The polarizing Congresswoman sits down with the Jewish News for the first time.
Rashida Tlaib is all smiles as she drives up to our designated interview spot. We’re in Stoepel Number 1 Park, in Detroit’s historic Rosedale Park neighborhood. It’s part of Michigan’s 13th Congressional district, which Tlaib is trying to defend in her August 4 primary. She steps into the park’s tennis courts, which have weeds poking through them, gives an elbow-bump greeting and happily poses for photos.
This is the first time Tlaib has talked to the Detroit Jewish News. She and her staff claim this is the first time they were aware the JN had tried to contact them; but in fact, the JN has made several interview offers to her since 2018, when she became the first Palestinian woman elected to Congress and began making headlines for her vocal criticism of Israel. As a member of “the Squad,” a group of progressive women legislators of color that also includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, Tlaib’s words echo far beyond Detroit.
Now, Tlaib’s district (which includes large portions of Detroit and Dearborn Heights, as well as communities like Romulus, Ecourse and Inkster) is dealing with high rates of COVID-19 and ongoing protests against racism and police brutality. “Have you seen the marches?” she asks. “Jews and Muslims holding signs together… It makes me smile.”
Tlaib’s primary race, against Detroit City Councilwoman Brenda Jones, is competitive, and some Detroit-area Jews see danger no matter who wins. At the same time, Tlaib has many Jewish supporters, and says she wants to have a respectful dialogue with everyone. “I have an open-door policy,” she says. “Even when we disagree, if we can look at each other in a way that at least we feel heard, that’s all I ask.”
In that spirit, here is what Tlaib told JN about her identity in Congress, the BDS movement and fighting bigotry of all stripes.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
JN: To many of our readers, you are Public Enemy Number One. What is your reaction when you hear that?
Well, instantly I think of my community. I grew up in Wayne County, all my life in Southwest Detroit, and have worked with organizations like Detroit Jews for Justice on stopping water shutoffs, pushing the community benefits movement in the city, always working side-by-side on social justice issues. That is what I want people to remember. I truly believe in human rights for everyone.
Have your positions on Israel and Palestine been mischaracterized in the media?
I think they’ve been misinterpreted or not fully understood. If people saw me more as a granddaughter, versus a congressmember, they would understand why I have said we need to push for true equality and justice in Israel. The lens I bring to the issue is something I hope people welcome because I don’t think there has ever been a member of Congress with a living grandmother or relatives in the occupied territories of Israel. I hope people see an opportunity, not something negative.
DJJ, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Detroit and IfNotNow Detroit have been in your corner. What have you learned from your Jewish backers and what have they learned from you?
When I was at Sugar Law Center, as a nonprofit lawyer, I was working for JVP on community benefits agreements and co-ops and worker justice. Rabbi Alana [Alpert] of DJJ and so many others came to testify and say we have to do something about water shutoffs, and that water is a human right. We’ve always come together on social justice issues in my district, and we continue to work together. What’s great is, I’m just Rashida to them. I’m that girl that you can call, go file a FOIA, or the one to hold hands or even do Shabbat together.
And as soon as, obviously, I won [in 2018], all of the negativity that came with it, all of them rushed to me and said, “We have you, we’re going to defend you. You’re ours.” It makes me emotional, when they say, “You’re our Rashida.”
One of your early mentors was Jewish former state Rep. Steve Tobocman. He played a large role in your 2018 campaign. He seems to have been largely absent from publicly campaigning for you recently. How would you characterize your relationship now?
We’re very close. He’s a brother to me. It’s personal reasons, injuries and things like that. But for me, he is very much still my mentor and my close friend. He’s just not physically leaving work this time to come on the campaign.
We’re in your district. It’s about 60% Black and Latinx. It’s the third-poorest district in the country, hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, and home to a lot of marches now happening around Black Lives Matter. What are you hearing from your constituents about what needs to be done in this moment for healing?
Well, they want true change that’s meaningful, real. A resolution on police brutality is great, but how about looking at what we prioritize in our budget? They want to feel heard in that sense. And when a mother tells me, “Our children’s children went to court for the right to literacy,” what does that say about where our priorities are? The fact that Black children in the state of Michigan went and begged to read: “Teach me to read.” It shows just how broken the system is.
What I’m hearing from them is, enough, let’s really talk about structural racism. And it starts with how money is spent. Is it on mass incarceration, or is it on a park like this [gestures around], that probably needs a little bit more love right now?
Two years ago, you pitched yourself to voters as a very progressive voice. Now you’re facing a pretty competitive primary. What has changed for you in those two years in terms of your approach to your job and your pitch to voters?
I had to work twice as hard, primarily because the 13th congressional district is the third-poorest in the country. And what that really means is having to be as rooted and grounded in neighborhoods as much as possible. We have four neighborhood service centers. So much of our resources, the staff is in the district, versus in Washington, DC. I’m one of the top 10 members of Congress that had the most town halls, out of 435. That’s pretty good for a new freshmen member.
It’s beautiful because my residents are my partners. They really know what’s best for them. And I can’t come and say, “This is what we’re going to do based on what’s happening in DC.” It has to be, what do you think should happen? What do you think we should do in the next relief package? Can you do something about childcare? And so what’s changed is we realized we needed to do that, but it’s been a significant portion of how we approach our work.
You’re a non-Black Congresswoman in a majority-Black district. Given the current moment, do you still think that you are the best choice to lead this group?
I always tell people, I have been a person that hasn’t sold out. I don’t take money from corporate polluters that have fueled environmental racism. I have not taken money from developers who have reduced our access to affordable housing. I am so centered on making sure that I don’t waiver or back down on these issues that, again, are very much severe for my residents.
In 2018 you told the Detroit News you were not planning on focusing on Palestine issues when you got to Congress. And now you have this reputation of being Congress’s most vocal critic of Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship. Is that a characterization you sought out?
I don’t know. It’s my mere existence. I get asked more about the issue of Palestine than my BOOST Act, more than the other issues. That’s unfortunate, but I’ve been very good about pivoting and saying, “Well, we need access to water, from Gaza to Detroit.”
I don’t think I would be as passionate but for my Palestinian roots, for the fact I grew up in the city and have seen, firsthand, people’s oppression and the struggle of being a child of immigrants.
When I get asked about Palestine every so often, I speak the truth. And that seems to draw people’s attention. Many of my colleagues have thanked me for just being there, and said, “I didn’t know that was happening. I didn’t ever see it that way.”
Are you saying you only look to speak out on Palestine when you’re asked about it?
Well, yeah. I mean, annexation. “Hey, Rashida, what do you think?” Well, of course I’m like, “Yeah, let me explain to you what that looks like on the ground. Do you know, there are literally roadways that Palestinians cannot use?” It’s that perspective of having people understand what it means through my lens… I think that’s what’s happening with a lot of my colleagues is, they lean on me as a Palestinian-American.
What is your stance now on the BDS movement?
Well, I absolutely support freedom of speech, and people want to taint the freedom to boycott. It’s a peaceful way to speak up and say, “I’m against these human rights violations or these policies and this racism.” And I am absolutely, very much adamant that people need the right to boycott. I raised my voice and said, “I believe in that kind of movement.” I don’t know where we would be in our country without the Montgomery bus boycotts. It’s something that’s part of our American fabric.
So absolutely, people need to stop saying that the BDS movement is somehow anti-Semitic — there are Jews who support the BDS movement. There are folks who truly believe in stopping racism of all forms, and they use the boycott as a form of speech.
Do you think that one has to support BDS to be part of the Progressive movement today?
I don’t think so. No. I look at now with the “defund the police” movement. I hear my residents. They want us to reimagine and invest in their communities. That’s what I hear, but some of my colleagues don’t hear that; they are coming from a different perspective. It doesn’t make them less progressive.
I think of 2013, when Black Lives Matter was birthed. People literally were like, “I don’t know, don’t all lives matter?” There were memos being shared to stay away from that movement, that somehow it meant maybe harming police. It misconstrued what it meant. But if you look at the foundation, it was mothers, Black mothers, who lost their children to police brutality and gun violence, and they spoke up and now everybody’s yelling, “Black Lives Matter.” Right?
So again, a lot of my colleagues were not there on Black Lives Matter, but they are now. It depends on, I think, on people’s perception of what “progressive” means. I know this much: There are people in my caucus [who] don’t support the BDS movement, but they support a free Palestine. They support a Palestine that has equality and can live in peace.
You supported a two-state solution before being elected. And then you said you supported one state —
I think you should pull the J Street questionnaire. [Editor’s note: J Street initially endorsed Tlaib’s 2018 Congressional run, before later withdrawing it. The advocacy group issued a statement reading it “will not endorse candidates who do not endorse a two-state solution.”]
In the J Street questionnaire, I specifically say the two-state is almost impossible now around the racist policies of Netanyahu — that [a] two-state would be impossible without actually hurting Israelis. If you think about some of the Israeli families [who] have been in those communities for almost five decades, is the solution to push them out and recreate that kind of hurt? I just don’t know how you uproot people yet again. That’s what happened to Palestinians.
I also know from my lens that growing up in the United States, “separate but equal” doesn’t work.
I was there in 1995 when Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin was still alive, and people were on the same buses together, people were going to the beach together. There wasn’t this militarization of neighborhoods and villages. People spoke to each other. My uncle was going to his Israeli boss’s daughter’s wedding. There was just this beautiful kind of humanity and that brought people together, where now the segregation — and that’s what it is — is just making people less safe.
There are a lot of Jews, both locally and nationally, who would get on board with your platform of economic justice, were it not for your positions on BDS and Israel. What would you say to them?
It’s just this one issue that we might disagree on. I had a few residents who were like, “I don’t know, Rashida.” And I said, “You don’t have to be there, but know it’s coming from a place that I really believe.” I really, truly believe that both communities can be free if we push back against Netanyahu’s racism and right-wing approach.
I ask people, “If you don’t support the BDS, great, that’s on you, but don’t judge or dismiss those who do, because that’s the way they’re speaking up, that’s their voice. And it’s you wanting to put a tape over their mouth and saying, ‘You shouldn’t support this.’”
You can disagree. You can say, “I don’t believe in that approach.” At the same time, you can [agree that] we need to hold Netanyahu accountable… [He’s] a person who doesn’t support many of the values of both Israelis and Palestinians living in the United States right now.
So some people think, “Well, let’s say we are against annexation.” I said, “That’s great. So what else?” You know, there’s people that say, “Well, we need a boycott until he stops.” Some people are saying, “We need to leverage the American dollars until he stops.” And some people are like, “That’s fine. He’s just a bad person. We don’t support annexation, but that’s it.” And I don’t know how effective that is.
You visited the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. What was that experience like for you?
It was extremely emotional. My son Adam went into one of the rooms and there were these clipped articles. He said, “Mom, look at the data. That one was three years before the United States intervened.” Little articles that really did expose what Hitler was doing, expose what Nazi Germany was doing to Jews all across Europe, all across the region. And he [said], “People knew, and they didn’t do anything about it.” It was a powerful moment.
That’s why you can’t stay silent. That’s why I went to the border and saw what was happening to immigrant children, and it’s those kinds of images and things happening that people need to realize before it’s too late. We need to continue to speak up. I watch IfNotNow use their faith to get out there and say, “As a Jew, I will not stay silent.” That is inspiring and moving to watch.
We have been doing a yearlong Anti-Semitism Project, where we try to figure out what hate and bigotry looks like in the year 2020. How do you define a term like anti-Semitism? And in what ways do you see it linked to other forms of bigotry that are prominent today?
An African American Baptist pastor told me, “We’re not a country that’s divided; we’re disconnected.”
I was at a mosque in Flint and this young Muslim sister got up and said, “Rashida, I don’t understand. Why isn’t anybody saying anything about what he (Trump) is saying about Muslims?” Trump was still a candidate at the time. And I said, “Sis, what did you say when he said Mexicans were rapists?” There was just silence in the hall. And I said, “You can’t wait until it’s us. You have to understand any form of hate, all of it. It’s about all of us.”
I’m in spaces sometimes [where] they don’t believe it’s that prominent. And I’m like, “No, there is very much targeting of Jews.”
White supremacy is really what brings us all together… When we talk about anti-Semitism, when we talk about anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant, it’s all of us together fighting against the same people. Because when you open that curtain, it’s the same folks coming after all of us.
Is there anyone that, at this point, you would not be willing to sit down and have a conversation with? Particularly if they have certain views on Zionism and Israel.
I mean, I have an open door policy. I want you to know, I’ve even gone up to Congresswoman [Liz] Cheney, asked her, “You’ve been talking about me. I’m right here. Let’s sit down.”
When I sat down with some folks from AJC and even some board members, sat down with ADL early on, I specifically told them I would never, ever come from a place of hate or division. It will always be a place of love and bringing people together based on values. I want people to choose that first and then listen to me, because if you do, you will see that it really is the same thing. Everybody should feel safe. Everybody should have equality. Everyone should feel like they had a right to exist. Also, I emphasize this all the time to everyone: Let’s, all of us, stop choosing what we think is best for Israelis and Palestinians. Let them choose.
I think there’s already an uprising, too, just nobody hears about it. And I love it. I think, when that will organically happen, change will come. And it will be from the people who live there. We don’t live there. They do. And we can’t dictate to them what they think will lead them to lasting peace.
You’ve said you want to come from a place of love first and use that as the basis for dialogue. If that was your message, it does not seem to have reached the Jewish community. A lot of big donors with Federation were so concerned they were trying to mount a campaign to get rid of you.
I spoke to Mark Bernstein a couple of days ago. He’s a person who knew me before I became a congressmember. Early on, he said, “You know, I don’t support the BDS movement.” I said, “I know, Mark.” But he goes, “But everything else you do, I love it all.” I said, “Mark, I would never, ever support anything that would be hateful, but we need to do something about the racism, and you know it,” and he’s like, “Oh yeah.”
That’s the one thing that brings us all together. We see the pain there, and it’s not just Palestinians. It’s also Israelis suffering. So many of the new Israeli citizens, Black Israelis, even those who came from Russia, are struggling. There should be complete freedom to speak up against that without being targeted as being anti-Jewish.
I know it hasn’t reached [everyone]. I will continue to try my best to move forward in a very thoughtful way and make sure that I don’t say anything to make somebody feel like I think they’re “less than” because of their faith. But I want to speak truth. When we stay silent here, we’re oppressing their voice there.
Have you ever heard from anyone on your staff or Jewish allies that something you’ve said in the past has crossed the line or ventured into anti-Semitic tropes?
I had a friend just email me and say, “Oh, I think you’re anti-Semitic.” And I was like, “You’ve known me for years. Send me what you think, teach me. What did I say?” She never responded, never. I always ask and I always respond, especially if it’s someone I’ve known for years.
When your colleague Ilhan Omar tweeted something that many people across the aisle felt crossed the line, she did issue an apology. How did you feel when that happened?
I think there was a gasp. But at the same time, the way she was vilified — because I know her, she’s not anti-Semitic. I love how she explained it publicly: “This is where I needed to hear more. I need to understand how hurtful that was, but that was never my intention.” I don’t know how many people really heard her sincere apology. But it just never seems to stop there. One of my colleagues who’s Jewish defended her. He was in the room with her.
I mean, the president won’t even apologize. The president of the United States is supported by the same people who attack Ilhan, vilified her. But she apologized. She actually taught people and raised awareness of how people didn’t understand tropes. They didn’t understand how that really interconnected and was a trigger and very painful. And it was such a growing moment. And I think she was very graceful about it.
Do you think this criticism of you is coming from an honest place?
No, honestly, I think some of it is anti-Arab. It’s anti-Palestinian. I know this because I watched my colleagues already. My mere existence created this tension of, “She must be this way. This is who she is. This is how all Palestinians are.” In Southwest Detroit, I’m Rashida. In Palestine, I’m “[the] American girl.” In Congress I instantly was “the Palestinian.” Before I even opened my mouth, as soon as I won, it was just complete attack. And it was anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab movement. Not as much Muslim. The white supremacists, those folks came after.
Do you have any final thoughts to share for our readers, for the Jewish community in Detroit?
I think one solid, strong advocate you’re going to have against the white supremacist in the White House is me. And when (Trump) speaks the way he does about Muslims, immigrants, Jews, understand that. What I see is all of us coming together and pushing against that. It is my absolute honor to be the person to say, “Enough, you will not speak with this hate agenda. You will not hurt my Jewish neighbors. You will not oppress them with your words, your policies, your tropes.”
Also, one thing you will always get from me is full honesty. I don’t have any hidden agenda except to love and to raise the bar of what you expect in your member of Congress. You will always get somebody that will never back down and will never sell you out.
After our interview, we sent Tlaib’s campaign a few follow-up questions; here are her emailed responses.
You said you don’t think people have to support an Israel boycott in order to be “progressive,” and you talked about supporting BDS in terms of free speech. But do you believe the Democratic party platform should back an Israel boycott?
I think the Democratic Party should embrace ways folks use free speech to try to encourage change and not support efforts to silence Americans who speak out against Israel’s racist and oppressive policies.
Your opponent in the race, Detroit City Councilwoman Brenda Jones, has also made Jewish voters nervous due to her ties to the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan. How do you make the case that you will be better for Detroit’s Jews than Jones would be?
I’ve been in community with my Jewish neighbors fighting for numerous social justice issues, including water, environmental justice, racial justice, and more. I’m a person who’s rooted in justice and standing up to oppression and that’s what folks can continue to expect from it. I won’t back down from fighting for the humanity and ability for everyone in my district to thrive.
What are your own thoughts on Farrakhan and the NOI?
I’ve constantly called out Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism and homophobia.
Some BLM protests and the recent anti-annexation “Day of Rage” protests have targeted Jewish houses of worship and sites like a statue of Raoul Wallenberg in Los Angeles, saying that they are “Zionist” sites. What is your reaction to these incidents, and do you believe there is any underlying anti-Semitism in either movement that needs to be addressed?
In the 13th congressional district, we have done more intersectional work on achieving justice and fighting against oppression from Detroit to Gaza than most communities. We come from a place of love when we fight for equality and justice for all. I hope this type of work can be spread across the country. We have to continue to unlearn these prejudices and narratives steeped in anti-Semitism, anti-Blackness and anti-Muslim sentiment that can show up in progressive spaces, along with the right’s intentional use of them to divide us. We must listen and care for one another to heal our communities and come together.