WASHINGTON (JTA) — In a recent speech, Rep. Rashida Tlaib said she struggles with the idea of uprooting Israeli settlements in the West Bank, comparing the evacuation of settlements to the displacement of Palestinians during and after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
The Democratic congresswoman, who is Palestinian-American, made the remarks on Monday via Zoom to a group of Jewish high school students who gather virtually to hear from Palestinians. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency obtained a recording of the Zoom call.
During her appearance, one of the students asked her about Israeli West Bank settlements, which much of the international community considers illegal. In response, the Michigan representative invoked the “Nakba,” the term meaning “catastrophe” that Palestinians use to describe their displacement during and after the 1948 war.
“Some settlements have been there for so long, right?” she said. “And just the idea around taking families that — that’s been their home — it’s just completely uprooting, forcibly displacing. It’s something I struggle with because, like, we’re doing it all over again, right? This happened during the Nakba.”
Tlaib immediately qualified that “you can’t compare” the Nakba to the removal of settlements, saying that Palestinians endured more violence than uprooted settlers when they were dispersed or expelled. Palestinians, she said, also deserved “restorative justice.” But she appeared to have difficulty accommodating the idea of removing families who had lived in their homes for generations.
“Some generations now don’t know anything but that community, that is in the eyes of the United Nations and many others and agreements, it’s illegal,” she said. “So I don’t know how we do it.”
The remarks signal that Tlaib, perhaps the most outspoken critic of Israel in Congress, has something in common with many right-wing Zionists whom she otherwise opposes: an aversion to evacuating settlements. Tlaib supports the one-state solution — in which Israelis and Palestinians would live together in a single country with equal rights — and proponents of similar visions have suggested that, in such a scenario, Israeli settlers could remain where they are.
But pro-Palestinian politicians rarely evince sympathy for settlers, and in the past, Tlaib has been a vehement critic of Israeli settlements. Her statement Monday appears to be the first time she has expressed these sentiments publicly.
“I’m idealistic as well, and people think I’m a little corny, but I know I just think we can all live together equally,” she said later in the 35-minute talk. “I really believe we can have a state where all of our Jewish neighbors across the country can feel safe.”
Tlaib’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment or clarification. Multiple organizations that have allied with her — including Jewish Voice for Peace, the anti-Zionist Jewish group that recently cosponsored an event with Tlaib commemorating the Nakba at the U.S. Capitol — likewise did not respond to requests to comment on her remarks.
The meetings of high school students are organized by Ezra Beinart, son of Peter Beinart, the Jewish writer who, in recent decades, has transitioned from being a fierce defender of Israel to advocating for a one-state outcome. Ezra Beinart is a high school student in New York City.
Two days after Tlaib spoke to the group, she hosted the Nakba commemoration at the Capitol and introduced a congressional resolution that would recognize the Nakba, spurred in part by her frustration with weeks of Congress members celebrating Israel’s birthday.
The text of Tlaib’s Nakba resolution decries settlements. It states that “the Nakba is not only a historical event, but also an ongoing process characterized by Israel’s separate-and-unequal laws and policies toward Palestinians, including the destruction of Palestinian homes, the construction and expansion of illegal settlements, and Israel’s confinement of Palestinians to ever-shrinking areas of land.”
Tlaib’s efforts this week to mark the Nakba in Congress drew sharp criticism from mainstream Jewish groups, many of which also oppose a one-state outcome, which they fear would lead to a Palestinian-majority state hostile to Jews.
Tlaib has a long history of positions that incense the pro-Israel community. She routinely opposes defense assistance to Israel and backs the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Israel, known as BDS.
She outraged Jewish Democratic lawmakers last year when she said progressives could not support Israel’s government, which was then centrist. In 2020, she tweeted, then deleted, the phrase “From the river to the sea,” which is viewed as a call for Israel’s removal. In 2019, under pressure from then-President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned her and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from entering Israel, a decision that prompted rare criticism from pro-Israel advocates who argued that her status of a congresswoman merited more respectful treatment.
In her chat with the students, Tlaib returned to the themes that make her a target of mainstream pro-Israel opprobrium, including her advocacy for a binational state. She rejected the view, held by many large Jewish organizations, that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, and likened Israel’s current practices to apartheid and to the Jim Crow South — analogies also rejected by most pro-Israel organizations.
“Separate but equal didn’t work in our country,” she said, referring to the various proposals that would establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. “We tried and it didn’t work. Segregation made it more violent for Black neighbors.”
But she also described a vision of Israeli settlers and Palestinians living in harmony. She noted that her grandmother, whose hardships she frequently cites in criticizing Israel, lives “feet” away from a settlement. She recalled playing basketball in the neighboring settlement as a child when she visited her.
“I remember the head of the village who knew some of the folks there,” she said. “And it was beautiful, in that sense of, like, being like neighbors.”