At the foot of Mount Carmel in Haifa, when boatloads of emaciated European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution washed ashore, Arab Palestinian women would go out to greet them.
The Haifa committees received hollow-eyed refugees with warm clothing, blankets, first aid kits, and pots of hot food and soup. The arriving families would collapse in the refuge of canvas shelters.
This was before the creation of the state of Israel. News of grave and horrific persecution of Jews had moved these women to extend a helping hand.
The next morning, the same Palestinian women would go out again to find abandoned tents. The arrivals were taken to live and work on kibbutzes, never to be seen again.
That was a precious moment lost. The natural process of newcomers blending in and integrating never happened. No stories were told of family members killed in Nazi death camps. No opportunities occurred for commiserations over the near-death experiences by immigrants as they braved harrowing escapes and perilous, clandestine journeys by sea. Instead of a fabric of empathy and coexistence, a context of resentment, division and alienation was in the making.
A tragedy acknowledged is a tragedy shared, and the first step toward healing. Paradoxically, manipulating fears of wounded minorities is an old and crass tactic.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) made a well-intentioned though clumsy attempt to link the suffering of Palestinian people to that of Europe’s persecuted Jewry and their massive influx into her ancestral homeland. Closely read, her remarks savored of bitterness and hope.
In an interview published on the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery,” Tlaib said she was “humbled by the fact that it was my ancestors that had to suffer” to create a safe haven for the Jewish people. “There’s, you know, there’s a kind of calming feeling, I always tell folks, when I think of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holocaust and 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. 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.”
Tlaib was suggesting that her support for a one-state solution to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be “a better way” of doing it.
The rush by opportunistic House Republicans to reap political mileage out of her comments was despicable. Not everyone is keen on the outcome of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an idea favored by Hamas. However, provoking Jewish anger with a contorted reading of Tlaib’s expressed sentiment is pernicious, malevolent manipulation.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) described Tlaib’s remarks as “sickening.” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) blasted Tlaib for her “twisted and disgusting comments.” Over “six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust; there is nothing ‘calming’ about the fact,” he said in a statement. Cheney called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) to take action against Tlaib.
Denzel McCampbell, Tlaib’s spokesman, in turn said that Cheney’s statement was dangerous. “Once again Republican leaders and right-wing extremists are spreading outright lies to incite hate,” he said. He accused Cheney of using the tragedy of the Holocaust to “score political points.”
Tlaib and her freshman colleague Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, were celebrated as part of the American dream in the Trump era. They have also drawn criticism for daring to challenge long-standing attitudes and positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a climate of intolerance. But impatience with this administration’s arbitrary confrontation with democratic and constitutional norms has empowered them somewhat. They are boldly fighting back.
Undeterred by death threats triggered by a video tweeted by President Trump, Omar roared back at the White House for its “vile attacks,” adjusting her oratory to blast both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
During a rally outside the Capitol last month organized by Black Lives Matter and Angela Davis, Omar lambasted Trump and his allies for their “demented views,” describing them as “goons.”
“I can’t ever speak of Islamophobia and fight for Muslims if I am not willing to fight against anti-Semitism,” she vowed, referring to reports that John T. Earnest, the suspect in the deadly Chabad of Poway synagogue attack, may have also torched a mosque in nearby Escondido in March.
Omar, an immigrant from Somalia, is a war survivor, a refugee and a woman of color who covers her head.
When the boundary-crashing Omar voiced impatience over Muslim Americans’ treatment as second-class citizens after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, prefacing her comments with “some people did something,” outrage on social media spiked. The hosts of “Fox & Friends” questioned her loyalty to America. Trump circulated a video of part of what she said against the backdrop of the flaming, crumbling World Trade Center towers.
Omar’s supporters protested that her words were taken out of context to “intimidate and silence her.” Omar termed Trump’s tweet “dangerous incitement, given the death threats against me.”
Omar and Tlaib came out of the gates swinging after their elections. Omar was critical of Israel and insinuated that politicians supporting it are bought off. Such views, appalling and toxic to many, novel to others, were not aired openly before.
The newcomers sparked anger, disdain and a vitriolic backlash by broaching controversial, divisive issues: Palestinian rights; influence over U.S. policy on Israel; BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanction movement targeting Israel. Omar’s remarks sparked rebuke from Jewish Americans, smarting from generalizations smacking of anti-Semitism.
Outrage and pushback were expected. Some of the backlash has been extreme. Tlaib and Omar have faced serious death threats stoked by a barrage of venomous rebukes from Republicans and die-hard conservatives. Global hate crime expert Barbara Perry has done extensive research on how stereotyping and certain characterizations inform violence in the othering of Muslims.
The climate the two Muslim women stepped into was one in which anti-Muslim tropes were normalized and shamelessly abused by Trump and some of his supporters.
The two women also challenge assumptions of those not receptive to them being in positions of power. One stereotype assumes Muslim women are oppressed and subdued.
Omar now has a seat at the table. As a woman in politics, she has openly voiced full-throated objections to mainstream attitudes and is boldly redefining what a hijab-donning Muslim woman is assumed to be.
Because of Omar, the ban against Muslim women covering their heads in Congress was lifted.
“She broke all the barriers. A certain segment of citizens expect her to behave like a grateful guest. But she is refusing to play by mainstream rules,” observed Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). “She started a debate where there was none.”
Omar invited heavy criticism in February when she suggested in a tweet that some U.S. politicians’ support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins.” It stung many as an anti-Semitic slur. She said her intent was not to offend Jewish people and “unequivocally” apologized. Still, the House passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, including Islamophobia.
A former Palestinian minister of the Palestinian Authority, although a fan, noted, “She needs to pick her words.” Omar, known for sharp elbows and resistance to advice during her campaign, told Stephen Colbert, “We are not there to be quiet; we are not there to be invisible.”
A study released on May 1 by the ISPU said there are indicators showing an upswing in Islamophobia since last year. The American Muslim Poll surveys levels of public endorsements of negative stereotypes about Muslims living in America. Those stereotypes assume Muslims are prone to violence against women, that they discriminate against women, that they are hostile to the United States, that they are less civilized than other people and that they are partially responsible for acts of violence carried out by other Muslims.
The poll said predictors of lower Islamophobia were favorable regard for African Americans, Jews and the LGBTQ community. “There is empirical research linking anti-Semitism, anti-black racism and Islamophobia. They are from the same tree of bigotry.”
“As a human family, we will be much stronger when we learn to disagree safely,” Mogahed argued.