How the Israel-Hamas war poisons US politics
On November 7, the US House of Representatives voted to censure one of its members, Rashida Tlaib, a Congresswoman from Michigan, first elected to her seat in 2018. The official reason for this rebuke was the allegation that Tlaib had been “promoting false narratives regarding the October 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel” and been “calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.”
It is easy to establish that Tlaib did neither. Her censure is an injustice built on a lie. That raises the question of what it was really about.
But first things first: Let’s look into the two accusations advanced against her. Regarding “promoting false narratives” about the Hamas attack, the relevant House Resolution 845 claims that Tlaib “defended” as “justified ‘resistance’” to “the ‘apartheid state’” the “the brutal rapes, murders, be-headings, and kidnapping[s] … by Hamas.”
Yet, in reality, the Congresswoman did no such thing or anything a fair observer could mistake for such a thing. What Tlaib stated was that she “grieve[d] the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost yesterday, today, and every day” and that the path to a better future “must include lifting the blockade” on Gaza and “ending the occupation.” She called for “dismantling the [Israeli] apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance.” And she argued that as long as the US “provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government, this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue.”
None of the above is or implies a “call for the destruction of Israel.” What Tlaib did attack was the state of apartheid, as recognized by the UN human rights rapporteur, that Israel imposes on the Palestinians. As the eminent scholar John Mearsheimer has stressed, that Israeli apartheid is a fact has been confirmed by, among others, the international organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Hence three conclusions: Tlaib is factually correct. Secondly, she has attacked real crimes of Israel and not its right to exist. Finally, those who insist on misrepresenting her as doing the latter thereby imply that they can imagine Israel’s existence only as a highly abusive apartheid state.
It does not make sense to go through all six accusations leveled against Tlaib in House Resolution 845, because they are all equally dishonest. But one more is worth attention. Tlaib, according to her accusers, “published on social media” and then “doubled down on” the “phrase ‘from the river to the sea,’ which is widely recognized as a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people to replace it with a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”
The bad faith here lies in the fact that the slogan “from the river to the sea” is not “widely recognized” to represent a call for the destruction of Israel, as the censure resolution falsely claims. In reality, objective experts recognize that the slogan “means different things to different people,” as Dov Waxman, a professor of Israel studies at the University of California in Los Angeles, has explained in the New York Times. In its full version – “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – the phrase goes back to the early days of the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli ethnic cleansing that began in 1948. As even the relentlessly pro-Israel New York Times acknowledges, for “many Palestinians, the phrase now has a dual meaning, representing their desire for a right of return to the towns and villages from which their families were expelled in 1948, as well as their hope for an independent Palestinian state, incorporating the West Bank, which abuts the Jordan River, and the Gaza Strip, which hugs the coastline of the Mediterranean.”
The reason for ascribing a different, much more aggressive meaning to the slogan is mainly that it has also been used by Hamas. And Hamas, in turn, is accused of wanting the destruction of Israel. This guilt-by-flawed-association argument is convenient for those who seek to vilify legitimate Palestinian resistance, marginalize its supporters, and suppress – instead of having to answer – criticism of Israeli injustice.
But it does not hold up to scrutiny, even on its own skewed terms, because, again, according to the New York Times, the slogan does not appear in Hamas’s founding covenant from 1988, which pledges “to confront the Zionist invasion and defeat it.” It does appear in the 2017 Hamas platform, where “in the same paragraph, Hamas indicates it could accept a Palestinian state along the borders that were in place before the 1967 war — the same borders considered under the Oslo Accords.”
Let that sink in: Where Hamas has used the phrase, it has, actually, also signaled precisely the opposite of a plan to destroy Israel, namely a will to accept a two-state solution, if only Israel were to finally do what is demanded by international law and called for by UN resolutions: stop unilaterally settling and occupying territories beyond its actual borders.
And let’s be clear: Tlaib’s use of “from the river to the sea” is not a “dog whistle” (the American term for a rhetorical trick allowing a speaker to at the same time imply and deny a sinister meaning) because she has been explicit that for her this is “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction or hate.” And that is a perfectly plausible and common interpretation of the slogan (see above).
The assault on Tlaib is especially important because it is part of a larger campaign. As The Guardian has reported the “pro-Israel lobby in the US is airing attack ads and beginning to back primary opponents to challenge Congress members who are not voting for or supporting Israel’s war on Gaza,” at a cost, the British newspaper estimates, of “tens of millions of dollars.” This is an effort to interfere in American elections on behalf of a foreign government. But in the case of Israel, such meddling has a long history and is considered normal in the US.
Beyond what is possibly the most effective lobbying operation in modern history (at least on behalf of a state), there is a wider context. As the eminent scholar and public intellectual Norman Finkelstein has meticulously detailed in his book 'Beyond Chutzpah. On the Misuses of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History', deliberately misrepresenting criticism of Israel’s policies as a new form of Anti-semitism is a strategy in a struggle for ideological hegemony that has been waged for decades.
It is possible that, in a bitter irony of history, Israel’s current aggression will weaken the hold of this strategy. There are signs that large parts of even Western publics – not to speak of the non-West – are shocked by this latest escalation of violence against the Palestinians. That may be the deepest underlying reason for the attack on Tlaib, which would then appear as a frantic attempt to maintain a narrative leverage that is slipping. If more Americans understand that “the idea that criticizing the government of Israel is anti-Semitic … has been used to silence diverse voices speaking up for human rights across our nation,” then this abuse of censure may mark a turning point.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.