Rashida Tlaib in front of the Michigan Capitol building in 2008. Al Goldis / AP

This Young Progressive Could Become the First Palestinian-American Congresswoman

Will Rashida Tlaib be Michigan’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? The Democrat has been endorsed by J Street, but backing from Linda Sarsour may prove problematic for the Jewish community in Tuesday’s primary

She’s a dynamic, minority, young progressive – the new breed of politician grabbing attention in the Democratic Party. And if Rashida Tlaib wins her primary in Michigan on Tuesday, she will be a shoo-in for Congress since her district is so deep blue, no Republican is set to contest the seat in the November midterms.

This would be a double historic first for the daughter of Palestinian immigrants: Tlaib would become not only the first female Muslim to hold national office, but also the first Arab-American Muslim. (The two previous Muslim congressmen came from the African-American community.) Tlaib, along with Egyptian-American Abdul El-Sayed and Lebanese-American Fayrouz Saad – two other Michigan hopefuls aiming to make it to the midterms – fit a different profile.

They are the American-born children of immigrants from the Middle East, reflecting the state’s increasingly high profile, well educated Arab-American community. (Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who has a Palestinian father, has already made it to Capitol Hill.) And all are running campaigns fueled by the energy generated by opposition to President Donald Trump.

Of the three, Tlaib appears to have the best chance at victory. Tuesday’s contest in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District is a tight three-way race to replace Rep. John Conyers, the 89-year-old who resigned from Congress in December following sexual harassment allegations. Polls show the race as being too close to call, but Tlaib is running strong and recently grabbed the key endorsement of the Detroit Free Press – the region’s largest local daily.

Tlaib has been a rising star in Michigan politics since 2008, when she became the first Muslim woman in the state legislature. Her mother is from Beit Ur al-Fauqa, outside Ramallah, and her father from Beit Hanina, an East Jerusalem neighborhood. She is one of 14 siblings.

As Election Day draws near, the national spotlight has shone brightly on the state’s historic number of Muslim contenders, with The Washington Post describing the primaries as both “tests of the party’s progressive insurgency and tests of whether Muslim candidates can win.”

The races are also testing the reaction of Michigan’s established and heavily Democratic Jewish community to a new generation of Arab-American progressives with whom they agree on the majority of pressing domestic issues, but worry about where they stand on foreign policy – specifically Israel.

Jewish nerves jangled in the final days leading up the primary when, along with new Democratic hope Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour showed up in Michigan to campaign for progressive candidates on the ballot..

Tlaib has mostly avoided comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and declined to answer questions from Haaretz on the subject. She did, however, tell the Washington Post: “We need to be much more honest about the fact that the walls are not working. We need to be honest about the dehumanization on both sides, frankly. And more importantly, we need to be not choosing a side. What I bring to the table, growing up in a Palestinian-American household, and coming to Detroit, is an understanding that there’s so much comparison between what happened there and what happened to African-Americans here.”

Tlaib’s use of the language of intersectionality echoes that of New York candidate Ocasio-Cortez, who was widely criticized in May for comparing Gaza protesters to civil rights activists in the United States.

But it is Sarsour’s embrace that has made Jewish Democrats most concerned about Tlaib. The two women are longtime political allies: In a recording for StoryCorps in 2011, Sarsour described Tlaib, four years her senior, as “my friend, my mentor, my role model.”“Some people really freaked out,” said one Jewish Michigan resident active in Democratic politics.

Even before the July 29 event, Hannan Lis – an Israeli-American businessman active in both the organized Jewish community and the Democratic Party – warned Jewish progressives against embracing the candidate due to her ties to Sarsour.

Lis insists that Tlaib’s Palestinian identity and Muslim religion aren’t the issue: Neither is particularly unusual in Michigan, where the Jewish and Muslim communities often work together. His problem with Tlaib is that “she has chosen to associate with a person who is divisive and clearly hostile to Israel. Linda Sarsour is very clear in her opinions; she is on record regarding Louis Farrakhan. For American Jews, even liberal ones, it is not something we can overlook.”

Steve Tobocman said he was shocked by the “vitriol” directed at Tlaib on social media following the Sarsour visit. Tobocman, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, has been a close friend and political mentor to Tlaib, and defends her ties with Sarsour.

“These are two women who have been at the forefront of exposing Donald Trump [as] a threat to the civil rights and comfort that Jews and other minorities in America have enjoyed,” said Tobocman. Just because Tlaib and Sarsour have known each other for nearly 20 years “doesn’t mean [Tlaib] agrees with all of [Sarsour’s] comments on every issue,” he noted.

Tobocman pointed out that Tlaib has no political need to pander to either the Muslim or Jewish communities, given that the 13th Congressional District is 70 percent African-American. He added that Tlaib was “focused on dignity of all people and civil rights, and on peace. In that context, of course she is concerned about human rights abuses inflicted by the Israel Defense Forces, as she’s concerned about human rights abuses on the other side.”

He said that while Tlaib hasn’t issued any position papers regarding any other aspects of foreign policy, she has done so on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because she “sought out the support and received the endorsement of J Street.”

The J Street PAC fundraising page on Tlaib says she is “personally familiar with the costs that the conflict has brought to Israelis and Palestinians.” As a result, she advocates the United States being “directly involved with negotiations to reach a two-state solution” and “supports all current aid to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.” In addition, she “does not support the expansion of settlements and believes that they make it difficult to reach a sustainable two-state solution.”

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