The first Palestinian-American to serve in US Congress has pledged to show her fellow members the state of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians by taking them on a trip to the occupied West Bank.
Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat, elected in November to represent a district outside Detroit, Michigan, is taking a bold step against the ignorance and indifference in Washington DC to Palestinian suffering.
Israel goes to great lengths to conceal the Palestinians' plight from US lawmakers, but Tlaib is trying to change that.
Her proposal, first reported by The Intercept, also shows a growing divide inside the Democratic party over what US support for Israel means. It also comes amid a generational and partisan shift in attitudes about Israel among the American public, and ironically is due to Israel’s “success” in defeating its neighbours on the battlefield and crushing Palestinian national aspirations.
The oldest fossils in Washington came into politics as Israel was pushing back against Egyptian and Syrian tanks, fighting Soviet-supported Palestinian guerillas and presenting a “democratic,” English-fluent alternative to Yasser Arafat making a speech to the UN while strapped with a pistol.
That world no longer exists, but American lawmakers still act like it does.
As a means of enforcing Apartheid, Israel has systematically killed or imprisoned anybody, even children, who could stand to be another Arafat. Maybe that seemed like a good idea at the time, but they forgot that their biggest military supporter, the United States, is also home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian-Americans, a diaspora community that has family ties to occupied territory and now has one of its own inside Congress.
Importantly, Tlaib says her delegation will not be meeting with members of the Palestinian Authority at all. It’s not clear yet which members will join her, although newly elected Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, Congress’s other first Muslim woman, has expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates the economic and cultural isolation of Israel in protest of its human rights. Tlaib herself has also come out and said she personally supports BDS.
Tlaib’s proposed trip for fellow incoming lawmakers runs counter to the tradition of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) taking new members on a luxury junket of Israel, without an excursion to the West Bank.
“I want us to see that segregation and how that has really harmed us being able to achieve real peace in that region,” Tlaib told The Intercept.
“I don’t think AIPAC provides a real, fair lens into this issue. It’s one-sided. … [They] have these lavish trips to Israel, but they don’t show the side that I know is real, which is what’s happening to my grandmother and what’s happening to my family there.”
But advocates for Palestinians shouldn’t break out the sweets just yet.
Tlaib and others in Congress have an enormous challenge ahead of them in turning the tide in Washington away from slavish support for Israel’s occupation and denunciations of dissent against the Democratic party line as anti-semitism.
No one wants to get crushed between billions of dollars of military contracts and false accusations of racism. The conflict itself also seems to be just part of the furniture in the grand salon of American foreign policymaking, a bloodstained couch too heavy to move.
Israel’s occupation thrives on silence, from Israeli soldiers who have participated in the occupation’s cruelties, but also silence in the public sphere.
The firing last week of Marc Lamont Hill, a CNN commentator, shows the penalties that Israeli hasbara culture enforces through intimidation and misinformation. Hasbara is the Israeli word for propaganda, or “explanation,” and Hill ran straight into it when he decried Israeli human rights abuses and called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” at a United Nations conference.
Absurdly, his detractors said he was calling for the destruction of Israel.
Promoting the idea that Israel is on the brink of destruction, from flimsy Gaza rockets or the spectre of non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons, is key to how hasbara enforces a culture of silence about Israeli human rights abuses, even attempting to criminalise support for BDS, something top Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has himself supported.
But bipartisan support for Israel is running up against the realities of an alliance between US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Aside from corruption scandals, the two men have a lot in common, like the belief that might is right. Netanyahu’s embrace of Trump, a friend of white nationalists, and Trump’s embrace of Netanyahu, also a friend of white nationalists, has given American liberals reason to pause and reconsider what kind of country Israel really is.
How could it be a fortress for liberal democracy in the Middle East if its leadership, and people, have such a reverence for a president so hostile to American democracy? Maybe, just maybe, Israel’s occupation of Palestinians and white supremacy are somehow intimately linked.
What’s slowly dawning on American liberals is that maybe Israel isn’t really a democracy. How can a country claim to be a democracy when millions of people under its control, basically half the population, have no say in that control? Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans have known Israel isn’t a democracy for a long time, but have had to wait decades before getting a seat in Congress. What a new relationship Tlaib and other lawmakers will conceive between Washington and the inhabitants of the Holy Land remains to be seen. Nothing, as yet, is written.
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