U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s defense of a phrase used by Palestinians in connection with the war between Israel and Hamas is drawing condemnation from critics, including a prominent fellow Democrat — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.
On Friday, Tlaib posted a video on the social platform X in which she said President Joe Biden’s support of Israel would cost him reelection in 2024, accused him in a lettered overlay of supporting “the genocide of the Palestinian people” and showed protesters in Michigan yelling the slogan “from the river to the sea!” The Detroit Democrat called for Biden to support an immediate cease-fire.
The lone Palestinian-American in Congress linked that tweet to another one that explained what she said she meant by “from the river to the sea” — which refers to from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, or the land between the bodies of water that includes Israel.
“From the river to the sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate,” she tweeted Friday. “My work and advocacy is always centered in justice and dignity for all people no matter faith or ethnicity.”
The tweet prompted 29,000 responses, many of them condemning the phrase as antisemitic because it is also used by Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza that launched an Oct. 7 attack in Israel that kidnapped more than 200 people and killed civilians, including women and children.
Among the most prominent critics was Nessel, who is Jewish.
“@RashidaTlaib, I have supported and defended you countless times, even when you have said the indefensible, because I believed you to be a good person whose heart was in the right place,” she tweeted.
“But this is so hurtful to so many. Please retract this cruel and hateful remark.”
State Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, whose comment Nessel retweeted and added a statement, was more blunt.
“This is not how Jews view the phrase ‘from the river to the sea,'” wrote Moss, who is Jewish. “This is not how Hamas views the phrase ‘from the river to the sea.’
“Hamas uses it as a rallying cry. And they don’t simply want to displace Jews in Israel. They want Jews dead.”
Tlaib’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The three-term congresswoman is at odds with many in the Democratic Party in her support for a one-state solution that would meld Israel, the West Bank and Gaza into one country, over a two-state option that would create an independent Israel and Palestine.
Tlaib has said she’s not calling for the expulsion of Jews from Israel or their destruction but for peaceful co-existence and equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis.
In an email appeal Sunday, Tlaib’s campaign said she “will not back down in leading our movement and demanding a ceasefire now” in the Israel-Hamas war.
“The lie that any critique of the Israeli government is antisemitic sets a dangerous precedent, and it’s being used to silence diverse voices speaking up for human rights across our country,” the campaign email said.
The Associated Press reported Saturday the Palestinian death toll in the Israel-Hamas war has reached 9,448, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. In Israel, more than 1,400 people have been killed, most of them in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that sparked the war.
The controversy came after the Republican-controlled U.S. House voted 222-186 on Wednesday to table a resolution to censure Tlaib about her criticism of Israel, a U.S. ally. The effort was squelched by all Democrats and at least 23 House Republicans, including Michigan Reps. Tim Walberg of Tipton, Bill Huizenga of Holland and John Moolenaar of Caledonia.
Walberg, Michigan’s most senior Republican in Congress, said Wednesday that while he “strongly” disagrees with her criticism of Israel in its war with Hamas, he defends Tlaib’s First Amendment right to free speech.
“From the river to the sea, Palestine will soon be free” was chanted Saturday by thousands of demonstrators in Washington, D.C., who opposed the Biden administration’s support of Israel and its continued military campaign in Gaza.
Mariam Charara, executive director of the Arab American Civil Rights League, defended the use of the phrase in an email Sunday.
“This slogan has deep historical roots and expresses the universal desire for freedom from oppression across the entire historical land of Palestine. It is about Palestinians seeking their own freedom and, in the broader sense, freedom for all.”
Charara also made a distinction between a call for freedom and a call for violence.
“Congresswoman Rashida has consistently advocated for the rights and well-being of Palestinians without promoting violence against anyone. Her focus is on ending the suffering of innocent Palestinians in Gaza, a cause that resonates with anyone with a conscience. …
“Rashida’s intentions have always been rooted in seeking justice and a better future for all, regardless of their faith and I believe it’s crucial to recognize the aspirations of the Palestinian people in this matter,” Charara said.
Many Palestinian-Americans have argued, like Tlaib, that the phrase is a call for freedom that gained traction in the 1960s.
Palestinians see the state of Israel as their former homeland that was torn apart in 1947 when the United Nations voted to partition the territory into a Jewish state and an Arab state, wrote Maha Nassar, an associate professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona, in a 2018 essay in The Forward, a Jewish publication.
“…(T)hey saw all of Palestine — from the river to the sea — as one indivisible homeland,” Nassar wrote.
The call for a free Palestine “was part of a larger call to see a secular democratic state established in all of historic Palestine. Palestinians hoped their state would be free from oppression of all sorts, from Israeli as well as from Arab regimes.”
But the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish group, argued in an Oct. 26 post on its website that it is “an antisemitic slogan commonly featured in anti-Israel campaigns and chanted at demonstrations.”
“This rallying cry has long been used by anti-Israel voices, including supporters of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and the PFLP, which seek Israel’s destruction through violent means,” ADL wrote. “… It is an antisemitic charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland.”
Mike Rogers, a former Republican congressman and House intelligence committee chairman, said that Tlaib’s “rhetoric is dangerous” on X Saturday evening.
“Israel has every right to defend itself and to destroy Hamas following the terrorists attacks that killed over 1,400 innocent Israelis. Rashida Tlaib’s rhetoric is dangerous, reprehensible, and emboldens terrorists to commit further atrocities,” said Rogers on X.
Staff writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.