Nov 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Tlaib sparks Democratic backlash with defense of Palestinian chant

Rep. Steve Cohen (left) with Rep. Rashida Tlaib during a congressional hearing. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib's (D-Mich.) defense of the pro-Palestinian slogan "from the river to the sea" is leading to pushback from fellow Democrats who say the phrase is a call for the violent destruction of Israel.

Why it matters: The backlash underscores the Democratic divisions over Israel that have bubbled up to the surface over the course of the month-long Israel-Hamas war.

  • Just this year, Rep. Pramila Jayapal's (D-Wash.) characterization of Israel as a "racist" state and the reactions of some members of the progressive "Squad" to Hamas' Oct 7 attack on Israel have sparked dissent from fellow Democrats.

Driving the news: Tlaib posted a video on Friday in which she said "the American people are not with" President Biden in his steadfast support for Israel, accusing him of supporting the "genocide" of Palestinians.

  • The video included pro-Palestinian protesters chanting "from the river to the sea" — a reference to the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River which encompasses Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
  • Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, said in a subsequent post on X the phrase is "an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate."

The backdrop: The full phrase — "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" — has long been associated with Palestinian resistance and calls for self-determination.

  • The slogan has also been adopted by Hamas, a terrorist organization whose constitution explicitly seeks to destroy Israel.
  • Palestinian American writer Yousef Munayyer argued in Jewish Currents that the phrase is not inherently anti-Semitic or genocidal, saying it simply calls for "a state in which Palestinians can live in their homeland as free and equal citizens, neither dominated by others nor dominating them."

The other side: Several of Tlaib's fellow Michigan Democrats pushed back forcefully on her interpretation of the slogan.

  • Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said in a post on X that the phrase "is one of division & violence" and is "counterproductive to promoting peace," urging Tlaib to "apologize & retract it, no matter its origin."
  • "I have supported and defended you countless times, even when you have said the indefensible, because I believed you to be a good person whose heart was in the right place," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said to Tlaib.
  • "But this is so hurtful to so many. Please retract this cruel and hateful remark."

What we're hearing: Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), Hillary Scholten (D-Mich.) and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) are circulating a statement saying they "reject" the use of the phrase and calling it a "rallying cry for the destruction of the State of Israel and genocide of the Jewish people."

  • The statement, which does not mention Tlaib by name, was also co-signed by Reps. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), according to an email, obtained by Axios, seeking signatures.
  • Tlaib's Jewish colleagues are particularly perturbed. "I think Tlaib said from the river to the sea doesn't mean wiping out Israel. Well, that's what it means," Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) told Axios.
  • "You can piss on my leg, but don't tell me it's rain."
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