The amount of outrage that was generated this week about Rashida Tlaib was not surprising, but that does not make it any less unfortunate. It was unfortunate for two reasons. First, it was based on a complete distortion – in some cases deliberate – of what Tlaib said about the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Second, it generated so much fire that it created a smokescreen obscuring some far more worrisome developments that are truly deserving of outrage.
When Tlaib talked on the Skullduggery podcast about the “calming feeling” that she gets when she thinks about how much Palestinians lost in the wake of the Holocaust in service of providing a safe haven for Jews in the aftermath of history’s starkest persecution, she said nothing anti-Semitic. Here is the full quote, courtesy of Andy Silow-Carroll, for anyone who did not watch or listen to the interview and wants to judge it independently:
“Let me tell you — I mean, for me, I think two weeks ago we celebrated, or took a moment I think in our country to remember, the Holocaust. And 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.”
Tlaib was not praising the extermination of Jews, trivializing Jewish persecution, denying the Holocaust, and certainly not saying that the Holocaust itself gives her a calming feeling. To accuse her of doing any of these things suggests one of two, and only two, possibilities: either you are intentionally lying about what she said to further your own political agenda in which Jews are pawns to be used in the service of expedient demagoguery for electoral purposes, or your command of the English language is so tenuous that you should immediately enroll in remedial language classes. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of these possibilities best describes President Trump and Representative Liz Cheney.
The point that I think Tlaib was trying to make – which becomes more obvious when you listen to her similar comments on the New York Times podcast The Dailyon the same subject but which did not refer to the Holocaust – is that Israel was a necessary and understandable safe haven for Jews after the horrors of the Holocaust, but that this safe haven was created in a way that treated Palestinians unjustly and that was forced upon them. Not only do I see nothing objectionable about that formulation, I think it is entirely accurate. Palestinians did not want a Jewish state, did not want or accept Israel’s creation, and they were the unquestionable losers as a result of the way that history unfolded. That does not absolve them of the share of the blame that they deserve, but it does not make it any less true.
A less charitable way of interpreting what Tlaib said – and one that squares more with her office’s follow-up statement that “her ancestors were involved in helping those tragically impacted by the Holocaust” – is that she made a grossly ahistorical assertion that Palestinians actively tried to create a safe haven for Jews rather than opposing it at every turn. That is how most people interpreted her initial comments, though I think erroneously so in light of her explicitly saying at the end that this state of affairs “was forced on” Palestinians. But even if this reading of Tlaib is the correct one, then she is guilty of misrepresenting history in an irresponsible way – and in a way that is eerily reminiscent of those who claim that Palestinians are or should be grateful for Israeli occupation because it provides them with a better situation than they would have were they living in Syria, Yemen, or other surrounding Arab states – but not of anti-Semitism or applauding the Holocaust. It points to a naive ignorance, not only of the Palestinian role in preventing Jewish immigration to Palestine but of the state of relations between Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine, and perhaps sheds light on why Tlaib naively believes that one state would be workable today. And the fact that there remains ambiguity around what precisely Tlaib meant is Tlaib’s responsibility given her awkward choice of words, not to mention that it is always best to avoid bringing up the Holocaust in order to make any tangential point as a general rule. But none of that warrants the pile-on that occurred.
Not only was the pile-on unwarranted, it was actively damaging beyond what it says about the credibility of Tlaib’s most vociferous detractors in this incident. Every time an easily disprovable and overblown allegation of anti-Semitism is so loudly and publicly leveled by so many, it makes it far easier to dismiss real anti-Semitism when it occurs. This is the real-life embodiment of the boy who cried wolf, and it’s unclear to me why anyone views Republican politicians who do this as great friends and supporters of Jews.
The communal freakout over Tlaib also made it easy for people to miss some far more important things that went on this week that will impact the American Jewish community in uniformly negative ways. Netanyahu and his political partners are barreling ahead not only with plans to begin annexing parts of the West Bank, but on passing an immunity law for Knesset members that is intended to protect Netanyahu from indictment and eliminating the judicial review authority of Israel’s High Court over Knesset legislation. What is the bigger threat to Israel, a freshman congresswoman who talks about historical Israeli injustice or a current Israeli government that actively seeks to eliminate judicial oversight and legislate current injustice? What is more likely to get people to support BDS, a freshman congresswoman who says that Palestinians were happy to suffer in statelessness in order to support a nascent Jewish state or a move to annex the West Bank and consign Palestinians to forever suffer in statelessness in order to support an expansionist Jewish state? What is more likely to do more damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship, a freshman congresswomen who supports one state or the spectacle of Democrats en masse rightly defending the country’s most vocal and visible supporter of one state because she has been tarred for saying something that she did not say?
The focus on Tlaib’s comments is no different than a toddler being distracted by someone jingling a shiny set of keys in front of its face. American Jews are imminently facing having to defend Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship while Israeli democracy is being eroded from within, and are instead consumed not by trying to warn our Israeli friends about this imminent disaster but by raising hell on the basis of a conspiracy theory that a member of Congress defended the Holocaust.
We are better and smarter than this. I fundamentally disagree with Tlaib’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and am still repulsed by her comments from months back alluding to dual loyalties regarding Israel. But in this instance, she should not be the focus of opprobrium, and continuing to rail against Tlaib for supporting the Holocaust or for historical revisionism is fiddling while Rome burns.