Rashida Tlaib is not an antisemite.
I will pause so you can tee up her poorly worded tweets or remarkably unwise retweets. Or her wearing a throbe to be sworn in or a keffiyeh on the House floor. Or a sticky note in her office relabeling Israel as Palestine. Or whatever other evidence you might submit to recast her Palestinian identity as antisemitic. Feel free to compile everything in whatever way you consider most persuasive and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Characterizing anyone as an antisemite raises two questions: what does it mean to be an antisemite and does that person’s actions provide evidence that they are an antisemite?
There are many scholars that work on how to define antisemitism – even debate about whether to hyphenate or capitalize it — but I distill it down to a simple question. Does this person hate Jews? If yes, then this person is an antisemite.
This is not the end of the inquiry. Sometimes someone who does not hate Jews does something that is culturally insensitive or invokes a traditionally antisemitic trope. These are opportunities for education and outreach. In my life, I have undoubtedly said things that are racist or xenophobic or plain idiotic because I did not know better. I am thankful for the people in my life who took time to “call me in” rather than call me out — to educate me about their culture and history so I could do better in the future.
So back to Congresswoman Tlaib. Why is this conversation relevant now? In Michigan's newly redrawn Congressional districts, most of the Jewish community will live in the new 11th District, home to both Representatives Andy Levin and Hayley Stevens. But the Jewish community that lives in Southfield, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms and Franklin will now be in the 12th District.
Last week, Rashida Tlaib announced her plans to run for re-election in the 12th District. Without real competition in the primary for this heavily Democratic district, she will most likely be returning to Congress in January.
Based on the "conventional wisdom" that I hear, some members of our community presumably fear that they are going to be represented by someone who hates them and their co-religionists. This is not true.
What gives me the right to say she is not an antisemite? In my life, I have experienced threatening antisemitism. I have been spit on and screamed at in Poland. I have experienced antisemitic “graffiti” when I found a swastika on the walking path behind my house. I have experienced my share of antisemitic slurs from those who were not educated to know better – “Jew them down,” etc. I have existed in very white, Christian spaces where – on occasion – my Jewish identity was greeted with a stiffening of the spine and gritting of the teeth that belied the person’s discomfort with my identity. Or sometimes I have been greeted with the overenthusiastic response to my Jewish identity that made me wonder what the person was covering up.
I have met Rashida Tlaib on multiple occasions. Each time, she has greeted me with warmth and openness. I entered these meetings as a Jew and a Zionist. At times, we openly disagreed, but there was no animosity or hatred or hostility. Instead, honesty and a willingness to communicate across differences.
When I think of my greatest fears as a Jew and a mother, I think about violence that could be levelled against the Jewish institutions that my family, my friends and I visit. If such violence was threatened, I have no doubt that Congresswoman Tlaib would be there, standing in solidarity, protecting the Jewish community.
When I hear Congresswoman Tlaib called an antisemite, I often wonder if it says more about us — the Jewish community — than it does about her. She leads with her Palestinian identity. Congresswoman Tlaib herself is a first generation American; her grandmother lives in Beit Ur al-Fauqa. As Jews, are we threatened by the Palestinian flag? Her Palestinian traditional dress? Her Palestinian identity? I hope not. Most American Jews claim to support a two-state solution whereby Palestine will become a nation-state. If we are truthful in our support of a two-state solution, we must get comfortable with a Palestinian identity.
On November 30, Congresswoman Tlaib retweeted a tweet that included the phrase “From the River to the Sea.” This phrase is antisemitic, as it typically means that the land of Israel will be cleansed of Jews. (Alternatively, it can be anti-Palestinian when used by Jewish groups that want to cleanse the lands of Arabs or Muslims). Three days later, she deleted the retweet.
Does this action make her antisemitic? No. Congresswoman Tlaib believes in a one-state solution where Jews and Arabs will live side-by-side in peace. Do I agree with her that this is the right solution to the conflict? No. Does this make her antisemitic? No. Unless there is no place for Jews in this imagined utopian state, then it is not antisemitic. Uncomfortable? Perhaps. In line with the majority opinion of American Jews? Definitely not. But antisemitic? No.
For the Jewish community, labelling someone as an antisemite can be the easy thing to do as — once the label sticks — we get to disregard them. Their opinions, their values and their very identity can be discarded. So instead of falsely labelling Congresswoman Tlaib, let us rejoice that we live in a county where a Muslim, Palestinian woman can serve as the congressional representative of Jews and where Jewish elected officials such as Andy Levin and Elissa Slotkin can represent Muslims and Palestinians.
My advice to Jewish residents of Michigan's 12th Congressional District: Engage the Congresswoman. Explain your opinions, your values, your identity as a Jew and as a Zionist. Rashida Tlaib might not always agree with you. She does not hate you. Do you hate her?