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The Political Fights Over Anti-Semitism And Rashida Tlaib Are Pushing Muslim And Jewish Voices Aside

The storm over Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s latest comments highlights how willing operators of American politics in 2019 are to leave out the actual perspectives of people involved.

Posted on May 15, 2019, at 12:43 p.m. ET

Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

The storm over Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s latest comments — in which she said she got a “calming feeling” when thinking of the sacrifices Palestinians made in the creation of a safe haven for Jews after the Holocaust — have led to a slew of history lessons about the creation of Israel.

You can read here about the century-plus-long effort to create a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, and here about the violence with which the Jews were met from Palestinians when they did arrive, by the thousands, after facing systematic slaughter in Europe.

That’s a far cry from where the debate over the meaning of Tlaib’s comments on Yahoo’s Skullduggery podcast started, after she said, “There’s a kind of a calming feeling, I always tell folks, when I think of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the fact that it was my ancestors — Palestinians — who lost their land and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence, in many ways, had been wiped out,” and that “just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post–the Holocaust, post–the tragedy, and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time.”

People like Reps. Steve Scalise and Liz Cheney seized on her use of the phrase “calming feeling” to cry anti-Semitism while blatantly misrepresenting her feelings about the Holocaust, which she called a “horror” and “tragedy.” But the debate is still wrong, and missing the point.

This entire episode — and the fact that this is at least the fourth time we're having this exact kind of ugly and fruitless discourse in the last six months — puts on display how willing operators of American politics in 2019 are to leave out the actual perspectives of people involved.

The lived experience of Palestinians — including the trauma of families who lived through the founding of Israel — has been largely absent from the debates on the endless Israeli–Palestinian conflict inside the corridors of power in the US. And now that it is present, people seem surprised to learn that Palestinian Americans actually have a different view. Meanwhile, non-Jewish commentators have chosen now to become the arbiters of what anti-Semitism entails. While there are times when allyship is valuable, removing Jewish voices from the center of the conversation around anti-Semitism does the exact opposite — it is disempowering, it is marginalizing, and it is dangerous.

Tlaib — the second Palestinian American member of Congress and the first woman — spoke in the most general of terms about trying to find some sort of unifying message in what Jews experienced after the Holocaust and what her family went through as the state of Israel took shape. Yes, she said that “all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post–the Holocaust, post–the tragedy, and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time,” but she also said moments later that Palestinians provided that haven “in a way that took their human dignity away, right, and it was forced on them.” If Tlaib is guilty of something, it’s oversimplifying a narrative in order to spread a, perhaps unwittingly empty, message of empathy, divorced from the entrenched politics that have governed the Israeli–Palestinian conflict both there, and in the US, for decades.

Seeing people try to squeeze Tlaib into the parameters of an absolutist, Twitter-driven debate about what is “right” or “wrong” to say about the Middle East is yet another feature of our contemporary political conversation that everything has to be simple. This dynamic showed up, in miniature and far from the life-and-death stakes of the West Bank, when the art world grappled with the firings of a host of women curators who had been brought in to make the art world less male: They were hired, celebrated, and promptly fired after they didn’t just stand there and be women, but actually tried to implement their visions.

For too long, messengers with no personal stake in the debate have been globbing onto — or sparking — scandals purely for their own gain, political or otherwise. This was the case when Meghan McCain called out Congress’s other Muslim woman representative, Ilhan Omar, in the wake of the deadly Poway synagogue shooting. Jews around this country are terrified at the increase in anti-Semitic attacks — two synagogue shootings in the span of six months harks to a degree of violence our parents and grandparents warned us about, but that we never thought we would see. We were not thinking about Omar’s tweets (problematic as some have been!) in that moment.

The same happened with Tlaib’s comments, which were eventually picked up by President Donald Trump, who yet again flung the anti-Semitism charge around with abandon. Those launching the accusations of anti-Semitism — mainly Republican practicing Christians (which, good for them!) — do not speak for Jews at large, more than 75% of whom voted Democrat in the midterms. It is wonderful — and important, and life-affirming — to have allies, particularly as anti-Semitic violence spikes throughout the country. But failing to include Jewish voices from the center of that conversation does the exact opposite. Those making the most outlandish rhetorical attacks do not suffer the worst of the backlash. Jews do.

What’s been lost in all the discussion on Tlaib’s comments is something that will probably have more of an effect in the long run. She spoke to it on the podcast, and later to Seth Meyers, where she described how she took her experience learning from the black people she grew up with in Detroit and learned how to speak on the Palestinian cause. “They constantly told me about the pain of oppression. They taught me about the history of segregation and feeling less than and dehumanized because they were black in America. And a lot of that — that lens — I bring to this issue, that’s how I talk about it,” she told Meyers. “The fact that we are dehumanizing a whole community ... it’s truly not going to lead to peace and equality and justice. And you have to, when you look at this issue, come from a place of values. People want to go ahead and jump and choose sides, not come from a place of values, because by the end you will choose the right side of history when you do that.”

Framing things that way is increasingly resonating with many young Americans who have grown up in an era with a lively social justice debate at home. Those who care about Israel’s future would be better off taking that into account, rather than shutting down the voices newly represented in US politics, and overpowering those with longer histories of representation.

Tlaib, her words, and how they’re being used in an escalating fight over who is or isn’t anti-Semitic show that something in American politics is changing. We just need to quickly figure out how best to think and talk about them.

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