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House vote to censure Democrat Rashida Tlaib exposes deep divisions over Israel and Gaza

The measure comes as a new poll shows support for Israel falling in the United States, especially among young Democrats

Rashida Tlaib
Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib at a pro-Palestinian rally in Washington, Saturday.Jose Luis Magana (AP)

Few things are as heated these days in the United States as the conflict between Israel and Hamas, in which a large part of the public and the media, as well as the vast majority of the political class, unequivocally support Israel. This was seen Wednesday when the House of Representatives voted to censure Democrat Rashida Tlaib, the only lawmaker of Palestinian origin in the U.S. Congress,

Tlaib, a representative for Michigan — one of the U.S. states with the largest Muslim population which plays a key role in elections — was accused of “promoting false narratives” on the Hamas attacks against Israel on October 7 and of “calling for the destruction of the state of Israeli.”

The resolution to censure Tlaib was approved on Tuesday night with 234 votes in favor and 188 against. Twenty-two members of the Democratic Party voted in favor of the measure, along with the Republican majority. Six Republicans voted against censuring Tlaib. The vote does not affect her functions as a House member, but is a serious form of public admonishment.

It is the second time in seven days that the House has voted on a resolution to censure Tlaib. Last week, the far-right Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene filed another resolution, which accused her of “leading an insurrection” for speaking at a pro-Palestinian rally, but it was rejected by the Democrats.

In this case, the House resolution censures Tlaib for using the Palestinian slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” in protests and public statements. According to the resolution, that slogan — which is very popular among the Palestinian population — is “widely recognized as a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people.”

But pro-Palestinian organizations and Tlaib herself argue that it simply expresses the desire for freedom and peaceful existence.

On Wednesday, the White House tried to distance itself from the lawmaker. “As it relates to that term, we’ve been very clear we strongly disagree,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Tuesday’s vote also censures a statement that Tlaib made on October 8, a day after the Hamas incursion into Israeli territory, which left more than 1,400 dead.

The fact that more than 20 Democratic lawmakers supported the vote to censure their own party member highlights the deep divisions within the group on the issue of Israel’s offensive in Gaza. Until now, the party had shown a unified face, which contrasted to the infighting in the Republican Party, which struggled for weeks to appoint a House speaker. The conflict in the Middle East, however, is beginning to show the cracks in the party.

Most Democratic lawmakers, both in the House and Senate, strongly support the position of the White House and President Joe Biden, who defines himself as a “Zionist.” This position is to provide unconditional support for Israel and to call for “tactical pauses” to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and for foreign nationals, the wounded and possibly hostages to leave the enclave.

But lawmakers from the most progressive wing of the Democrat Party, including Tlaib, are demanding a ceasefire. More than 10,000 Palestinians have been killed, with children accounting for at least 40% of the victims, according to figures from the Gaza Ministry of Health. These Democrats, as well as humanitarian organizations, warn that the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Gaza have triggered a serious humanitarian crisis. A demonstration in support of the Palestinian cause brought together nearly 300,000 people last Saturday in Washington, according to its organizers. It was the largest protest in the American capital since the war began on October 7.

In response to the resolution, Tlaib argued that her fellow lawmakers distorted her statements, and that her criticism was directed solely at the Israeli government — not its citizens or the state. “The idea that criticizing the government of Israel is anti-Semitic sets a very dangerous precedent,” she noted before the vote.

“I can’t believe I have to say this but Palestinians are not disposable. We are human beings,” she said on the House floor, while showing a framed photo of her grandmother. “My Sity, my grandmother, like all Palestinians, just wants to live her life with freedom and human dignity we all deserve.”

Since the crisis began, Tlaib has constantly warned Biden that his unconditional support for Israel will cost him the support of the most progressive Democrat voters, especially young ones, in states such as Michigan. That swing state is emerging as one of the key ones to win in the 2024 presidential election.

Surveys conducted directly after the Hamas attack showed an increase in support for Israel among Americans of all ideologies. But a month later, following criticism from the U.N., humanitarian organizations and some governments, “Israel has lost much of that early support, especially among Democrats,” reported the Brookings Institute.

The percentage of young Democrats who believe that Biden was “too pro-Israel” has doubled — from 20.6% in October to 41.5% in November — and there has also been a notable rise in those think that the United States should lean towards the Palestinians, according to the survey carried out for the Brookings Institute. Among Democrats, support for Israel fell from 30.9% in the third week of October to 20.5% in early November. Support for the Palestinians grew slightly, from 9.2% to 12.9%. Some 14.8% of Democrats said that if the elections took place now, they would be less likely to vote for Biden, compared to 10.8% in October.

In that same period, the gap between Republicans wanting the United States to lean toward Israel and those wanting the United States to lean toward the Palestinians shrank from 70.7% to 60.8%.

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