Rep. Tlaib’s Israel-Hamas statements were offensive. Censuring her was even worse
The House censure was an abuse of power, a denigration of the Congress and a successful political trap set by Republicans
Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s statements about the Israel-Hamas war, beginning with her press release on Oct. 8, have frequently been outrageous, offensive and morally deficient.
But the House’s censuring her for making them is an abuse of power, a denigration of the Congress and a successful political trap set by Republicans. In simultaneously castigating and elevating Rep. Tlaib, it is arguably even worse.
There have now been 26 representatives censured by the House under the broad powers granted by the constitution to discipline its members. Several members were censured in the 19th century for acts of physical violence and “unparliamentary language,” a healthy reminder that the United States Congress has always been a fractious place with behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated on a middle-school playground.
But since World War II, only eight members have been censured, and none for the expression of political opinions. Four were guilty of financial improprieties (two more were expelled for being convicted of bribery). Two engaged in sexual conduct with a House page. Rep. Paul Gosar posted an animated video of himself shooting President Biden and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. And earlier this year, Rep. Adam Schiff was censured along partisan lines for “making unproven allegations and misrepresenting intelligence regarding Russian collusion” in the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump.
The Schiff censure was, itself, a sad abuse of the censure power for political posturing. But even it does not compare to what has just been done to Rep. Tlaib, who has been censured for the exercise of political speech.
To be sure, there is much to object to in that speech. Rep. Tlaib’s Oct. 8 statement made no mention of Hamas’ murdering, kidnapping, raping, beheading and massacring of over 1,400 Israeli civilians. It omitted those inconvenient details entirely, and went on to spend 92 words discussing “the violent reality of living under siege, occupation and apartheid.”
Even if one agrees with the violence of those conditions — and the use of “apartheid” to describe them — to not even mention that Hamas had just committed an unspeakable, immoral act of astounding barbarity is, itself, a profound moral failing. Worse, by not condemning or even mentioning those acts, and by describing them as “resistance,” the statement tacitly legitimizes them. That is morally abhorrent.
But members of Congress often say things that others find morally abhorrent. It’s part of their job. Members have defended slavery and segregation. They have made violent, arguably genocidal statements during wartime. And closer to the Tlaib case, they have made Islamophobic statements that do not merely offend, but incite violence against Muslims.
All of these, I would argue, are morally abhorrent. Yet they are political speech acts that ought not be punished or censured by a governmental body.
Rep. Tlaib’s accusers have argued that her speech is actually antisemitic hate speech. But the evidence for this is thin. Did the Oct. 8 statement evince a callous disregard for Jewish lives? I think so. But that is a matter of interpretation. Nor is Rep. Tlaib’s posting of a video that included the widespread slogan “Palestine shall be free from the river to the sea” evidence of overt antisemitism. As I have written before, I find this slogan to be, at the very least, unacceptably vague. Many clearly mean it as a call to destroy the state of Israel. However, I have also heard directly from activists who mean it as, in Rep. Tlaib’s words, “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence.”
Once again, it’s a matter of interpretation. I hate this phrase, I think it is offensive and I have had long, painful conversations with progressive friends about why I think it should not be part of any movement for liberation.
But there are also those who disagree, who do mean the phrase to evoke some form of “peaceful coexistence,” whether in one binational state or a confederation of some sort.
That’s too ambiguous to justify a censure. Cracking down on hate speech is intrinsically a conflict between two values: promoting free speech on the one hand, and, on the other, recognizing that “fighting words” cause real harm. That’s why overtly racist or antisemitic slurs are punishable by criminal law, but ambiguous or political language is not.
In the context of a public official representing her constituents, and obviously speaking as a Palestinian American as well, none of these acts pass that threshold. Indeed, the censure resolution itself — the third, and mildest, version considered by the House — is itself deeply problematic.
It begins by stating, bizarrely, that “Israel has existed on its lands for millennia and the United States played a critical role in returning Israel to those lands in 1948.” (Presumably ‘Israel’ here refers to Jews, not the modern state of Israel.)
Like Rep. Tlaib’s Oct. 8 statement, it omits inconvenient truths – in this case, that many non-“Israelites” have also existed on the same lands for centuries, if not millennia. It is a complete erasure of Palestinian history, as if millions of people simply do not exist. That may not be as offensive as Rep. Tlaib’s omission, but it sure comes close.
The censure further accuses Rep. Tlaib of “knowingly spread[ing] the false narrative that Israel intentionally bombed the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital” on Oct. 18, as if this was some kind of QAnon conspiracy theory rather than a contentious question of fact. That question does appear to have been answered, but it’s hardly a “false narrative.” It’s a rich irony to see a cadre of 2020 election deniers accusing Rep. Tlaib of spreading a false narrative. They ought to look in the mirror.
This incendiary and preposterous language reveals the Tlaib censure to be what it obviously is: a Republican trap. The censure vote forced Democrats to anger either Jewish constituents or progressive constituents or Muslim constituents, or all of the above.
Either you wrongly censure the sole Palestinian American in Congress for speaking out, or you’re tarred in the 2024 election as an antisemite who doesn’t stand with Israel. Either you infuriate the (mostly younger) left wing of the party, or you infuriate politically engaged American Jews. Either way, it’s electoral dynamite, and Republicans know it, which is why they lit the fuse.
Ironically, the one person who won’t be hurt by the censure is Rep. Rashida Tlaib. I’m sure she’s fundraising on the censure already, just as Rep. Schiff did after his, and she has now been elevated as one of the few members of Congress willing to boldly stand up in favor of the Palestinian people. The censure made her into a hero.
And that makes my stomach turn.
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This article was originally published on the Forward.
Banner Image: Rep. Tlaib speaks before Congress. Image Credit – Rep. Tlaib Twitter