Opinion

Why Does Rashida Tlaib Keep Campaigning for Donald Trump?

Tlaib's 'calming feeling' about the Holocaust is just the latest gift Democrats in Congress have handed the president on Israel and anti-Semitism

Then Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, on the house floor before being sworn into the 116th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Jan. 3, 2019
Carolyn Kaster,AP

Maybe Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib wasn’t really saying that thinking about the Holocaust gives her a "calming feeling," in the sense that she thinks of mass slaughter with satisfaction. 

That’s the way Republicans are interpreting the Palestinian-American’s comments given in a Yahoo News podcast broadcast last weekend. 

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"There’s, you know, 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…I mean, just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust," she said, adding: "But they did it in a way that took their human dignity away, and it was forced on them."

Among others, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney chimed in to say that Tlaib’s statement was "sickening." 

In response, Tlaib tweeted back that Republicans were "lying about her" to distract Americans from "the hate being spread by Donald Trump’s Republican Party."

President Trump was correct when he tweeted that Democrats would have denounced him if he used the same language as Tlaib - although him calling her "insensitive" is humorous coming from him. 

But the problem with some liberals chiming in to defend her is that the comments on both sides ignored the historical revisionism behind Tlaib’s thinking that helps delegitimize Israel. 

Just as important is the question: Why are the Democrats allowing themselves to be dragged, again, by Tlaib and her equally controversial colleague Rep. Ilhan Omar into a debate in which their comments are helping to buttress Trump’s arguments that the Democrats have become an anti-Israel party that condones anti-Semitism?

Tlaib may be right that she didn’t really mean that the Holocaust gave her a "calming feeling." But what she was trying to do was to promote the argument that Israel’s opponents have been making for decades: that innocent Palestinians paid the price for the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews.

In the eyes of much of the world, and even many Jews, the creation of the State of Israel is seen as a form of compensation for the Holocaust. That Jews had rights to their ancient homeland irrespective of events in Europe is forgotten, as is the half-century of pre-war Zionist settlement that made it possible for the yishuv to declare independence, and then successfully defend the newly reborn state.

Tlaib’s line that that she was "humbled by the fact that it was my ancestors that had to suffer" for Jews to achieve statehood was a rhetorical slight of hand, intended to put forward the notion that it was the Palestinians - whose leaders, such as the Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini, actively supported the Nazis and cheered on the Holocaust - were also victims of Hitler. That’s quite far from "trying to create a safe haven."

Her goal there wasn’t so much as to diminish the Holocaust, but to insinuate that Israel and the survivors of the Holocaust intentionally forced suffering on the Palestinians - just as the Nazis had made the Jews suffer - to rob them of their land.

This sort of inversion is key to a prominent trope of contemporary anti-Semitism, in which Israel is depicted as the new incarnation of Nazism.

The Palestinians suffered terribly as a result of the events of 1947-49. But Tlaib’s effort to promote the idea that their plight was in any way comparable to the Holocaust, even an extension of it, while ignoring the salient facts – that the Palestinian refusal to accept partition, and waging a war they helped start, to prevent the creation of a Jewish state in any part of the country - is more than historical revisionism. It’s an effort to justify her position on the right of the Jews to have a state today.

The context of Tlaib’s talk about the Holocaust is her support of the BDS movement and the cause of a one-state solution, in which the one Jewish state on the planet would be eliminated. 

While mainstream Democrats under the leadership of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer will be participating in an annual trip to Israel this summer sponsored by AIPAC, Tlaib will be leading her own mission to the West Bank to hear a different side of the story. She attempted to score points with Democrats in the Yahoo interview by casting both Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as racists conspiring to deny the Palestinians their rights.

But if the two-state solution that she rejects hasn’t been realized, it’s because the Palestinian leadership is still stuck, as is Tlaib, in the same mindset that has caused them to reject every offer of a Palestinian state, not only in the post-Oslo period but dating back even before the 1947 UN vote. 

If hopes of a compromise solution are to be revived, either by a Trump peace plan or any other proposal, they are doomed to failure if the Palestinians and their supporters are still seeking to re-litigate, as Tlaib is doing, the 1947 international community’s support for a partition of the country into Jewish and Arab states. 

And if in doing so, Tlaib is promoting the ideas that fuel tropes about the Jews being the new Nazis that treat contemporary anti-Semitism as understandable, if not actually justified, her claim to be innocent of spreading hate falls flat - no matter what we make of her words about the Holocaust.

Tlaib’s efforts to further polarize the Israel-Palestine discussion are a blow to Democrats and others who hope to sustain the idea of a bipartisan pro-Israel consensus.

It has to be frustrating for mainstream Democrats that both Tlaib and Omar are so media-savvy and have acquired the sort of notoriety and influence that is out of proportion to their actual standing in Congress. But having promoted them as symbols of the party’s outreach to minorities and with their base treating them like rock stars, they’re trapped in a box of their own making. 

They discovered that earlier this year when Congressional Democrats couldn’t muster the courage or the will to directly censure either of them for making blatantly anti-Semitic statements.

If Democrats couldn’t name Omar in a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism in February, or remove her from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, they aren’t any more likely to be able to do anything about Tlaib’s use of the Holocaust to bolster a pro-BDS effort to eliminate Israel that is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism. 

So long as that is true, they’ll be handing Trump a cudgel with which to continue to beat Democrats as a party that is fatally compromised by hatred of Israel and the Jews.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin