Column: From Rashida’s Big Mouth to Fears of Sitting Shiva

If only a bloody-hand stunt staged by pro-Arab activists applied to U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s big mouth and her possible role leading to the deaths of two Jews – one a synagogue president in Tlaib’s hometown and the other a pro-Israel demonstrator outside Los Angeles.

Tlaib, a Democrat who represents part of Detroit, was censured by the House of Representatives for uttering words that sponsors of the censure say could incite violence – specifically, “From the river to the sea.” She also persisted in accusing Israel of bombing a hospital in Gaza City that wiped out up to 300 lives.

“Palestinian people are not disposable. We are human beings like anyone else,” a tearful and trembling Tlaib proclaimed during debate over her censure. The House voted to censure her Tuesday last week in a 234-188 vote that included 22 Democrats, a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish members.

We can wonder if Tlaib places Samantha Woll and Paul Kessler, both Jews, in the “disposable” category for dying under murky circumstances. Woll, 40, a prominent Democratic activist and president of a downtown Detroit synagogue, was found stabbed to death outside her home on Oct. 21, two weeks after Hamas and Islamic Jihad slaughtered 1,200 people (mostly Israeli Jews) in southern Israel.

Detroit Police Chief James White told reporters, “No evidence has surfaced suggesting that this crime was motivated by antisemitism.”

Sixteen days later, Kessler, 69, succumbed to injuries after an altercation on Sunday, November 5, with protesters for Palestinians in Westlake Village, Calif., 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The circumstances of his death are yet unclear, but an unofficial version has it that Kessler was holding an Israeli flag when two pro-Arab activists crossed the street toward him and a friend as one man who was masked struck Kessler with a megaphone. Kessler fell down and struck his head on the ground, dying in a hospital the next day.

It is natural to question if Woll’s murder was linked to Israeli bombings of Gaza, or if the pro-Arab activist in Westlake deliberately struck Kessler to harm or kill him. Of course, Woll’s death could have had nothing to do with October 7, and Kessler’s passing could have been accidental despite its setting. Investigators have been sorting out the evidence in both cases.

However, critics of Tlaib and others who bash Israel have charged that their words probably inspire violence against Jews and other pro-Israel activists. What Tlaib and company say about Israel extends beyond legitimate criticism. They distort the facts and accuse Israel of all kinds of abuses with little basis in fact.

“The overwhelming rise in antisemitic threats has renewed a familiar sense of fear and isolation for the Jewish community,” Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland told a reporter for Jewish Insider on Monday. “We have no tolerance for illegal threats fueled by antisemitism or by hatred of any kind.”

Tlaib’s comments are especially dangerous because her position as a congresswoman injects legitimacy into the Middle East debate. Her prominence contributes to all the vitriol that can spiral into a monstrosity like October 7. Or the deaths of Samantha Woll and Paul Kessler.

The words “From the river to the sea” were first uttered in 1964 and became a mantra for the so-called Palestinian cause during the last few decades. When I first heard it, I automatically translated it into the words “Destroy Israel” considering that Israel is situated between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Most Jews interpret it that way and they are left with a bitter taste of it in recent weeks, forcing many Israeli families to sit shiva as part of the Jewish mourning period.

Tlaib has also accused Israel with bombing a Gaza City hospital in a raid that snuffed out the lives of reportedly 100 to 300 Palestinians. American and Israeli evidence suggests that Islamic Jihad launched a misfired rocket that landed on grounds adjacent to the hospital.

Supporters of Israel have been subjected to threats, harassment and violence in America for the last several years, and Tlaib’s inciteful remarks can readily inspire maniacs to attack Jews and even kill them. Certainly, the assailants must take responsibility for their acts. They cannot get off by claiming the devil made them do it.

The House should have censured Tlaib and other provocative Democrats long ago, but Democrats backed off during the four years that they last controlled the House. They likely feared losing pro-Palestinian votes.

Republicans merit our gratitude, though their censure resolution will likely yield few political benefits. GOP candidates might receive more Jewish donations, but it is doubtful that they will gain a significant increase in Jewish votes. Roughly 75 percent of American Jews (this writer included) votes against GOP candidates because of their harmful domestic policies.

Slightly less than half of Jewish Democrats voted for censure. Opponents included such heavyweight Jewish Democrats as Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan, Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County, Md., and Adam Schiff, whose district includes Burbank and Hollywood.

In my hometown region, Philadelphia, Republican Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County voted to censure Tlaib; Democrat Susan Wild of Allentown voted present; and the other four Democrats voted against censure. Wild is the only Jewish member of that group.

Jewish political activists are expected to attempt to oust Tlaib and other pro-Palestinian House members in their Democratic primaries next year. It is more than possible that Tlaib and Ilhan Omer of Minneapolis, both Muslims, will hold onto their jobs. However, pro-Israel Democrats have reasonable chances of knocking off the ballot Summer Lee of Pittsburgh and Jamaal Bowman of New York’s northern suburbs.

Tlaib denied using the “river to the sea” phrase as a call to destroy Israel. In a November 3 post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, she said, “From the river to the sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence, not death.”

Aspirational? Aspirational to eliminate Israel? Tlaib reportedly posts a map in her office where the space that is now known as Israel is marked “Palestine.”

Raskin rambled on as to her freedom of speech despite her offensive words. During a House hearing, Democrat Hank Johnson of Georgia said, “She didn’t threaten anybody. She did not advocate for violence. She stated a view, as happens on college campuses.”

A view that can lead to shiva after shiva?

“The phrase … is a term used by … so many people who seek the destruction of the state of Israel,” said Democrat Brad Schneider of Chicago’s northern suburbs, according to Jewish Insider. “They know exactly what it means and any effort to try to persuade or gaslight folks that it means something else needs to be called out.”

Protestors who attended two House hearings on antisemitism held up their hands covered with a red substance indicating blood on Israeli and American hands.

They shouted over a Cornell University student’s testimony during one hearing, according to JTA. “Free Palestine,” one shouted. “Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.”

Amanda Silberstein still managed to describe how “professors and student organizations have been fueling Jew-hatred and spreading it across campus with disregard or potentially even with deliberate intent to incite.”

She can readily accuse some members of Congress of having blood on their hands.

Yet none of these words faze Tlaib as she declared on the House floor, “I have to continue to speak truth to power.”

If Tlaib would only “speak truth.”

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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