August 20, 2019

Tlaib’s Bigotry Has No Place in Congress

Rep. Rashida Tlaib; Screenshot from Facebook.

Most American Jews despise President Donald Trump. All Jews hate anti-Semitism. The barely visible silver lining of Rashida Tlaib’s nascent congressional career is to help each of us decide how we should rank our revulsions.

In her first few days in office, the Michigan Democrat quickly demonstrated a knack for controversy. Her promise to pursue Trump’s impeachment, referring to him with an epithet not suitable for this publication, drew predictable condemnation from the president’s defenders. Trump’s critics, even those who would normally disapprove of a member of Congress using highly charged obscenities, enthusiastically applauded. (Newly re-minted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats savvy enough to recognize the potential backlash that a rush to impeachment could bring to their party watched nervously from a distance.) 

Under most circumstances, a few news cycles of overwrought cable television debate would have brought the “motherf—–” controversy to a close. But only a few days later, Tlaib ignited another political firestorm when she attacked supporters of legislation that would protect state and local governments that sever ties with companies boycotting Israel.

Tlaib isn’t the only member of Congress to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The pro-BDS voices on the political left — even in the American-Jewish community — are steadily growing in strength and confidence. But even most BDS backers don’t begin their criticism of those who oppose the boycotts by accusing them of disloyalty to the United States. 

“Criticizing a political opponent for being wrong — or even foolish — is standard practice in most policy debates, but implying sedition is not.”

Tlaib, who didn’t announce her support for BDS until after her election in November, began a recent tweet that dredged up the age-old trope of dual loyalty by openly questioning the patriotism of American politicians and citizens who stand on behalf of Israel.

Tlaib went on to argue that allowing state and local governments to avoid awarding contracts to businesses boycotting Israel somehow has free speech ramifications. (There is a constitutional right to free speech, but not to government contracts.) Her tweet in its entirety reads:

“They forgot what country they represent. This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality. Maybe a refresher on our U.S. Constitution is in order, then get back to opening up our government instead of taking our rights away.”

Take away the first sentence of Tlaib’s tweet and what’s left is a misleading but fairly harmless polemic. But questioning whether an elected official’s primary allegiance is to a country other than the U.S. sounds suspiciously like an accusation of treason. Criticizing a political opponent for being wrong — or even foolish — is standard practice in most policy debates, but implying sedition is not. 

Tlaib’s tactics are distasteful but familiar. In 1928, Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith faced allegations that as a Roman Catholic, he would establish a Rome-to-Washington hotline if elected, so that the pope could send him direct instructions. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy’s opponents suggested that, if he were elected, he might be more loyal to the Vatican than to the American people because he was Roman Catholic. Several weeks before his election, Kennedy buried the ugly accusations in his famous speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston.

“I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic,” Kennedy said. “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” 

Perhaps the time has come for the American politicians and citizens who oppose anti-Israel boycotts to deliver a similar message, not to all BDS supporters but to those like Tlaib who seem to believe that standing up for Israel is somehow un-American. The religious bigots who opposed Smith’s and Kennedy’s elections have been consigned to the ash heap of history. Their 21st-century counterparts deserve a similar fate.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications and leadership at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.