Last night, the US House voted 234-188 to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, with twenty-two Democrats and all but four Republicans supporting the measure. Tlaib’s supposed offense? Her use of the phrase “from the river to the sea,” a Palestinian liberation slogan that has been the target of a right-wing misinformation campaign to convince people it’s a call for violence and ethnic cleansing.
The text of the GOP’s censure resolution accuses her of “calling for the destruction of the state of Israel,” and describes the slogan as “a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people to replace it with a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” Republicans have been joined in their parade of slander by prominent Democrats, including House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, who said the phrase was “widely understood as calling for the complete destruction of Israel.” In the most incendiary and brazenly dishonest bit of character defamation, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) charged that Tlaib, who has been on the receiving end of an uptick in death threats, “is calling for the genocide of the Jewish people.”
You will not be surprised to learn that Tlaib has done no such thing. “From the river to the sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate,” Tlaib had written earlier, partly sparking the firestorm. “My work and advocacy is always centered in justice and dignity for all people no matter faith or ethnicity.”
Sure enough, every single one of Tlaib’s public statements has either condemned the disgusting attacks carried out by Hamas on October 7 or called them war crimes and stressed the equal preciousness of both Israeli and Palestinian life. Even if you’re absolutely convinced the slogan itself is violent — it’s not, but even if you do — it’s willfully dishonest to claim that’s how Tlaib was using it.
“A Genocidal Call to Violence”
While Democrats and Republicans in Congress find another trumped-up excuse to smear a left-wing antiwar voice, let’s look at a few things in just the past week that no one involved in this tawdry spectacle — not politicians, not pro-Israel political organizations, not members of the press — could be bothered to condemn.
Consider these statements, all spoken by an Israeli official this past Sunday:
- that dropping a nuclear bomb on the Gaza strip was “an option”
- questioning why the “lives of the hostages [in Gaza]” are “more important than the lives of the [Israeli] soldiers”
- that “anyone waving a Palestinian or Hamas flag shouldn’t continue living on the face of the earth”
- opposing any humanitarian aid into Gaza whatsoever, since “we wouldn’t have given the Nazis humanitarian aid” and “there’s no such thing as innocents in Gaza”
Had a Palestinian or a leftist politician said a single one of these statements about Israel, it would have caused a firestorm. Since it came from the Israeli side, it’s been completely ignored. Every one of those remarks, by the way, came from a single interview of a single Israeli official: Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, a member of the far-right Jewish Power party. Two days earlier, Eliyahu had tweeted a call to destroy an entire city by pointing to the destruction of Sodom in the Old Testament.
Meanwhile, just yesterday, as the entire political establishment turned its crosshairs on Tlaib, Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, demanded that Palestinians be banned from harvesting olives close to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, calling for the creation of “sterile security spaces” around settlements to “prevent Arabs from entering them.” Smotrich is from the racist and extreme-right Religious Zionist Party, but his views are only degrees removed from that of “liberal” Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, who a day before Smotrich’s statement denied that the West Bank settlements are illegal by declaring that “we live in our Biblical land.”
These views slot neatly in with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, whose founding charter uses the very “from the river to the sea” slogan Tlaib is being censured over, only to mean Israeli supremacy over all territory within Israel, including Palestinian land — the exact thing Tlaib’s critics are pretending she was saying.
Maybe that’s why the official Israeli X, formerly Twitter, account in Arabic thought it was okay last week to post a picture of Israel complete with the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights covered by the Israeli flag — something that drew no condemnation or outrage, let alone attention, in the US political system. You can only imagine the furor if Tlaib or another member of the Squad posted a picture of Israeli territory covered entirely by the colors of the Palestinian flag.
It’s hard to know what Israeli officials, current and former, would have to say to get any meaningful pushback from US politicians and media. The Israeli ambassador to the United States denying the horrific Palestinian death toll because “neither you nor I know how many of them are armed terrorists and how many of them are civilians”? Nope. An Israeli military spokesperson justifying the deliberate bombing of a refugee camp that killed dozens, offering only that “this is the tragedy of war”? Nothing. An Israeli government spokesperson declaring a hospital a “legitimate target” and questioning how many of the more than ten thousand civilians that Israeli forces had killed “are really innocent civilians”? Silence. An Israeli MP and former deputy director of Mossad suggesting simply “distribut[ing] Gazans all over the world” in batches of twenty-thousand? Crickets.
Just this past weekend, roughly a hundred Israeli doctors signed their names to an open letter insisting the Israeli military bomb the hospitals of Gaza, charging that they were serving as “terrorist headquarters” and that “the residents of Gaza saw fit to turn hospitals into terrorist nests to take advantage of western morality, they are the ones who brought destruction upon themselves.”
A day before that, Netanyahu put out a statement that featured a spree of past controversial remarks, from referring to this war as one “between the sons of light and the sons of darkness,” to making reference to the Biblical story of Amalek, in which God commanded the Israelites to “utterly destroy” and “slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.” It doesn’t get much more genocidal than that, but since it’s the Israeli prime minister saying it, not a single US politician or pundit seems to care.
If you think this comparison isn’t appropriate since none of these people are Americans, let alone US politicians, then don’t worry. Here’s Alan Dershowitz, one of the most prominent US defenders of Israel, mocking the notion of Gaza’s “innocent civilians who so many people are shedding tears about” because “they voted for Hamas in the last election and they would probably vote for Hamas today” — an argument as factually wrong as it is repugnant.
Here’s Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) saying there should be “no limit” to the amount of innocent people Israel kills and that concerns about civilian casualties aren’t a priority because “the most radicalized people on the planet live in the Gaza strip” who have “been told since birth to kill and hate the Jews.” And here’s Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) charging on the House floor that “there are very few innocent Palestinian citizens” and comparing that concept to the idea of “innocent Nazi civilians.” (Mast at least is also the subject of a censure attempt over these despicable comments, but that one is going nowhere, nor has it received an iota of the attention Tlaib’s has).
Beyond Just Rhetoric
But forget about the violent things a bunch of Israeli officials and their US backers have said. Consider the violent things that the Israeli government, with the unreserved support of all of those who have attacked and voted to censure Tlaib have done in just the past week.
Israel bombed a convoy ambulance carrying wounded people last Friday outside Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, then justified it by saying Hamas uses ambulances as “taxis.” It had attacked the entrance to that same hospital just a day earlier, the same day it bombed the areas surrounding Gaza’s al-Quds and Indonesian hospitals, inflicting damage to both. Two days later, it attacked the Al-Shifa Hospital’s fifth floor, slaying displaced Palestinians taking shelter and destroying the hospital’s last power source.
Israel likewise destroyed the power generator keeping Al-Wafa Hospital functioning this past Saturday, as well as its solar energy system. The next day, it repeatedly attacked the Nasser Medical Complex after warning staff it was going to create a “fire belt,” killing and wounding civilians, hitting areas containing a children’s chemotherapy ward and shelter for refugees, and wiping out one hospital’s solar panels and water tanks. These are not accidents, as you can tell from the Israeli military’s frequent false claims that Gaza’s hospitals are actually hiding “military command centers,” tunnels, or “underground terror infrastructure.”
It’s worth remembering it was just three weeks ago that the bombing of the al-Ahli Hospital became a major global controversy, along with the still-unresolved question of whether Hamas or Israel was responsible. In fact, that bombing formed a key part of the reason why Tlaib was censured, with one resolution accusing her of “lying about Israel’s responsibility for the attack,” while the resolution that passed last night charged that she “knowingly spread the false narrative that Israel intentionally bombed” the hospital.
Meanwhile, Israel deliberately bombs multiple hospitals in just the past seven days and invents reasons to publicly justify it, and there’s not a peep.
You could go on and on. Last Thursday, Israel bombed four UN schools-turned-shelters for displaced people, killing twenty-three. The same day, it wiped out a bakery, killing and wounding dozens and destroying the precious bread that Gazans desperately need as the Israeli siege starves them. It has repeatedly leveled multiple refugee camps, killing hundreds. It’s laid waste to mosques, a university, and even a road running south, where Israel told Palestinians to flee to avoid being killed in their bombing campaign. Just yesterday, it bombed yet another journalist in his home, killing him along with forty-two members of his family.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. And it’s all just in the past seven days, leaving out the vast majority of war crimes and racist, genocidal statements from Israeli and US officials and media figures that we’ve seen over the course of this war. For the US Congress and much of the mainstream media, none of it, apparently, deserves an iota of the outrage that a Palestinian-American member of Congress repeating a chant that she explicitly uses to mean peaceful Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.
The Washington establishment has concocted a made-up narrative that a slogan about Palestinian liberation is actually a call for violence, worked themselves up into a lather about it, and used it to distract from not just actual widespread calls for violence coming from Washington and Tel Aviv, but the actual, literal violence being carried out by the Israeli government with US backing. After all, the more time and energy we spend debating a protest chant and what it means, the less we spend talking about the indiscriminate slaughter that is already deadlier than many horrific wars this century. Don’t fall for it.