I met Rashida Tlaib in 2009, before she was elected to Congress, when she was a young Palestinian American newly serving in the Michigan House of Representatives. I was the highest-ranking Arab American woman in the Obama administration and was receiving a key to the city of Dearborn, known as the heart of Arab America. She may not remember me from that day, but I remember her. She was a mesmerizing presence: attentive, sociable, and seemingly fearless.
Nearly a decade later, Tlaib won a U.S. House seat and became one-quarter of the outspokenly progressive “Squad.” Her ascent was an inspiration to many women of Muslim and Arab heritage—including me, a Lebanese American Christian who’s raising her children in their father’s faith, Judaism—because so few of us play any visible role in American politics. She was also noteworthy as a prominent advocate for Palestinians, who have suffered terribly for their statelessness.
But Tlaib is not helping anyone’s cause by amplifying activist rhetoric that, to many ears, casually deploys the language of annihilation.
Last week, Tlaib circulated a video on X, formerly Twitter, that sharply criticized President Joe Biden for supporting Israel’s military retaliation against Hamas in Gaza. She went on to justify a highly inflammatory Palestinian-resistance slogan. “From the river to the sea,” she wrote, “is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence.”
As Tlaib knows, many Israelis, Jewish Americans, and others hear the slogan as calling for extending a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, presumably by killing or deporting the people now living in Israel. This interpretation is plausible not least because the terrorist group Hamas, which rules Gaza, has previously committed itself to slaughtering Jews and refusing peace negotiations and early last month launched a series of sadistic attacks against Israeli civilians. The use of From the river to the sea in Hamas’s 2017 constitution suggests that the phrase need not refer only to Palestinian self-determination; it specifies geographic coordinates for future violence.
At a moment when many Palestinians are taking pains to distinguish their cause from that of Hamas—whose actions triggered a brutal Israeli-military response that is killing innocent civilians in Gaza—Tlaib is defending one of the terror group’s preferred tropes. That she has a relatively benign interpretation of it is irrelevant.
The language of annihilation heralds an escalation of violence, and not only in the Middle East. Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray offered deeply disturbing testimony about how the threat of terrorism has grown in the United States after the Hamas attacks of October 7. That threat, he said, has reached a “whole other level.” He noted that multiple extremist organizations overseas have called for attacks against the United States, but also that homegrown terrorists might attack American Muslims or Jews. Anti-Semitic harassment has spiked. A young Palestinian boy was murdered because of his identity. Individuals can be radicalized to the point of violence, even if their reasoning is muddled. When the language of holy war is invoked, compromise and de-escalation become impossible.
Public figures can make a fraught situation worse. The disgraced former Trump Cabinet secretary Ryan Zinke, now a member of Congress, is touting legislation that his website describes as a “Bill to Expel Palestinians from the United States.” The Fox News host Jesse Watters recently went on an unhinged rant, saying about Arab Americans, “We have had it with them.”
The burden of promoting a more civil discourse shouldn’t fall only on Tlaib and others sympathetic to the Palestinians. Supporters of Israel should not assume that pro-Palestinian means pro-Hamas. Students on many campuses genuinely view Israeli administration of the Palestinian territories as immoral; to portray their activism as mere anti-Semitism is to stifle legitimate inquiry. To defend any and all Israeli military actions by pointing out that Hamas started the war is to deny Israel agency.
Rather than making reasoned arguments that might win other people over, Tlaib has made herself the story by defending From the river to the sea. In response, the House passed a resolution last night to censure Tlaib for her comments. In a statement earlier yesterday, Tlaib accused her critics of trying to silence her. But she also took a notably more nuanced stance than her social-media posts did. “I will continue to work for a just and lasting peace,” she said, “that upholds the human rights and dignity of all people, centers peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, and ensures that no person, no child has to suffer or live in fear of violence.”
That comment shows a belated recognition that the choices members of Congress make about language are important, and that good causes are seldom served by dubious and loaded slogans.