(JTA) — Now running for Congress in Michigan: a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian Christian who is married to a Jew and spent time living on an Israeli kibbutz before rejecting coexistence efforts in favor of advocating for Palestinian resistance.
The onetime organizer of the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that recognizes the right to “legitimate armed struggle” against the Israeli occupation, Huwaida Arraf has alarmed Detroit-area Jewish and pro-Israel groups with her plans to enter a crowded Democratic field ahead in the August 2022 primary in Michigan’s 10th Congressional District.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of the Michigan-based Jewish Community Relations Council of the American Jewish Committee, called Arraf’s past statements about Israel “hateful, destructive and antisemitic.”
For her part, Arraf has condemned antisemitism in pro-Palestinian advocacy and says she encourages Jews to approach her with any questions and not to believe everything they read about her.
“Know that I will always stand for people’s rights,” she said. “And when we come together to defend the rights of all people — not really based on ethnicity or religion — we will find ourselves on the same side.”
Her positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, are well beyond the consensus of even most Jewish left-of-center groups, which consider terms like “genocide” to describe the conflict not only inaccurate but antisemitic.
In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Arraf, 45, noted that she had signed a statement denouncing antisemitism in the struggle for Palestinian rights.
At the same time, Arraf agrees with many pro-Palestinian talking points that have been deemed antisemitic by Israel and numerous Jewish groups, including the “genocide” charge. She told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last year that while she once shied away from characterizing what was happening to Palestinians as genocide because it would not lead to productive conversation, she has reconsidered more recently.
Asked how she could justify the term “genocide” when the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza has increased from 1 million in 1948 to almost 4 million today, Arraf said it’s a genocide of a different kind.
“It absolutely needs to be looked into whether Israel is committing genocide,” Arraf said. “It’s not just about getting rid of the numbers of people; it is about erasing people’s identity. There are different forms of genocide. You have social genocide, and you have the traditional meaning of genocide — when we understand that there are mass killings to completely annihilate people. But it is not the only form.”
Lopatin is unequivocal in labeling Arraf’s statements “antisemitic.” He said that while his organization is nonpartisan, “we believe Ms. Arraf should be seen as a wholly unacceptable candidate for the Democratic Party, for Michigan and the 10th District. Sadly, her anti-Israel activism does no good for the cause of those in her district nor even to the cause of the Palestinian people. Venomous anti-Zionism has no place in American politics and should be condemned by all, no matter what their political leanings.”
Were she to win, Arraf would join Rep. Rashida Tlaib as the second Michigan congresswoman to hold deeply critical views of Israel. But a victory for Arraf is a long shot, according to Adrian Hemond, CEO of Grassroots Midwest, a Michigan political consulting firm.
The district in which Arraf is running was recently redrawn, so there is no incumbent in the district, where a sizable Jewish population resides in the Rochester and Rochester Hills suburbs of Detroit, Hemond said. Many candidates are expected to throw their hats into the ring.
“I expect a crowded Democratic primary, and a high-quality Republican on the other side if she comes through,” Hemond said. “The district partisan base is essentially 50-50. I’d rate her winning chances as quite low, overall.”
So far, though, only two Democrats have officially declared their candidacy, and of them, only Arraf has raised any funds. She pulled in more than $200,000 before Dec. 31, 2021, according to federal elections data.
If she does prevail through two rounds of voting, Arraf, 45, would cut a remarkable profile in Congress.
The daughter of two Palestinian Christian parents — her mother came from Beit Sahour in the West Bank, and her father was a Palestinian citizen of Israel — she was born in Detroit shortly after her parents immigrated to the United States. She majored in Arabic studies, Judaic studies and political science at the University of Michigan. She said she wanted to expose herself to all points of view.
“I was thinking at the time, maybe I can get into diplomacy and try to play a role in bringing the two sides together,” Arraf said. “And then if I was going to do that, I’d want to obviously understand the Israeli side better,” including learning Hebrew.
As part of her early quest for understanding, Arraf lived on a kibbutz in Israel, something that she was able to do as an Israeli citizen. “I cherish that time,” she said. When she returned to the University of Michigan, she established a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group.
That led her to her move to Jerusalem as program coordinator for Seeds of Peace, which at the time focused on bringing Jews and Arab youth from the Middle East together for dialogue. Arraf enjoyed arranging the encounters, and through the organization she met Adam Shapiro, the group’s Jewish acting director at the time.
After working together for a year, including on curfew-defying missions to deliver bread to Beit Jala, the pair began dating and married in 2002. They have two children and frequently join Shapiro’s family to celebrate Jewish holidays.
Yet the experience essentially ended her ambitions to become a diplomat: Arraf concluded that Seeds of Peace was a “feel-good project” that ultimately harms the pro-Palestinian cause.
“When we bring them together, we’re falsely creating a level playing field,” Arraf said. “But then the Israelis are going back to their cities or towns, and the Palestinians are winding their way around through checkpoints, under the gun of someone who’s probably the brother or sister of their new Israeli best friend. And what are we actually doing about that? Nothing.”
These feelings solidified during the Second Intifada, when more than 1,100 Israelis and 5,500 Palestinians were killed in violent clashes in the territories and a rash of terrorist attacks inside Israel. Arraf resigned from Seeds of Peace.
That’s when she and her husband cofounded the International Solidarity Movement, a group that urges “nonviolent” resistance against the Israeli occupation, yet also says it recognizes the right to “legitimate armed struggle.” The Israeli government accused members of the group of illegal and violent actions against Israeli soldiers, and operating in cooperation with Palestinian terrorist organizations.
It was not long after the group’s founding that Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American International Solidarity Movement activist, was killed in Gaza while attempting to block an Israeli army bulldozer that was engaged in a home demolition operation. An Israeli court absolved the driver. (Another volunteer with the group would be fatally shot the following year.) Corrie’s death became a political and cultural touchstone for pro-Palestinian activists.
Arraf traveled to Corrie’s brother’s home immediately after her death and has remained close with the Corrie family since, speaking at an event commemorating the 15th anniversary of her death in 2018. There, she said her immediate response to Corrie’s death was “this feeling of immense responsibility in that I was part of calling Rachel over, so it should have been me and not her under that bulldozer.” (She had been in the United States at the time, but as an Israeli citizen, she was also not able to enter Gaza.)
After graduating from law school at American University in 2007, Arraf embarked on a legal career that has included consulting with a human rights clinic at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem and working on the civil rights cases in New York and Michigan.
She also chaired the Free Gaza Movement, which in 2008 and 2010 organized ships to try to evade the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. After a surprising success in 2008, about 700 pro-Palestinian activists took part in the 2010 “Gaza Freedom Flotilla,” which ended when Israeli commandoes raided one of the boats, the Mavi Marmara. Nine activists were killed on the Turkish vessel, and Israel later said that it identified five passengers with terrorist connections. Relations between Israel and Turkey broke down in the aftermath of the incident.
“I wish I would have had the opportunity to do more training with the passengers before we departed so that they would know what to expect,” Arraf told JTA recently. “I don’t know if that would have changed anything, but knowing what to expect generally helps calm fears. I remember thinking when shots first rang out — I was on the Challenger, but noticed the Marmara surrounded — ‘I’m used to this, but they must be terrified.’”
In the wake of the incident, Israel’s security cabinet voted to ease import restrictions on civilian goods entering the country through other border crossings, but maintained the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Arraf and several others left Free Gaza’s leadership in September 2012; she resigned completely, she said, later that year over antisemitism in the group’s ranks.
A cofounder of Free Gaza, Greta Berlin, tweeted that “Zionists” were guilty of operating Nazi concentration camps, in an episode that drew widespread attention and rebuke. Arraf and others openly denounced Berlin’s tweet and subsequent behavior at the time, saying that the Free Gaza Movement never tolerated antisemitism.
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“She said it was a mistake, but instead of immediately removing it, she tried to justify/defend her actions, which just made things worse,” Arraf said in an email to JTA. “I, and other board members, felt that we had to put out a statement distancing ourselves from this. And, while I was already planning on resigning, this incident just sped up the resignation.”
Arraf said she is not running on her record as a Palestinian activist, but she hopes that, as the daughter of immigrants, she can find voters through issues that have traditionally attracted Democrats.
“I’m running for Congress because I believe every Michigan family wants essentially the same thing,” Arraf said. “You have to be able to live a good life, to have a decent job with a livable wage, where people feel that they are respected and treated well, that our children have quality schools, that we have safe neighborhoods, that we have a resilient infrastructure and healthy communities.”
Of course, members of Congress deal frequently with issues related to Israel. Arraf said she would condemn a terrorist attack on an Israeli noncombatant, but would not vote in favor of U.S. funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense weapons.
“It is voting against enabling Israel to continue its offensive against the Palestinian people,” she explained. “Because when Israel doesn’t have to worry about shoring up its capabilities, it frees up other resources for Israel to go in and do whatever they want.”
On the status of Jerusalem, Arraf has studied Judaism and understands the centrality of the city. But, she said, it’s an important city to her, too, as a Christian Palestinian.
“Why can’t the city be central to Judaism as part of a country where everybody is equal? We want to dismantle the colonialism and create a system that works for everybody so that anybody that has an attachment to Jerusalem, or to any part of that land that wants to live there, can live there, according to laws that apply to everybody.”
Running as a progressive, Arraf says she holds positions that many American Jews support.
“I definitely know the history that the Jewish community has in fighting for social justice,” she said, “which is why it’s perplexing, a little bit frustrating, in almost every other issue, they’re on the right side, but when it comes to Palestinian rights, there is this block in that Israel takes over.”