The Aug. 4 primary offers a path to oust the outspoken, pro-BDS congresswoman, but Jews are staying out — or backing her.
Many Michigan Jews are unhappy with Rashida Tlaib. But they’re not mobilizing against her in the upcoming primary.
When Tlaib was elected to represent Michigan’s 13th district in the House of Representatives in November 2018, she made history as the first Palestinian American woman to serve in Congress. Along with Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, she is also one of the first two Muslim woman to serve. And since her election a year and a half ago, Tlaib has made headlines time and time again — often for her vocal criticism of Israel.
Tlaib, whose grandmother still lives in the West Bank, publicly supports a one-state solution and the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement. In 2019 she and Omar were denied entry into Israel for their views, making international headlines.
All of this has created a fraught relationship between Tlaib and the American Jewish community. Even before Tlaib was elected, she made waves when J Street, a nonprofit group that advocates for a two-state solution in Israel, pulled its endorsement of her. [See previous story.]
But Tlaib’s connections to the local Jewish community stretch back further. She first ran for state office at the urging of her friend and mentor, former State Rep. Steve Tobocman, a Jewish Democratic politician originally from Farmington Hills. The two met while Tlaib was working at the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS); he eventually hired her as a legislative assistant.
Tobocman told the JN he saw a passionate local advocate in Tlaib, and when he reached his term limit in the state legislature in 2008, he asked her to consider running to replace him. He helped on her campaign, which she won, and when she threw her hat in the ring for the House of Representatives in 2018, Tobocman helped on that campaign, too.
In the new PBS documentary And She Could Be Next, which highlighted Tlaib’s campaign, Tobocman plays a major role and is seen whispering the news that she has won the primary.
Now, Tlaib is up for re-election — and she’s facing a primary challenger in Detroit City Councilwoman Brenda Jones.
Tobocman isn’t helping on the campaign, although both say the two still have a good relationship. “The clear thing is she doesn’t need me,” he said. “The odds are so much better on her side than they were two years ago.”
Tlaib vs. Jones
This isn’t the first time Jones and Tlaib have run against each other. When longtime Rep. John Conyers Jr. stepped down from his position in 2017 after holding office for more than 50 years, both Jones and Tlaib ran in a special election for his seat. Jones won the special election and served in Congress for eight weeks, but Tlaib won the regular election (by fewer than 1,000 votes) and represented the district for a full term.
In their last two matchups, Tlaib and Jones were two of many candidates, including famous names like Ian Conyers (nephew to John) and Coleman Young II. This time, they are the only two on the ballot.
For a while, it seemed like philanthropists in the Metro Detroit Jewish community might champion a challenger to Tlaib this year. At a Jewish Federation roundtable in August 2019, Lisa Lis, a frequent Democratic donor, was quoted as saying, “We in this community will go against Rashida Tlaib.”
But the Lises have since decided not to get involved in this race, in part because they don’t live in the district.
“At this point, I think it is not our place — my place — to get involved in that campaign,” Hannan Lis, Lisa’s husband, told the Jewish News.
Hannan Lis grew up in Israel and has repeatedly voiced his disproval of Tlaib’s stance on the state. In September, he told the Detroit Free Press that her comments in support of BDS were “an affront and very offensive to Jews.”
Despite their differences on Israel, though, Hannan Lis said he thinks Tlaib is a “hard-working, smart” legislator. “She really worked hard to get it, so she definitely deserved to win at the time,” he said.
While he wishes Tlaib would change her stance on Israel — or at least do more to understand where Jewish people are coming from on the issue — he recognizes that it’s not the biggest problem facing the 13th district. The district’s residents deserve a devoted advocate for their own challenges, he said.
“She’s not there to represent the Palestinian people or to advocate for Israel,” he said. “She’s there to represent the people she’s representing.”
The Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus has also decided not to get involved in the 13th district’s Democratic primary.
“While MDJC has endorsed and supported five of Michigan’s seven incumbent Democratic members of Congress for the 2020 cycle, no plans exist for an endorsement in the 13th District,” a statement from MDJC Chair Noah Arbit reads.
From the right, the Michigan Jewish Action Council is not getting involved in this election, either. In a statement sent to the JN, the conservative advocacy group said they have concerns with both candidates — Tlaib because of her views on Israel and Jones because of her ties to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a history of anti-Semitism.
“While we at MJAC think that Rashida Tlaib is a poor choice for Jews and for our country, Brenda Jones needs to clarify some of her positions,” reads the statement, signed by MJAC member Harry Onickel.
Jones welcomed Farrakhan to Detroit this year for the group’s annual “Saviour’s Day” convention in February. At the convention, Jones’ chief of staff Steven Grady told the crowd that she had sponsored a resolution to honor the 40th anniversary of the NOI’s newspaper, The Final Call, for its “truthful articles” and “courageous journalists” (the paper has a long history of publishing anti-Semitic content). Jones had previously shared a stage with Farrakhan in 2018.
Jones’ campaign has not returned multiple requests for comment for this article.
The Jews In Rashida’s Corner
On the other hand, IfNotNow Detroit, the local branch of an American Jewish organization that advocates for the end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, has used this primary to make their first-ever endorsement. They’ve backed Tlaib.
“We’re a group of young progressive Detroit Jews who we believe represents the majority of the Jewish generation we’re part of, and we’re committed to strong progressive values, grounded in our Jewish tradition and our Jewish faith. It’s a beautiful irony that our strongest supporter of those values happens to be a Palestinian congresswoman,” said Jesse Einhorn, a lead organizer with INN Detroit.
Einhorn lives in Southwest Detroit, though he’s just outside the bounds of the 13th district. But many INN Detroit members are represented by Tlaib, he said, and the group will be phone banking and canvassing for Tlaib in the lead up to the Aug. 4 primary.
“We will be out in the community, and in the Jewish community especially, talking to our friends and our neighbors and our parents and telling them why Rashida is the choice if you are a progressive Jew,” he said.
Other progressive Jews living in the city support Tlaib as well. Rabbi Alana Alpert, who leads Congregation T’chiyah and is a community organizer with Detroit Jews for Justice, has been an outspoken defender of Tlaib. Tlaib worked with DJJ on the organization’s focus issues for years before running for Congress, Alpert wrote in an email to JN.
“I haven’t met a single resident of Rashida’s (my!) district who doesn’t appreciate her leadership. There’s been a deliberate attempt to manufacture division between a Palestinian member of Congress and her Jewish constituents, and some folks outside the district have fallen prey to that,” Alpert wrote. “But the truth is that the things Jewish voters tend to care about are exactly the kinds of things Rashida has championed.”
Whether or not they support her as a candidate — and regardless of whether they live in her district — many Jewish community members will be watching the primary closely. There are Republican candidates running for the seat, but the district has been a Democratic stronghold for decades, so it’s likely that whoever wins the Democratic primary will go on to represent the area in Congress.
Hannan Lis said he ultimately hopes to see strong leadership in the 13th district, regardless of who it comes from.
“Personally, I’d rather see the area represented by an effective legislator who will work hard to really improve the lives of the people there,” he said. “Is it something that a challenger [to Tlaib] could do if there was an effective challenger? I hope so. Do I see one that would be able to do this right now and also win an election? I’m not convinced.”