Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) has been under heavy fire for the last week. During a seminar last Tuesday on online activism, she discussed the US government’s refusal to hold Israel accountable for the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli soldiers. Even some self-styled progressive lawmakers have been unwilling to touch Abu Akleh’s case. But, Tlaib argued, support for the abuses of an “apartheid government” is incompatible with “progressive values.”
All the usual suspects leapt into action to condemn Tlaib. Few referenced the original issue about Abu Akleh. Instead, they focused on Tlaib’s “progressive values” comment, which they characterized as an unacceptable “anti-Israel” (or even “antisemitic”) litmus test.
Right-wing commentator Mark Levin called Tlaib a “Jew-hater.” The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League accused her of “doubling down on her #antisemitism by slandering Israel.” And the Democratic Party’s establishment has gone all in on the attack.
The outrageous progressive litmus test on Israel by @RashidaTlaib is nothing short of antisemitic. Proud progressives do support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Suggesting otherwise is shameful and dangerous. Divisive rhetoric does not lead to peace.
— Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (@RepDWStweets) September 21, 2022
“Proud progressives,” Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) insisted, “do support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.” Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA), who “noted that he’s a long-serving member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus,” said that “creating a litmus test that would exclude the Jewish community from the progressive movement” is what’s truly “incompatible with progressive values.” Representative Ritchie Torres (D-NY) said there was “nothing progressive about advocating for the end of Israel as a Jewish State.”
It’s all nonsense. Tlaib is right about Shireen Abu Akleh, and she’s right about the Israeli state.
Israel and “Progressive Values”
The word “progressive” can be slippery, sometimes blurring critical distinctions. Democratic socialists, for example, are importantly different from regular pro-capitalist left-liberals. But in this case, Tlaib’s talk of “progressive values” is apt.
Israel is an ethnostate. Its immigration laws, its laws on marriage and family unification, and its laws on leasing and purchasing land all unabashedly discriminate against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. And Palestinians born on the other side of the “Green Line” separating pre-1967 Israel from the “occupied territories” spend their entire lives as noncitizen subjects of a hostile power — a condition that generations have been born into since 1967.
Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank are for every legal purpose considered to be residents of Israel, and the territory as a whole is integrated into the rest of Israel in a thousand ways. But it hasn’t quite been legally annexed because doing so would mean granting citizenship to its Palestinian residents and thus endangering what Wasserman Schultz calls Israel’s “right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.” The massive development of such settlements has made it geographically impossible to draw a plausible map for a future Palestinian state.
Even so, the bad joke of a “peace process,” which started with the Madrid Conference in 1991, has never been officially called off. Doing so would mean formally admitting that Israel intends to neither accept the Palestinians in the territories as Israeli citizens nor split the territory off into a state of its own — that the Palestinians there will forever remain stateless people, deprived of basic human and democratic rights, in order to secure “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.”
There’s nothing wrong with a country being a “Jewish state” or a “Christian state” or a “white state” in the sense that a majority of its citizens happen to be Jewish or Christian or white. But when you start talking about states having the “right” to maintain those majorities no matter what, you’ve entered conceptual territory that’s incompatible with “progressive values” even by the most basic definition of “progressive.”
It’s deeply incompatible with the sort of baseline liberal democratic values we’d all take for granted in any other context. Plenty of American conservatives, for example, want to restrict immigration from Latin America, but not even Steve Bannon would openly say that his reason for doing so was that America had a “right to exist as a white and democratic state.”
The Increasingly Difficult Task of Denying Israeli Apartheid
It’s telling that none of the right-wingers and Democratic establishment figures who went after Tlaib seem to be willing to even say Abu Akleh’s name, never mind try to defend Israel’s ever-shifting story or argue that the killing of this clearly identified journalist was justified. Instead, they latched onto the comment about “progressive values.”
Even there, none of them offered a substantive defense of the Israeli system from the charge of apartheid. And little wonder: Israel just instituted draconian new restrictions not only severely limiting the ability of foreigners to live with Palestinians on the occupied West Bank but even requiring foreigners who fall in love with Palestinians while living there to legally declare the relationship within thirty days. Not marriage, mind you — just romantic relationships of any kind.
If they marry Palestinians, they’re now legally required — I wish I were making this up — to leave the West Bank twenty-seven days after getting married “for a cooling off period of at least half a year.”
Please look me in the eyes and tell me that “apartheid government” is an inaccurate description of a government that would do that. Or that would legally stop the children of Palestinians who fled ethnic cleansing during the 1948 war from returning to the cities and towns their families lived in for centuries. Or that would officially declare itself to be the “state of the Jewish people,” i.e., of only one of the ethnic groups that lives in the country.
If anything, Tlaib understated the case. It’s hard to see what values all of this would be compatible with other than the values of the far right.