Why Rashida Tlaib matters

The indifference of most American Jews to victories by anti-Israel Democrats illustrates their priorities.

Rashida Tlaib (right), a Palestinian American who recently won her race for Congress in Michigan, appearing along with fellow incoming Democrat from New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Credit: Rashida Tlaib/Twitter.
Rashida Tlaib (right), a Palestinian American who recently won her race for Congress in Michigan, appearing along with fellow incoming Democrat from New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Credit: Rashida Tlaib/Twitter.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Sometimes the most important trends are those demonstrated by a lack of reaction, rather than a storm of protest.

Rashida Tlaib, the Democratic nominee and all-but-certain winner of a Michigan seat in the U.S. House of Representatives this fall, had been endorsed by J Street—a group that is highly critical of the Israeli government, but touts itself as being “pro-Israel and pro-peace.” But when the Palestinian American candidate told three different media outlets that she favored a “one-state solution” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians (and therefore the elimination of the one Jewish state on the planet), J Street was forced to backtrack and withdraw its endorsement.

Michigan Democratic candidate for Congress Rashida Tlaib (right), a Palestinian American who recently won a party primary, appearing along with fellow Democratic candidate for Congress from New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Credit: Rashida Tlaib via Twitter.

It was an embarrassing moment for the lobby. Though Tlaib also likened Zionism to Jim Crow segregation (“separate but equal does not work”), J Street was not only at pains not to antagonize her, but seemed to be saying that her views on other issues were just as important as her desire to see Israel erased from the map. In a release, it celebrated her impending election as a “historic milestone” and went on to say “we strongly support and are encouraged by her commitment to social justice, and we are inspired by her determination to bring the voice of underrepresented communities to Capitol Hill.”

Nor were very many others on the left up in arms about Tlaib. Though Democrats have been working hard to associate all Republicans with a handful of far-right extremists who won GOP nominations in districts where they had no chance to win, there was no rush to disassociate the party from Tlaib or Ilhan Omar, another Muslim woman who is on her way to winning another House seat in Minnesota, despite having made brazenly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comments.

Why isn’t there a backlash … or even much debate about their primary victories?

The answer is that while the party might have once sought to close ranks against an anti-Semite or foe of Israel in their caucus, it won’t do so now for two reasons. One has to do with the general shift among Democrats to a critical stance on Israel. The other has to do with something more fundamental about an American Jewish community that has long been an integral part of the Democratic coalition.

Does having one member of Congress, who represents a heavily Arab-American district that opposes Israel’s right to exist, change much in Washington? Not really. But Tlaib’s election, along with that of Ilhan Omar, cannot be dismissed as meaningless. Along with fellow Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will soon represent New York in Congress, the trio represents a troubling trend in which the left wing of the Democratic Party is abandoning support for the Jewish state.

The fact that earlier this summer 70 House Democrats and 13 in the U.S. Senate led by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders signed letters calling for an end to the blockade of terrorist-run Gaza and treated Israel as equally to blame regarding the situation there as the Hamas terrorist group that rules the strip represented another crucial turning point for the party. Such views have clearly moved from the margins of American politics to the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Some trace the origins of the shift back to the 2015 fight over the Iran nuclear deal. That most Democrats prioritized their partisan loyalties to President Barack Obama over concerns about Israeli security was disturbing. But the base of the Democratic Party has also been profoundly influenced by intersectional arguments that, like Tlaib’s slurs, view the Palestinian war on Israel as akin to the struggle for civil rights in the United States for far longer than that.

Gallup’s polling has shown Democrats being far less supportive of Israel than Republicans for more than 20 years now. Democrats have reacted to this trend with either denial or by accusing Republicans of politicizing the issue. Others have embraced the J Street approach, in which they contrast their ostensible support of Israel with disapproval of the governments the Israeli people have elected. Yet supporters of that equivocal position have found themselves losing ground to other more radical groups, such as the openly anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, in which no such distinctions are made.

But if Sanders’s stands—let alone those of Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and now Tlaib—haven’t bothered most Jewish Democrats, there’s a more important reason for it. And that’s because support for the Jewish state isn’t a priority for most of them.

As studies such as the 2013 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans showed, a community that considers liberal politics, food and humor to be the core values of their Jewish identity is unlikely to view Zionism or any expression of Jewish peoplehood with much sympathy or even association.

While many politicians long thought of Jews as single-issue pro-Israel voters, that’s generally only true of the minority that vote for Republicans. For most, Israel is, at best, just one among many issues they care about. At the moment, that means most American Jews are far more interested in evicting U.S. President Donald Trump from the White House or expressing solidarity with illegal immigrants than about threats to Israel. Trump’s historic move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem left liberal Jews unmoved, even if they had previously favored that policy. Others falsely categorize concern about Tlaib’s anti-Israel stands as Islamophobia.

With many Jews expressing distaste for an “illiberal” Israel, it’s little surprise that the bulk of American Jewry isn’t overly bothered about the election of Socialists who are unsympathetic to the Jewish state or consider Zionism to be racist. An example of what happens when the legitimization of views becomes indistinguishable from anti-Semitism is currently on display in Britain, as Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn edges closer to power. Although we are nowhere near such a dilemma in the United States, the fact that most American Jews are determined to keep their heads firmly planted in the sand about the consequences of such indifference speaks volumes about their priorities.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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