'Safe Haven'? What Israeli, Palestinian Scholars Think About Rashida Tlaib’s Holocaust Comments

Leading academics express confusion at Democratic congresswoman’s reading of events between Arabs and Jews in pre-state Israel, though some say reaction to her comments is overblown and politically motivated

Three members of the Haganah (the pre-independence Jewish militia in British Mandatory Palestine) escorting Palestinian Arabs out of Haifa after they were expelled from their homes, May 12, 1948.
AFP

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s recent comments about the Palestinians’ suffering while a “safe haven” was created for Jews after the Holocaust seemed more misinformed than malicious, Israeli and Palestinian historians told Haaretz.

In an interview on the Skullduggery podcast released last Friday, Tlaib — the first Palestinian-American woman representative in Congress — chose to take a historical detour when asked about her vision of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There’s a kind of a calming feeling, I always tell folks, when I think of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holocaust in 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 some people’s passports.

“I mean, 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, and I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that, right, in many ways. But they did it in a way that took their human dignity away, right, and it was forced on them,” she told the podcast.

Her comments were quickly denounced in the harshest terms by leading Republicans — including President Donald Trump, who called her statement “horrible and highly insensitive,” and demonstrated “tremendous hatred of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Both Israeli and Palestinian scholars told Haaretz that they had great difficulty embracing any view of history in which the Palestinians played any part in providing a “safe haven” for Jewish refugees of the Holocaust.

“Rashida Tlaib is either completely ignorant of the history or is a deliberate liar,” charged Prof. Benny Morris, one of the leading scholars of British Mandatory Palestine, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the War of Independence in 1948-1949.

Morris said Tlaib’s ancestors, meaning Palestinians, “did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Jews at Nazi hands. Rather, the opposite: The Arabs of [British Mandatory] Palestine, during the whole period — and supported by the neighboring Arab states — did all they could to prevent Jews trying to escape Nazi hands from reaching the (relatively safe) shores of Palestine.”

The anti-British and anti-Zionist revolt launched by Palestinian Arabs between 1936 and 1939 both deterred European Jews from escaping to Mandatory Palestine and motivated the British rulers to prevent more refugee Jews from entering Palestine so as not to inflame the Arabs, Morris said.

He also pointed out that the leader of the Palestinian Arab nationalist movement, Haj Amin al-Husseini, during his exile in Berlin from 1941-1945, “called for the massacre of Jews in the Arab world on Nazi radio stations — an anti-Jewish ‘jihad’ — and helped the Nazis recruit Muslims from the Balkans for the SS and Wehrmacht.”

Palestinian historian Dr. Adel Manna, a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, expressed bewilderment when asked about Tlaib’s “safe haven” reference.

“I don’t know what she meant,” Manna said.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, at a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2019.
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

He said that history shows that Jewish immigration before, during and after the Holocaust represented a “colonial settler project” that was clearly leading to Palestinian displacement. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Manna said, Palestinians actively resisted Jewish immigration — as they had in the period preceding the rise of Nazism.

“It was natural that when the Palestinians thought that the danger to their existence was real, they started to resist the Zionist project,” Manna explained. “From the beginning, it was clear to the Palestinians from the history of other indigenous people that when other colonies come to a country ... that they will be marginalized, kicked out or exterminated.”

That resistance began after World War I and culminated in the 1936-39 uprising — the direct result, he said, of Hitler’s rise to power and the resulting spike of Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine.

Therefore, it was “not true” that Palestinians played any role in creating a “safe haven” for Jews, whose leaders were already planning “to occupy their country and transform it into a Jewish state,” Manna said. Zionist leaders of the time, he added, “needed people just as they needed the lands,” in order to make their “settler colonial society strong enough to gain independence and occupy the country.”

Manna called Husseini’s support of the Nazis “unfortunate,” noting that it was based on the mistaken belief that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” As a result, the grand mufti allied with a group fighting the British — who were working with the Zionists to rob Palestinians of their homeland, he added.

Perhaps, Manna speculated, “as an American [politician] living in the United States, Rashida Tlaib is reminding the Americans that in World War II, when the Jewish needed a country to immigrate to, the U.S. did not open its gates and the Zionist leadership did not help them emigrate to the U.S. — when, after all, the U.S. is much bigger than Palestine. They wanted the Jews to come into Palestine to make Jews a bigger part of the population and transfer it into a Jewish state. So Palestine became the ‘safe haven’ for Jews when America wasn’t.”

‘Manufactured criticism’

Prof. Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, charged that many of Tlaib’s detractors were also historically off base.

Tlaib, he said, “is facing an ‘idiot wind’ that makes the Arabs into accomplices of the Nazis, when hundreds of thousands of Arab troops fought with the Allies in World War II, while Jews who escaped the Holocaust were sheltered in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Palestine. This has nothing to do with the Zionist project, which as of 1942 was officially dedicated to turning all of Palestine into a ‘Jewish Commonwealth,’ in the words of the Biltmore Declaration. As [Zeev] Jabotinsky, Moshe Dayan and others candidly admitted, if they were Arabs they would have resisted this takeover of their country.”

Israeli historian and writer Tom Segev also said he was confused by Tlaib’s “safe haven” description.

“I have never heard anybody say that before,” he told Haaretz. “I really can’t imagine that any Palestinian shares that noble sentiment” of being calmed at the notion of a Jewish “safe haven” being created with such a high price.

“I really want to give her the benefit of the doubt that she really meant it,” Segev said, “but to me — and maybe I’m cynical — it sounded like an attempt to be ironic or sarcastic.”

Segev, author of “The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust,” said it was vital for both Tlaib and her critics to remember that the Shoah should not be credited as the reason for the creation of the State of Israel. It was, he noted, the result of a 30-year effort by “the Zionist movement with the assistance and support of the British.”

He added: “By 1948, all of the infrastructure was ready … the only thing that was missing was the population that would be able to run a modern state. And that’s the mistake many people are making. The Holocaust was, in fact, the worst blow to the Zionist movement in the history of that movement. … The millions of Jews who were supposed to come and create a modern state in Palestine — the ones for whom it would have been a ‘safe haven’ — were, for the most part, gone.”

Khaled Elgindy, a nonresident fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said Tlaib’s “obtuse” observation was difficult to analyze, but that it clearly didn’t merit such demonization.

Elgindy called the response to Tlaib’s comments “manufactured criticism and hysteria” coming from political rivals and the right-wing media who have run headlines implying she was somehow “drawing comfort from the fact that millions of Jews are slaughtered,” when “she is obviously not celebrating or minimizing the Holocaust.

“It’s not the most succinct or coherent statement I’ve ever heard,” said Elgindy. “I think she made a point in a vague way that opened her up for attack by people who want to distort her words,” added the author of “Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump.”

This week’s “overblown” outrage has become a recurring event aimed at Tlaib and her fellow freshman Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar, by Republicans and the right-wing media, said Elgindy. “Whether it is Rashida Tlaib or Ilhan Omar, there is a hypersensitivity to every single thing that they say, and whatever it is will be scrutinized and hyperscrutinized and very often distorted to match whatever political agendas are out there,” he said.

Elgindy believes it is important for Democratic political leaders to stand strong in the face of such attacks on their colleagues, and that their focus should be not on name-calling but on policy. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi later demanded that Trump and leading House Republicans apologize to Tlaib for misrepresenting her Holocaust comments “in a way that was despicable.”)

“If Tlaib is going to be pushed or pressed, it should not be about charges against anti-Semitism, but to make her political stand on Israel and Palestine clearer,” Elgindy said. “I’d be much more interested in seeing the details of her vision of a one-state solution, other than in these broad terms she repeats of ‘Equality for everyone.’ Personally, I’d really love to know how that works in practice, and politically how she thinks we could get to that place,” he concluded.