In West Bank, Family of First Palestinian-American Woman in Congress Cheer Her On

Rashida Tlaib has become 'a source of pride for Palestine and the entire Arab and Muslim world,' says her uncle, Bassam Tlaib

Democratic U.S. congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib celebrates with family and friends at her midterm election night party in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. November 6, 2018.
REBECCA COOK / REUTERS

The entire world was awaiting the results of the U.S. midterm elections, but interest was especially high in one Palestinian village in the West Bank. The small agricultural community of Beit Ur al-Fauqa, west of Ramallah, was eager to find out whether Rashida Tlaib had won her bid to represent Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Tlaib, a Democrat, ran virtually unopposed in Michigan’s 13th congressional district, which encompasses southwest Detroit and its suburbs west to the city of Dearborn. She previously served in Michigan’s state legislature

With her win, Tlaib, 44, will become the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. Alongside incoming Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, she will also be one of the first Muslim women to join the congressional ranks.

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“I’m going to speak truth to power,” Tlaib told the Detroit Free Press on election night on Tuesday. “I obviously have a set agenda that’s not going to be a priority for the current president but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to push back.”

Tlaib’s district is home to one of the largest Arab-American populations in the United States. Her win highlights a wave of Palestinian diaspora candidates and activists who have embraced the Democratic Party’s progressive wing at a low point in U.S.-Palestinian relations under Republican President Donald Trump.

Tlaib’s parents immigrated to the United States, and Tlaib keeps in touch with her relatives there. Her husband, Fayez Tlaib, is also from Beit Ur al-Fauqa, says Bassam Tlaib, a maternal uncle.

Rashida Tlaib’s father, from the East Jerusalem village of Beit Hanina, moved to the United States in the late 1960s. He returned in the mid-1970s and married Bassam Tlaib’s sister Faiza. The couple returned to America and had a family.

Because Rashida Tlaib married a relative of her mother’s, her married name is the same as her mother’s maiden name.

Faiza Tlaib frequently visits her family in the West Bank, most recently four months ago.  Rashida herself last visited the village in 2006, but her relatives hope she will visit again soon in her new role as a Congressional representative.

“We followed the elections and the results with bated breath, but we were relatively certain she’d win,” Bassam Tlaib said. “All the polls said she’d win, and that there was no one who could compete with her.

“We’re very proud of her and her achievement, and I hope she’ll serve her community while also bringing the Palestinian story more prominently into the U.S. House of Representatives,” he added.

A festive atmosphere prevailed in the village. The new congresswoman’s aunts and uncles, and especially her grandmother, rejoiced in her achievement, and every visitor to her grandmother’s house was given sweets as a symbol of her delight.

“We very much hope that Rashida will be a groundbreaker and exert a positive influence on the decision-making there, and that she’ll be supportive and explain about the Palestinian issue, about this nation that dreams of freedom and self-determination, to American and global public opinion,” Bassam Tlaib said..

“The success of [Tlaib and Campa-Najjar’s] progressive messaging on a wide range of issues, including Palestine, is reflective of a shifting public discourse that Palestine activists have played a role in shaping,” said Omar Baddar, deputy director of the Washington-based Arab American Institute.

Cautious optimism

Under Trump, Washington has alienated Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the American embassy there, and by slashing U.S. funding of the UN body that aids Palestinians.

Palestinians have broken off contact with his administration, which has promised to announce a peace plan soon for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah and throughout the territory, Palestinians took a cautious view of the election news.

“Change is incremental, and Palestinians in Palestine are intimately aware of that,” said Salem Barahmeh, executive director of the Ramallah-based Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy.

“That said, Tlaib’s election is seen as a glimmer of hope in a very dark chapter in the Palestinian people’s history,” Barahmeh added.

Bassam Tlaib, the candidate’s uncle, said she had “stood against Trump” at a time when “even our Arab leaders are unwilling to face [him].”