The only Palestinian American member of Congress is under attack from her Democratic colleagues after she issued a statement that condemned a “heartbreaking cycle of violence” in Israel and Palestine and called for an end to the Israeli occupation.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., released the statement on Sunday, the day after Hamas bulldozed through the barbed-wire fence that separates Gaza from Israeli territory and massacred civilians, including attendees at a music festival. Israel responded by bombing Gazan villages and a refugee camp, and on Monday ordered a complete siege of the Gaza Strip.
“I grieve the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost yesterday, today, and every day,” Tlaib said in her statement, going on to say that the end of Israel’s occupation of Palestine would create a just future for everyone.
“The failure to recognize the violent reality of living under siege, occupation, and apartheid makes no one safer,” she said. “We cannot ignore the humanity in each other. As long as our country provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government, this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue.”
Tlaib’s comments drew swift attacks from not only Republicans but also her fellow Democrats, including Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J.,. On Sunday, Gottheimer let loose on Tlaib and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., who in a statement on Saturday said she mourned the Israeli and Palestinian lives lost, calling for a ceasefire as well as an end to Israeli military occupation and apartheid.
“It sickens me that while Israelis clean the blood of their family members shot in their homes,” Gottheimer told Jewish Insider, “they believe Congress should strip U.S. funding to our democratic ally and allow innocent civilians to suffer.”
In recent decades, as the Israeli government increasingly and sometimes openly sided with Republicans in Washington, the Democratic establishment’s relationship with the Jewish state became strained. But the carnage of recent days in Israel, with Palestinian militants launching large-scale coordinated attacks on civilians, has shown that the party’s deference to the pro-Israel lobby is still intact.
“On this issue, there always tend to be special rules,” said Matt Duss, executive vice-president at the Center for International Policy and former foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
“I think all people should condemn the Hamas attacks, and we have called for that. At the same time, it’s kind of offensive that some Democrats are using this moment, with further massive loss of lives at stake, to attack other Democrats for their own political advantage,” Duss said. “It is notable how some elements of a party that prides itself on racial justice and equality and standing up for the less powerful can’t seem to tolerate any expressions of sympathy for civilians when those civilians are Palestinians.”
For some progressive Democrats, the party leadership’s response to the attacks against Tlaib, Bush, and others reflects the reinvigoration among top Democrats of a blind fealty to Israel that ignores the existence of Palestinians and the systematic destruction of the occupied Gaza Strip.
“It is Democratic leadership’s job to protect their members,” said a Democratic staffer who asked for anonymity to speak freely. The staffer said the members under attack merely staked out their stances and the centrist and pro-Israel Democrats should do the same, but avoid going after their colleagues: “The question is, to leadership: Are they going to put up with this? With members going out of their way, not to state their position, or not to state their support for Israel and condemnation of Hamas, but to slam members of their own party?”
The attacks are coming from Democrats who retain close ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the flagship of the Israel lobby groups. Gottheimer is one of the top recipients in Congress of money from the group.
Meanwhile, members of the leadership remaining silent on the political broadsides are also close to AIPAC. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a staunch AIPAC ally, has taken nearly half a million dollars from the group since last year; he also led an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel for incoming House Democrats. (Gottheimer and Jeffries did not respond to requests for comment.)
Progressive activists on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict said Tlaib and Bush stood out as two of the only members of Congress to call for an end to the violence and mourn both Israeli and Palestinian lives.
“There have been almost no members of Congress who have so much as even acknowledged the fact that, in addition to the horrific killing of Israeli civilians, there have been Palestinian civilians who have been killed by the Israeli military and by Israeli settlers,” said Beth Miller, political director of the progressive anti-occupation group Jewish Voice for Peace Action.
“What they said should not have been remotely controversial,” Miller said. “And the fact that people like Josh Gottheimer — who has spent his career moving us further and further away from any possible future where both Palestinians and Israelis can be free and safe — that he would dare attack them for mourning both Palestinian and Israeli lives shows how far and wildly off base he is and how much he is beating the drums of war right now.”
U.S. aid to Israel — Israel is one of the largest overall recipient of military assistance — has long been the central agenda item for Washington’s influential pro-Israel lobby groups, chief among them AIPAC.
Like Gottheimer himself, the group has attacked Democratic candidates and officials who criticize human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine, even going after the incumbents that Democratic leadership says it’s committed to protecting. AIPAC is recruiting candidates to run primary challenges against several incumbent Democrats who have criticized U.S. support for Israeli military operations, including Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.; Summer Lee, D-Pa.; and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y.
“Clearly there is an extremely aggressive effort to prevent more members of Congress from representing what we know is the view of actually a majority of Democrats,” Duss said. “Which is that Palestinian lives have value just as Israeli lives have value. That Palestinians have rights just as Israelis have rights. That Palestinian civilians should be protected just as Israeli civilians should be protected. And that U.S. policy should reflect those facts. That is unacceptable, unfortunately, to conservative elements of the party.”
Gottheimer, for his part, has helped lead Democratic efforts to protect incumbents from primary challenges alongside Jeffries. The members attacking Bush and Tlaib are also partnering with groups seeking to oust members of Congress who speak about human rights abuses in Palestine, said the Democratic staffer.
“Democrats are quick to condemn women of color when they speak out on Palestinian rights, but are unwilling to publicly push back against their members essentially calling for the genocide of Palestinians or attacking the only Palestinian in Congress — who literally has her grandmother in the crosshairs,” they said. “These members are actively being targeted by groups like AIPAC using the same talking points.”
Other top Democratic AIPAC recipients — including Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y, and Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich. — attacked Tlaib this week. “U.S. aid to Israel is and should be unconditional,” Torres said in a statement. “Shame on anyone who glorifies as ‘resistance’ the largest single-day mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust. It is reprehensible and repulsive.” (Later, on the social media site X, Torres defended Tlaib when she was attacked for hanging a Palestinian flag outside her office.)
Stevens, who unseated progressive Israel critic and Jewish Democrat Rep. Andy Levin last year with help from AIPAC — which spent more than $4 million on ads attacking Levin and boosting her — joined the attacks. “We must continue to come together as a Congress and a country to disavow terrorism and support the Jewish state, our democratic ally, Israel,” Stevens told Jewish Insider in response to Tlaib’s comments. “Israel has a right to exist and defend herself.” (Torrres and Stephens did not respond to requests for comment.)
“We’re seeing our members of Congress, we’re seeing the Biden administration beating the drums of war,” said Miller, of Jewish Voice for Peace Action. “And Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush are trying to hold a sane, anti-war line and they’re being attacked for it by their own party.”