Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) took to Twitter last week to ask you to view her grandmother as, well, a grandmother. If you are asking why this is even an issue, you’re right, it shouldn’t be. But her grandmother is Palestinian and lives in the West Bank. When is the last time you have seen an image of a Palestinian grandmother, or any Palestinian for that matter, portrayed as a human being in the American media?
I can, however, easily point to countless times people on the right openly dehumanized Palestinians. For example, when Rick Santorum as a GOP presidential candidate told us that Palestinians don’t even exist, declaring, “there is no Palestinian” and adding that “all the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis.” That line is reminiscent of Newt Gingrich’s comment that Palestinians are an “invented people.” These ‘Palestine Deniers’ and others like them are staples in our media.
Palestinian leaders are rightfully denounced when they dehumanize Israelis. But where’s the outrage when Israeli officials describe Palestinians as being “like animals, they aren’t human”? Or how about just a few months ago when then-Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman made it clear that no one should care about Palestinian children or women killed in Gaza because in his view, “There are no innocents in Gaza.”
It’s against this backdrop I can feel Tlaib’s frustration in her tweet, “If our country is sincere about being an honest broker to peace then my sity deserves to be seen and heard just like any other human being. She deserves human dignity. Let's try a different approach, shall we.” (“Sity” is Arabic for grandmother.)
I share Tlaib’s frustration, being the son of a Palestinian father, with countless cousins in the West Bank—whom I watch being continually painted by politicians and media outlets as a disposable group of angry, brown people devoid of humanity. As opposed to what my cousins truly are—from a medical doctor who works for an agency that provides care for Palestinian refugees to a manager for a multinational pharmaceutical company to a student at Birzeit University in the West Bank and everything in between.
And it’s with the history of dehumanizing Palestinians that we must view Tlaib’s announcement this week that she’s organizing a trip for freshman members of Congress to visit the Palestinian people in an effort to share their humanity. (Same goes for her recent embrace of the BDS movement.)
There’s no doubt we will see strong opposition to Tlaib from Republicans, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and even some Democrats. But first and foremost, Tlaib’s efforts to humanize Palestinians will have to overcome the Trump regime’s crusade to do the opposite.
As I wrote in September, the Trump administration is the most anti-Palestinian administration in U.S. history. Trump has cruelly ended our nation’s financial contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which is a lifeline providing healthcare, education and food to millions of Palestinian refugees. In September, Trump cut $25 million in funding for hospitals in East Jerusalem that provide specialized care for Palestinians they can’t find in the West Bank or Gaza. And in August, Trump’s State Department withdrew $200 million in funding that had been allocated to help Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank with infrastructure programs.
Perhaps if Palestinians were seen as human beings, those cruel budget cuts would have sparked an uproar. But we didn’t hear a peep, not even from most Democrats.
And speaking of Democrats, just last Sunday the expected next speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, while addressing the Israeli-American Council conference, appeared to be dismissing the voices of Tlaib and others in the Democratic House caucus who have called for a more balanced approach to the Middle East conflict. Pelosi, after affirming that when the Democrats take the House they will be very pro-Israel, added, clearly referring to incoming members like Tlaib, “Remove all doubts in your mind. It’s just a question of not paying attention to a few people who may want to go their own way.”
Interestingly during her speech before this pro-Israel group, where Republicans like Mike Pence also spoke, Pelosi was reportedly stunned when she called for a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state and the audience responded with “jeers and shouts of ‘No way!’”
Tlaib follows Bernie Sanders, who famously humanized Palestinians at a 2016 Democratic presidential debate in Brooklyn, New York. After first making it clear Israel has the right to defend itself, Sanders told the audience, “Right now in Gaza, unemployment is somewhere around 40 percent. You got a lot of that area continues, it hasn’t been built, decimated, houses decimated, health care decimated, schools decimated.” Sanders added, “I believe the United States and the rest of the world have got to work together to help the Palestinian people.” Sanders’ words elicited a roar of applause.
Sanders was in the vanguard of championing “Medicare for all” back in 2016, which has now become a mainstream position among Democrats just two years later. Can he do the same with this issue, especially since he’ll be joined by people in the House like Tlaib? It appears Americans are open to a more balanced approach, with a 2017 CNN poll finding 67 percent believe the United States should “not take either side” in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the highest percentage in the history of that poll.
Tlaib’s crusade to humanize Palestinians, however, will not be easy. She will be attacked by those who see speaking of Palestinian humanity as a threat to their narrative, including many in the Christian right who have turned their back on the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Christians living in the conflict. And they may very well prevail in unseating Tlaib in 2020. But for the next two years at least, Tlaib and like-minded members of the Democratic Party will, I hope, not back down in their efforts to make it clear that Tlaib’s grandmother, like my father and cousins, deserve to be viewed as human beings.