Opinion: Why Palestinian Americans believe Rep. Rashida Tlaib spoke the truth

FILE - Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., speaks during a rally at the National Mall during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Washington, Oct. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) speaks during a rally in Washington on Oct. 20. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)
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“I can’t believe I have to say this,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said during the debate over the motion to censure her in Congress this week, “but Palestinian people are not disposable. We are human beings just like anyone else.”

The vote passed Tuesday in the House 234-188. Tlaib powerfully captured the extent to which Palestinians have been silenced and dehumanized in institutions across the United States, even as they are killed and injured thousands of miles away. Indeed, the dehumanization here mirrors the physical destruction in Gaza and the West Bank — and helps to sustain it.

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Israel has so far killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza, including more than 4,000 children. It has damaged or destroyed half of Gaza’s family homes and bombed hospitals. It has left the territory’s population of 2.3 million people — of whom around half are children — largely cut off from access to food, water, fuel, electricity and medicine.

And the House of Representatives saw this — of all times — as the ideal occasion on which to censure the only Palestinian American member of Congress for having expressed the rights and humanity of her battered but still steadfast people.

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Among the reasons cited for censuring Tlaib was a video she shared on social media that included the slogan “from the river to the sea.” The resolution claims this was a “genocidal call.” In fact, variations of the phrase have been used by different parties, including, but not only, Hamas. In Israel’s Likud Party 1977 platform, for example, it was used to express uniquely Israeli sovereignty over all of historical Palestine, a theme also echoed in Israel’s 2018 Jewish Nation-State Law. In today’s context, for Palestinians and others opposing Israel’s system of apartheid, however, the phrase expresses a vision of freedom and equality for all.

In remembering that history, as one group of students recently put it, the phrase is “a call for the end to the oppression of all Palestinians — in Gaza, the West Bank and within the Green Line,” the armistice line between Israel and the West Bank set in 1949. “Liberating all of Palestine requires revolutionary change: not an eradication of Jews from the land, but a total dismantlement of the apartheid regime occupying it.

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Although I have been expressing similar sentiments for over two decades, that particular formulation is not mine: It comes from a group of Jewish students at Brown University expressing their solidarity with Brown Students for Justice in Palestine.

“As we grapple with millennia of Jewish struggle and survival,” they continue, “we will not abandon our Palestinian cousins and peers, or let them stand alone. This genocide cannot continue.”

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Tlaib’s censure wasn’t merely an act of gratuitous cruelty. Political figures in both parties have repeatedly made clear their contempt for Palestinian life.

Asked on live television if there is any threshold of civilian loss which might lead the U.S. government to call on Israel to stop its bombing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) unblinkingly said “no.” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) questioned whether it was possible to speak of innocent Palestinian civilians at all. And when Florida state Rep. Angie Nixon asked how many dead Palestinians would be enough to justify a cease-fire, her Republican colleague Michelle Salzman immediately shouted out, “all of them!” None of these lawmakers has faced similar censure for their comments, nor are they likely to.

On Oct. 16, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) introduced a House resolution calling for a cease-fire. It states, “all human life is precious, and the targeting of civilians, no matter their faith or ethnicity, is a violation of international humanitarian law.” Of 435 members of the House, only 12 others were willing to co-sponsor this bill. Not one of them is white. Most of these Black and brown members of Congress had Tlaib’s back and held her for comfort during her speech. The raw racial lines of our country are there for all to see.

“The cries of the Palestinian and Israeli children sound no different to me,” Tlaib said in her speech during the censure resolution debate. “What I don’t understand is why the cries of Palestinians sound different to you all.”

Palestinian Americans feel that official and institutional America are deaf to the cries of Palestinians, and, at best, indifferent to Palestinian suffering of any kind. White House national security spokesperson John Kirby, for instance, has staked out a similar position for President Biden, saying, “we’re not drawing red lines for Israel.”

The same goes for our academic institutions — including my own in Los Angeles, where many Palestinian Americans work as students, faculty or staff — that were lightning-quick to condemn the killing of Israeli civilians on Oct. 7. Yet they have maintained a stony silence even as Israel’s rampant killing of civilians with bombing, which one former UN official and scholars of the Holocaust have said amounts to a campaign of genocidal violence, enters its second month. Silence speaks as powerfully as words themselves, and the message is clear: Some lives matter; others just don’t.

As the English poet Percy Shelley once put it, however, it’s in the absolutely darkest of times that the glorious “Phantom” of freedom bursts forth “to illumine our tempestuous day.”

Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans protesting and demonstrating across the country have expressed their affirmation of our common humanity in ways that our institutions and government somehow seem to find impossible. Above all, young people and especially students on campuses — who have bravely shrugged off an orchestrated campaign of intimidation and doxxing intended to silence them — have rallied to the cause of Palestine, which they now recognize is also the cause of justice.

I, like many other Palestinians, have long been ready to embrace our Jewish cousins on these principles, in the name of dismantling apartheid and working toward a democratic and secular state of equal citizens — and in the name of our common humanity, which alone can save us in the end.

Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.