What did Rashida Tlaib say about the Holocaust? It’s probably not what you think.


(JTA) — Republican lawmakers like Rep. Lee Zeldin were criticized, deservedly, for distorting Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s comments about the Holocaust by suggesting she said that she gets a “calming feeling” when she thinks about the genocide.

If you read or listen to the Michigan Democrat’s comments, it is crystal clear that she said no such thing. The Republican pile-on, joined by President Donald Trump, is a further weaponization of anti-anti-Semitism, this time based on a comment that the target never made.

But it’s not just Republicans who appeared to distort Tlaib’s now notorious remarks. It was the ostensibly nonpartisan Jewish commentariat and media as well, in which I will include our own site, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and take full responsibility.

Our headline on Monday read “Rashida Tlaib says her Palestinian ancestors made a ‘safe haven’ for Jews after Holocaust.” We quoted the remarks she gave to the podcast Skullduggery in which Tlaib asserted that she gets a “calming feeling” when she considers that the Palestinians “created a ‘safe haven’ for Jews during the Holocaust.”

That was the take amplified around the Jewish world and the Israeli press, in which historians of the era pointedly refuted her purported version of history. They noted that far from welcoming Jewish refugees during the Nazi era, the Palestinian leadership actively worked against their immigration to British-controlled Palestine and collaborated with the Nazis in their war against the Allies.

“Rashida Tlaib is either completely ignorant of the history or is a deliberate liar,” Benny Morris, the Israeli historian, told Haaretz. Palestinians “did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Jews at Nazi hands. Rather, the opposite: The Arabs of [British Mandatory] Palestine, during the whole period — and supported by the neighboring Arab states — did all they could to prevent Jews trying to escape Nazi hands from reaching the (relatively safe) shores of Palestine.”

That is an important assertion of the historical record, and one made repeatedly in the press and on Twitter in the wake of her remarks. But it assumes that Tlaib was crediting Palestinians with welcoming refugees and “creating” a safe haven for Jews, when the transcript of her remarks suggest she was saying something else.

Here are the relevant quotes, which I transcribed from the video.

Interviewer: Congresswoman, you’ve created something of a stir by coming out in favor of a one-state solution, Israel and Palestine, and I think you may be the only Democrat who’s publicly supported a one-state solution. So what is your vision for a one-state solution that meets both Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish national aspirations?

Tlaib: Absolutely. Let me tell you — I mean, for me, I think two weeks ago we celebrated, or took a moment I think in our country to remember, the Holocaust. And there’s a kind of a calming feeling, I always tell folks, when I think of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holocaust in the fact that it was my ancestors — Palestinians — who lost their land and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence in many ways had been wiped out, and some people’s passports — I mean, just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust, post-the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time. And I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that, right?, in many ways. But they did it in a way that took their human dignity away, right, and it was forced on them.

Tlaib does not assert that Palestinians welcomed Jews or worked in any way to create  the “safe haven.” Instead, she says, using the passive voice, that Palestinians were displaced “in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews.” In fact, “it was forced on them” — that is, the Palestinians. And despite the cost to her people in property and dignity, she goes on, she “love[s] the fact that” something good came of it  — a safe haven for Jews who were suffering “horrific persecution” around the world.

She does say that it was her “ancestors that provided that,” but “provided” is different than “created.” And Tlaib qualifies “provided” with “in many ways” — hardly an assertion of open arms — and immediately says that “they did it” (presumably, Jews created the haven) in a way that “took their human dignity” (that is, the Palestinians’ dignity).

Far from claiming that her ancestors worked to bring Jews to Palestine, or welcomed them when they arrived, she is saying that even if the Jews did come and take their land and rights away, at least it was for the alleviation of another people’s suffering.

In acknowledging that suffering and noting her own people’s, her remarks are closer in spirit to the anti-Zionist refrain that the Jews escaped the window of a burning house only to land on someone else’s head.

There is a lot to disagree with in Tlaib’s remarks. The Holocaust is hardly the sole justification of the existence of Israel. She denies the Jews the right to autonomy in a state of their own. She rejects the idea of two states for two peoples and instead holds out for the impossible idea that Israel will surrender its sovereignty in hopes of creating some sort of United States of Isratine. It’s that kind of wishful, almost messianic thinking that has prevented Palestinian leaders from accepting anything less.

But it’s a tremendous and dangerous distraction to attribute to her words and ideas she didn’t say.

In defending Tlaib, Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American activist, tweeted: “It’s not about what we say, it’s who we are. It’s based on orientalist tropes that deem Muslims and Arabs inherently anti-Semitic. It’s racist. It’s bigoted. It’s finally being exposed.”

In invoking Islamophobia, Sarsour exactly mirrors critics who are too quick to hear anti-Semitism in everything she and fellow high-profile Muslim women, including Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar, say. Each has indeed uttered remarks that invoked anti-Semitic tropes. There’s fair criticism and criticism made in bad faith. Sarsour seems to suggest that Muslim Americans like her should take no responsibility for the things they say that Jews and others take as offensive.

And she ignores the single biggest factor driving these charges of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: political expediency. Tlaib and Omar are a gift to the Republican Party, just as they are a headache for the Democrats. By broadcasting their misguided statements and inventing others, the right uses both freshman lawmakers to portray Democrats in ways sure to rile their own base and energize their Jewish voters and givers: as radical, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and, frankly, un-American. It doesn’t hurt that they are Muslim, a handy “other” for political factions that like to invoke America’s “Judeo-Christian” tradition.

Democrats often join in attacking these celebrity newcomers in order to separate themselves from the increasingly diverse insurgency on their left — and sometimes they distort comments on the other side to score political points.

Tlaib and Omar seem only too happy to provide fodder for these firefights, in which everyone is shooting blanks.

But in this instance Tlaib didn’t say what they say she said. Although she is no Zionist, she acknowledged Jewish suffering and offered up a slice of understanding as to why Jews needed a homeland. It’s hardly a path to reconciliation, but it isn’t anti-Semitism either.

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