said. 

"A black pastor in my district said it beautifully, and it stuck to me: 'We're not a country that's divided; we're a country that's disconnected.' And that resolution connected all forms of hate in many ways." 

Both Tlaib and Omar, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, have been the subject of death threats and Islamophobic bigotry.

Tlaib has urged the House to hold hearings on white nationalism, which the Judiciary Committee has now moved up to April from June, she said Wednesday. 

She stressed her positive, eight-year working relationship with the Anti-Defamation League of Michigan and her experience managing a national campaign to "Take on Hate" to combat the increase in hate crimes.

"Many of those who have talked to me have actually apologized for others. I said, you have nothing to apologize for. You're not the one claiming this about me, because you know I'm not," Tlaib said. 

"I'm the only member of Congress both in the U.S. Senate and the House side with a living grandmother — a living relative — in the West Bank and occupied territories in Palestine-Israel. And my colleagues see there's so much value in having me there." 

But her "mere presence" as a Muslim, Arab and Palestinian-American on Capitol Hill also makes a handful of her fellow lawmakers "nervous," she said. 

"Even saying the word 'Palestine' has made people uncomfortable," she said. 

U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib speaks about her first few months in office while meeting with The Detroit News Editorial Board in Detroit on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

In recent weeks, Republicans including Trump have accused Democrats of ignoring bigotry against Jews — an attempt to split Jewish supporters from the Democratic Party over its divisions on Israel. GOP lawmakers accused the Democratic-led House of watering down the Omar resolution by making it more inclusive.

Netanyahu is expected to visit the United States next week, meeting with Trump at the White House on Monday during an annual conference that the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) holds in Washington. 

Tlaib has declined to support a two-state solution with Israel and a Palestinian state, saying "separate but equal didn’t work for us" in the United States, "and I don't know how to get around that."

The actions of the Israeli government under its current leadership is "not matching a direction of two states," she said, noting the expansion of Israeli settlements. 

The structural solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be left to those who live there, she said, and if a two-state solution is possible, "I would never be against it."  

"My grandmother, I want her to die with human dignity and that means uplifting her as much as I can, and sometimes that means criticizing Israel's policies making her feel 'less than,' and treating her like she's 'less than,'" Tlaib said.

"She was born in that country, and she deserves equality." 

Tlaib explained that she approaches the conflict from the perspective of a Detroiter "raised in the most beautiful black city in the country" and educated by African-American women who "taught me about the pain of oppression, about segregation in our country."

"That's the lens I bring to this issue. It can sometimes be very painful for those who support the country. It can sometimes be very painful what people say about my country in America, but I hope they can see I want it to just be better," she said. 

"I never ever said (Israel) shouldn't exist."

Tlaib said she's condemned "very clearly" Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, for his history of anti-gay and anti-Semitic views. 

As an immigrants rights activist, she published a 2006 article in the Farrakhan-founded newspaper Final Call. It was written during debate over the comprehensive immigration bill introduced by Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, arguing against the suggestion the reforms would mean fewer jobs for African-Americans. 

Critics were "trying to pit black Americans against immigrants, and they still try to do that — some on the other side — so I published it there," Tlaib said, adding that she was targeting African-American Muslim readers. 

Tlaib still plans to take a delegation of her colleagues to the West Bank, including a visit with her grandmother. The trip won't rely on taxpayer dollars but would be privately funded by the nonprofit Humpty Dumpty Institute based in New York, she said. 

Executive Director Joe Merante said it would not be the nonpartisan institute's first sponsorship of a West Bank delegation, having done one for congressional staffers in 2017 and one for members last year.

Merante said his organization works closely with the House Ethics Committee to ensure compliance with ethics rules to secure approval for a delegation's funding, schedule and activities. 

"Any trip which allows Congress members and staff to meet with political, civic or cultural leaders to discuss issues of importance to the United States, we’ll support that," Merante said. "We think it’s very important to improve dialogue."