When Rashida Tlaib announced to a room full supporters in the pre-dawn hours of August 8th that she had won the Democratic primary in Michigan’s 13th congressional district, her mother draped a Palestinian flag over her shoulders. Before that moment, such a public display of identification with the Palestinian people had been a rare sight for a candidate with congressional aspirations, much less by a candidate whose aspirations had just been realized.
Where Palestine is concerned, Tlaib’s victory propels forward a shift already underway in U.S. politics, as do primary victories by New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar. Among the many progressive platform planks that Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and Omar share is one key distinction: they have all pushed the discourse on Palestinian rights beyond what members of Congress have ever deemed permissible in the past.
“This is a massacre,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez as the death toll of Palestinian protesters in Gaza killed by Israeli soldiers during the Great Return March rose. “Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.” Ocasio-Cortez was not alone in commenting on the brutality of Israel’s response to the protests. A handful of Democrats and independents spoke out, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who released a series of powerful videos denouncing the killings, and Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), who posted a thread of tweets condemning Israel’s acts as a “horrific slaughter.” Yet Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet stood out. Posted in the midst of a grassroots campaign aimed at engaging overlooked, underrepresented communities, she introduced a word that otherwise lay untouched by members of Congress in their own statements: massacre.
After her victory, Ocasio-Cortez came under fire for that tweet and later tempered her criticism of Israel, referencing her lack of expertise on the issue and stating that she firmly believed in a two-state solution. The backlash from some pro-Palestine activists was swift, with some writing her off as yet another ally-turned-politician who would mince words to placate the Israel lobby. Tlaib, too, faced accusations of normalization and equivocation. As the first Palestinian-American woman poised to enter Congress, supporters stacked all their long-ignored hopes on her shoulders. Yet, as knowledge of J Street’s endorsement of Tlaib, featuring a line about her support of all aid to Israel slid into the public eye, celebrations of her victory—and by extension, the victory of Palestinian-Americans everywhere—were clouded.
Indeed, the public outcry among Palestinian-Americans and pro-Palestinian activists ultimately led Tlaib to clarify her positions, and to J Street’s withdrawal of their endorsement.
In spite of these rhetorical hiccups, these likely future members of Congress do nonetheless represent a fundamental break from the prevailing tenets of U.S. policy on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Ocasio-Cortez’s expression of her desire to learn about the Palestinian issue appears genuine: when asked in a subsequent interview if she supported a one or two-state solution, she didn’t rush to declare her allegiance to the latter; instead she said, “this is a conversation I’m sitting down with lots of activists in this movement on and I’m looking forward to engaging in this conversation.” Moreover, her instincts on the issue appear solid. Explaining her Gaza massacre tweet to The Intercept, Ocasio-Cortez situated her analysis of Palestine within an anti-colonial framework, drawing upon her heritage as a Puerto Rican. “Puerto Rico is a colony that is granted no rights, that has no civic representation,” she said. “If 60 of us were shot in protest of the U.S. negligence in FEMA, I couldn’t imagine if there were silence on that.” This recognition of global connections and parallels is a far more important indicator of her politics than her self-admitted lack of expertise on the issue.
And Tlaib, after clarifying that she absolutely opposes aid to Israel to fund injustice, later announced something wholly unprecedented in mainstream U.S. politics; upon declaring that “separate but equal does not work,” she came out in support of a one-state resolution and for the right of return for Palestine refugees, two third-rail issues that no member of Congress has dared to touch. Omar, too, doubled down on Israel’s separate-and-unequal system, tweeting that she was simply “drawing attention to an apartheid regime.” By making such bold statements and policy declarations even before entering Congress, Tlaib and Omar have already introduced new perspectives by centering the narrative around equality rather than borders or Israeli security, and by drawing parallels between the fight for equality for Palestinians and the struggle for civil rights here in the U.S.
The significance of these victories cannot be fully appreciated without underscoring the reigning discourse that the identities and statements of these candidates interrupt. Up until recently, expressing unwavering support of Israel to American voters has been a requirement to reach public office. Once in the seat of power, members of Congress are expected to constantly affirm Israel’s right to security, or, in less-coded language, Israel’s right to commit human rights violations against Palestinians unabated under the pretext of self-defense. Former President Jimmy Carter acknowledged this unspoken, yet strictly enforced, congressional code of conduct, writing that “it would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defense of justice or human rights for Palestinians.” That was in 2006.
Twelve years later, in a quite stark contrast to Carter’s assessment, author and activist Phyllis Bennis writes, “it is no longer political suicide to criticize Israel.” Indeed, recent surveys suggest that Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and Omar weren’t elected despite their politics on Palestine, but perhaps because of a dramatic partisan shift in attitudes. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that nearly twice as many self-identified liberal Democrats sympathize more with Palestinians than Israelis. Additionally, current developments within Congress, such as the first-ever bill on Palestinian rights, introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) and sponsored by 29 fellow Democrats, signal that legislating for freedom, justice, and equality for Palestinians in Congress is, as Bennis suggests, not political suicide, but becoming part and parcel of a progressive agenda.
We still have miles to go. Yet, right now, the space for change is being created in a dramatic showdown between those with truly inclusive progressive politics and those who want to carve out an exception that would exclude Palestinian rights. For the first time ever, Palestinian rights are on the congressional agenda. For the first time ever, a proudly self-identifying Palestinian-American woman is poised to represent Palestinians in an institution that has historically treated them as both invisible and expendable.
Furthermore, there’s a good chance that Tlaib will be joined by new progressive members of Congress who view Israel as a colonial and apartheid regime. Among the public support and post-victory congratulations that Tlaib, Omar, and Ocasio-Cortez exchanged, Tlaib’s tweet to Omar best expressed their emerging solidarity, as she wrote, “I can’t wait to walk onto the floor of United States Congress hand in hand with you. So incredibly proud of you.”
This is exactly the type of change—at the highest levels of government—that advocates of Palestinian rights have long hoped to witness. And now that it appears to be coming to fruition, it’s incumbent upon these advocates to continue building the political power necessary to continue expanding their ever-growing circle of congressional allies and create a climate where Palestinian rights are regarded as fundamental.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, which is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates. Nothing in this article expresses advocacy for or against any candidate for office.