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Opinion Rashida Tlaib’s bigotry comes from the MAGA handbook

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) in June 2019. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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It’s a classic Trump move: Blame a minority group for a sinister conspiracy, then deny responsibility when your supporters act on your baseless claim.

Work 'em into a lather, rinse and repeat.

Few have been victimized by Donald Trump’s hateful tactics more than Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who with other members of “the Squad” were told by Trump to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

So why is Tlaib now using the Trump playbook against others?

On Aug. 1, Tlaib announced that she had identified how Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land “really interacts” with the treatment of Black Americans. “Cutting people off from water is violence. And they do it from Gaza to Detroit,” she explained to the Democratic Socialists of America. “The structure we’ve been living under right now is designed by those who exploit the rest of us, for their own profit,” on issues ranging from human rights to health care. Making a drapes-parting gesture with her hands, she continued: “If you open the curtain and look behind the curtain, it’s the same people that make money — and yes they do — off of racism.”

A vague “they” conspiring to “exploit the rest of us for their own profit” from “behind the curtain”: These antisemitic tropes have been used against the Jews for generations. If that weren’t clear enough, Tlaib let it be known that “they” operate both in Gaza and Detroit, and only Jews meet that description. Tlaib went on to say the exploiters “made record profit” during the pandemic — an antisemitic conspiracy theory popular on the Web.

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“Stunning,” pronounced Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League and a former Obama White House official. “We’ve heard this kind of ugly antisemitic dog whistling before, but it’s appalling when it comes from a member of Congress.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement on Friday saying it was “deeply concerned by the antisemitic nature of recent comments and allegations” by Tlaib, adding, “it is clear that Rep. Tlaib is suggesting that the Jews are the uniting factor” in the exploitation.

Democrats and others on the left should call this what it is: bigotry. It’s grotesque when Trump and his MAGA minions do it, as I’ve chronicled at length; it’s no less ugly when it comes from the left.

Two days after Tlaib’s remarks, Nina Turner, a former Bernie Sanders surrogate, said she had lost in a Democratic congressional primary in Ohio because “evil money manipulated and maligned this election.” It appeared to be a reference to ads funded by Democratic Majority for Israel.

Turner’s campaign, at least, clarified her words, telling a Jewish publication, the Algemeiner, that Turner “was opposed by corporate money, Republican money and Trump allies’ money. That is evil money. And it’s not limited to any race, creed or background.” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who has occasionally crossed the line into antisemitism, has similarly clarified remarks and sought reconciliation.

But the ADL has seen no such response from Tlaib. Her spokeswoman told me Tlaib’s office had nothing to add to her remarks. On Twitter last week Tlaib said that “people who support oppression try to police my words” and that “bringing our movements together scares those who support the status quo.”

What’s actually scary is that we’re in an upsurge in antisemitic violence inspired by such words. Acts of antisemitism rose dramatically during the Trump presidency, reaching a high in 2019 and barely dropping in 2020, the ADL reports. In May 2021, during the fighting between Israel and Hamas (and anti-Israel protests by left-wing demonstrators in the United States), anti-Jewish violence and harassment surged to more than double the previous year’s level.

Greenblatt called Tlaib’s unwillingness to clarify antisemitic remarks “a lesson of the Trump era” characterized by a refusal to apologize for anything. “Reckless words lead to reckless things,” he told me.

Tlaib has called Israel’s policies “apartheid” and “racist,” and the liberal pro-Israel group J Street revoked its endorsement because she was equivocal on Israel’s right to exist. She once retweeted a statement that, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a reference to wiping Israel off the map.

She embraces the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has provoked a wave of antisemitic incidents on U.S. campuses. In 2019, she said those fighting BDS in Congress “forgot what country they represent,” invoking the longtime antisemitic trope of dual loyalty.

Her antisemitism is dumb politically. At a time when views on race fuel partisanship more than any other factor, she’s driving a wedge between Jews (the vast majority of whom are progressive) and others on the left.

But more than dumb, it’s repugnant. Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent and a Muslim, knows what it’s like to be the target of bigotry. Practicing the same against Jews furthers nobody’s cause but Trump’s.