Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) is facing a fresh wave of criticism — with some of the sharpest coming from fellow Democrats — over her comments related to Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, days after she avoided being censured in the House over related actions and remarks.
Tlaib, the only Palestinian American member of the House, on Friday, posted a video to social media accusing President Biden of supporting the “genocide” of Palestinians and called on him to support a cease-fire or risk losing support in 2024. The video included footage of a crowd chanting the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which has often been interpreted as a call for the eradication of Israel.
It immediately sparked bipartisan criticism, as well as two new efforts to censure Tlaib in the House.
In a Monday statement to The Washington Post , Tlaib said her colleagues are “much more focused on silencing me — the only Palestinian American voice in Congress — than they are on ending the horrific attacks on civilians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank right now.”
“Instead of attacking me and distorting my words, they should listen to their constituents and call for a cease-fire to save innocent lives,” she said.
In a subsequent statement Monday evening, she added that many of her colleagues have shown her “that Palestinian lives simply do not matter to them, but I still do not police their rhetoric or actions.”
“My colleagues have resorted to distorting my positions in resolutions filled with obvious lies,” she said. “I have repeatedly denounced the horrific targeting and killing of civilians by Hamas and the Israeli government, and have mourned the Israeli and Palestinian lives lost.”
Tlaib also said she would continue to call for a “mutual ceasefire, for the release of hostages and those arbitrarily detained, for the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid, and for every American to be brought home.”
Tlaib had earlier defended her use of the phrase, saying in a post on X that it is “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.”
“My work and advocacy is always centered in justice and dignity for all people no matter faith or ethnicity,” Tlaib wrote.
Despite Tlaib’s explanation, a wave of Democrats, particularly fellow Michiganders, criticized Tlaib for her use of the phrase over the weekend. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who noted she was the only Jewish member of Michigan’s congressional delegation, said the phrase was divisive and “counterproductive to promoting peace.”
“None of us, especially elected leaders, should amplify language that inflames a tense situation & makes it harder for our communities to find common ground,” Slotkin wrote on X. “If I knew that a phrase I’d used had hurt any of my constituents, I would apologize & retract it, no matter its origin. I’d ask the same from you.”
Jeremy Moss (D), Michigan’s state senate president pro tempore, decried Tlaib’s justification for using the phrase, saying it was one that “preys upon the psyche of Jews.” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) agreed with Moss, and called on Tlaib to retract her remarks.
“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,” Nessel said. “But this is so hurtful to so many. Please retract this cruel and hateful remark.
The phrase has been adopted and used in many ways during the decades of conflict and there continue to be disputes over what it means.
Writing in Jewish Currents in 2021, Palestinian American writer Yousef Munayyer said the phrase has been misinterpreted. “The claim that the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ carries a genocidal intent relies not on the historical record, but rather on racism and Islamophobia,” he wrote, saying it referred to Palestinians being able to live as free and equal citizens. “When we call for a free Palestine from the river to the sea, it is precisely the existing system of domination that we seek to end.”
But, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is an “antisemitic slogan commonly featured in anti-Israel campaigns and chanted at demonstrations” that has been used by supporters of Hamas.
“It is fundamentally a call for a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, territory that includes the State of Israel, which would mean the dismantling of the Jewish state,” the ADL said.
Asked by MSNBC’s Jen Psaki — who previously served as White House press secretary under Biden — whether she agreed with Tlaib’s statement that the president is supporting the “genocide” of Palestinians, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said on Sunday that she is “not willing to say that yet” but noted that Tlaib “is not the first person to say this.”
“There are credible reports from agencies across the world and the United Nations have said we are hurling towards the genocide of Palestinians,” said Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “That is not an isolated view.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), in an interview with CNN on Friday, several times sidestepped a question on whether she agrees with the sentiment that Biden is supporting the genocide of Palestinians. Lee said Biden needs to “speak very clearly about a cease-fire.” But the California Democrat said she understands the “personal aspects of this, and the trauma, and the fear” that Tlaib has over the war.
“Every member has their own points of views, every member understands what is important and what beliefs will lead to a path to peace,” she said. “You’ve got to understand Congresswoman Tlaib’s points of views and her personal history with her family … and also understand that there are many of us who have points of views, but we all come together when we know that we want to stop this killing of civilians.”
Meanwhile, the office of Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) has been seeking signatures for a letter that rejects the use of the phrase and reaffirms support for Biden.
“We all feel deep anguish for the human suffering caused by the war in Gaza,” the letter states, according to a copy obtained by Punchbowl News. “Hamas started this war with a barbaric terrorist attack on October 7, 2023, and neither the Palestinian nor Israeli people can have peace as long as Hamas still rules over Gaza and threatens Israel.”
The fresh criticism of Tlaib comes less than a week after several Republicans voted with Democrats to table a resolution to censure the Michigan Democrat that was introduced last month by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). In the resolution, Greene accused Tlaib of “antisemitic activity, sympathizing with terrorist organizations, and leading an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol complex,” in reference to Tlaib’s participation in an Oct. 18 protest organized by Jewish advocacy groups demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.
Tlaib was one of 10 lawmakers to oppose an October resolution condemning Hamas and voicing support for Israel. She called Greene’s resolution “unhinged” and “deeply Islamophobic.”
Some of the 23 Republicans who voted against the censure resolution on Friday said they disagreed with Greene’s charge that Tlaib was violent, or that she attempted to lead an insurrection at the Capitol.
On Monday, Greene returned with a new resolution, this time rephrased to target some of the concerns raised by Republicans who voted against it. While the new resolution does not accuse Tlaib of inciting an “insurrection,” it says the congresswoman “incited an illegal occupation” of the Capitol on Oct. 18.
Rep. Richard McCormick (R-Ga.), who voted to table Greene’s original resolution on Thursday because he said the language in that resolution was not accurate, introduced a motion to censure Tlaib on Monday.
In remarks on the House floor, McCormick accused Tlaib of “promoting false narratives” regarding the Hamas attack on Israel and for “calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.” McCormick said the phrase “from the river to the sea” is a “genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people,” and he dismissed Tlaib’s defense of her use of the video, saying the phrase entails “Israel’s destruction and the denial of its fundamental right to exist.”
The resolutions are privileged, which means the House must bring it to a vote within 48 legislative hours.
The censure is a formal vote by the House to disapprove of a fellow member’s conduct, with that member often standing in the well of the chamber and listening to the House speaker read aloud the censure resolution. The move is often reserved for serious violations of House behavioral codes in situations when a member’s actions aren’t severe enough to merit expulsion. Stripping committee assignments is sometimes attached to the punishment.
In an X post, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) said Tlaib is “wrong” for using the phrase, which she said is “a call for eliminating the state of Israel that rejects a two-state solution & puts Jews in danger.”
“We must reject extremism,” Rosen said. “No matter which side of the aisle it comes from.”