Rep. Rashida Tlaib, famous these days for being infamous, is being taken to task for what she said last week about the Holocaust. Two leading Republicans quickly pounced, feeling so strongly about Tlaib’s remarks that, in the name of all things Israel, they mangled what she had actually said and used the Holocaust to score cheap political points. That, simply, is a sin.
Tlaib is one of the GOP’s favorite targets. The Michigan Democrat is a socialist, a Muslim and the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. She also opened what we used to call a big mouth on President Donald Trump, dropping an F-bomb on his oddly colored head in her call for impeachment. As far as Trump’s congressional fans are concerned, Tlaib should become the emblematic face of the Democratic Party much as the iconic Marianne is for the French Republic.
It would suit me just fine if Tlaib kept her mouth shut. I agree with her on almost nothing — not her socialism, and not her support of the so-called BDS movement — boycott, divestment and sanctions. Coupled with the call to return all Palestinian refugees to Israel, these amount to an effort to asphyxiate Israel and turn it from being the Jewish state to a majority Arab one. But what she said about the Holocaust was hardly offensive. Heard without prejudice, it was oddly moving.
In an interview Friday with Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast, Tlaib was asked about her advocacy of a single state — part Israeli and part Palestinian. She said she was “humbled by the fact that it was my ancestors that had to suffer” to create a safe haven for the Jewish people.
“There’s a kind of a calming feeling, I always tell folks, when I think of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the fact that it was my ancestors — Palestinians — who lost their land and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence, in many ways, had been wiped out,” she said. “I mean, just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust, post-the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time.”
She went on: “I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that (safe haven), in many ways. But they did it in a way that took their human dignity away, right? And it was forced on them.”
The reaction of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., was swift: “There is no justification for the twisted and disgusting comments made by Rashida Tlaib just days after the annual Day of Holocaust Remembrance. More than 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust; there is nothing ‘calming’ about that fact.”
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., also had something to say. She declared Tlaib’s remarks to be “sickening,” and she called on the House Democratic leadership “to finally take action against Rep.Tlaib and other members of the Democratic caucus who are spreading vile anti-Semitism.”
Scalise and Cheney ought to realize that “to finally take action” would set a dangerous precedent. Would it apply, as it should, to the many members of their caucus who were struck mute when Trump could find no distinction between the anti-Semites and racists of Charlottesville and the people who came out to protest them? This sudden onset of morality would be puzzling it if weren’t so crassly political.
As for Trump, what he could not recognize in Charlottesville, he spotted in Tlaib. He called her comments, “horrible and highly insensitive,” and said, “she obviously has tremendous hatred of Israel and the Jewish people.”
It was the phrase “calming feeling” that seemed to unhinge the two congressional Republicans. They seemed to feel Tlaib applied it to the Holocaust itself. If she had, it would have amounted to more than insensitivity or blatant bigotry, but something akin to criminal insanity. But a repeated hearing of the podcast suggests only that Tlaib was trying to reconcile her horror at the murder of most European Jews with its consequence — the creation of Israel which to Palestinians is the nakba , the disaster. That’s not hard to understand.
I want to build a fence around the Holocaust. It is not mine, it is not yours, and it is certainly not any politician’s. In Paul Celan’s indelible phrase from his poem “Death Fugue,” the doomed Jews were “digging a grave in the sky.” In voluminous ash, that is where they went and where they remain to this day. Look up and be silent.
Cohen writes for the Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.