Rashida Tlaib Has Her History Wrong

By Benny Morris

The Atlantic

May 14, 2019


On Friday, Representative Rashida Tlaib was attacked by President Donald Trump for a “horrible and highly insensitive statement on the Holocaust” and for having “tremendous hatred of … the Jewish people.” Trump’s off-base attack distracted from the actual problems with Tlaib’s account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which she deployed deliberately imprecise language, misleading her listeners about the early history of the conflict in Palestine and misrepresenting its present and possible future.

Tlaib told the hosts of the Yahoo News podcast Skullduggery that when she remembers the Holocaust, it has a “calming” effect on her to think that “it was my ancestors, Palestinians, who lost their land, and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity; their existence in some ways had been wiped out … all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post the Holocaust, post the tragedy and horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time.” She was, she said, “humbled by the fact that it was [my Palestinian] ancestors that had to suffer for that to happen.”

But the historical reality was quite different from what Tlaib described: The Palestinians indirectly, and in some ways directly, aided in the destruction of European Jewry.

After Hitler’s accession to power in Germany in 1933, German and then Eastern European Jews sought escape and safe havens. But all the Western countries, including the United States and Britain and its dominions, closed their doors to significant Jewish immigration. Palestine emerged as the only potential safe haven. In 1932, the British allowed 9,500 Jews to immigrate to Palestine. In 1933, the number shot up to 30,000, and in 1935, it peaked at 62,000.

But from 1933 onward, Palestine’s Arabs—led by the cleric Muhammad Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem—mounted a strident campaign to pressure the British, who governed Palestine, to bar all Jews from entering the country. To press home their demand, in 1936 they launched an anti-British and anti-Zionist rebellion that lasted three years. Apart from throwing out the British, the rebellion’s aim was to coerce London into halting all Jewish entry into Palestine.

Moreover, the anti-Jewish violence, which claimed the lives of hundreds of Jews and wounded many more, itself served to deter would-be emigrants from seeking to move to Palestine. British entry certificates for Jews to Palestine declined to 30,000 in 1936, 10,000 in 1937, and 15,000 in 1938. Those who couldn’t get in were left stranded in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere. Almost all died in the Holocaust, which the Germans unleashed in 1941.

But the Palestinians’ contribution to the Holocaust was also more direct. Husseini, having fled Palestine during the revolt, helped pro-Nazi generals launch an anti-British rebellion in Iraq in 1941 (which itself engendered a large-scale pogrom against Baghdad’s Jews, the Farhoud). When that rebellion failed, he fled to Berlin, where he was given a villa and a generous monthly salary, and lived in comfort until the end of the world war. During the war, he helped recruit Muslims from the Balkans for the German army and the SS, and in radio broadcasts exhorted Middle Eastern and North African Arabs to launch jihad against the British and “kill the Jews.” (The texts of Husseini’s broadcasts appear in the historian Jeffrey Herf’s book Nazi Propaganda for the ArabWorld.*)

Subsequently, Husseini fled Germany and, with the Allies reluctant to trigger Arab anger by trying him for collaboration, settled down in Cairo. In 1947, he rejected the UN partition plan to settle the Palestine conflict and helped launch the first Palestinian and pan-Arab war against the Zionist enterprise. He spent his last years in Lebanon, embittered by the loss of Palestine and the pan-Arab failure to effectively support the Palestinians, and published a series of anti-Semitic articles before his death in 1974.

The most prominent Palestinian American intellectual, Edward Said, toward the end of his life enjoined the Palestinians to study the Holocaust and empathize with what had happened to the Jews, if only to properly understand the deep-seated fears and aspirations of the Israelis. It would seem that Tlaib has forsworn such an effort.

Tlaib’s podcast promulgates two basic fallacies about the more recent past and the present: first, that the Palestinian struggle is akin to the black-American struggle against white oppression and discrimination, and second, that the sole responsibility for failing to reach a two-state solution to the Palestine conflict lies with Israel.

The Zionist-Palestinian struggle has always been a political (and, lately, also a religious) struggle between two national movements over a piece of territory. Since the start of the struggle, both sides have claimed “Palestine,” the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, as theirs. So far, the Israeli side has prevailed. In two bouts of warfare, in 1948 and 1967, the State of Israel defeated the Arabs and gained control, in stages, over the territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Particularly in the wake of the 1967 takeover of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, the Israeli side has oppressed the Palestinian inhabitants and denied them various civil rights. Such is the nature of military occupation. But the struggle between the two sides—in which most Palestinians still hope for Israel’s disappearance and to take over all of Palestine—is not in essence akin to the civil-rights movement in the United States, as Tlaib would have her listeners believe. (And if the Palestinian Arabs ultimately triumph, there is no reason to believe that the equality and justice they would mete out to the minorities they would govern would be any different from that meted out to minorities governed by the neighboring Arab Muslim states.)

To this must be added one further observation: The Zionist side over the decades has repeatedly agreed to a compromise based on partitioning Palestine into two states, one for the Jews, the other for the Arabs—and, just as repeatedly, the Arab side has always rejected the two-state compromise formulas that have been proposed. So it was when the British Peel Commission proposed partition in 1937; so it was when the UN General Assembly proposed partition in November 1947; so it was when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton proposed partition (a two-state solution) in 2000; and so it was when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed partition to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, in 2007–08. At each point in time, the Palestinian leader—Husseini, Yasser Arafat, Abbas—rejected the two-state offers and partition (as, consistently, has Hamas, the most powerful and popular of the Palestinian political factions). But Tlaib is right in saying that Israel’s current leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite occasional lip service to the two-state idea, is opposed to a compromise solution based on a real partition.

As to the future, Tlaib argues that, since Netanyahu opposes a two-state solution, what must be hoped for and reached is a one-state solution, meaning a jointly ruled binational Arab-Jewish state. A handful of Palestinian-Jewish intellectuals advocated such a solution from the 1920s to the 1940s, including Martin Buber and Judah Leib Magnes. But it failed to gain much traction among the Jews (they wanted a “Jewish state,” if only in part of Palestine) and gained no traction at all among Palestine’s Arabs (who demanded all of Palestine, not an inch for the Jews).

Today, the prospect of such a binational state emerging is even more remote: Neither people wants a binational state, especially after more than a century of mutual bloodletting and warfare. The anger and suspicions are too deep for the two peoples to live in amity intermixed in a single state—however much café-goers in London and Paris (and, apparently, Detroit) may dream about the viability of such a denouement. Any attempt to achieve such a solution, especially when coupled with the essential Palestinian demand—which Tlaib supports—to allow a mass return of refugees to the homes they lost in 1948 and 1967 (which were destroyed or are now home to Jews), would end in anarchy and a protracted bloodbath.

Tlaib may say she comes “from a place of love and equality and justice,” but these are empty words intended to rope in dupes and the ignorant. Perhaps in her prospective trip to the West Bank with the Humpty Dumpty Institute, which she announced on the podcast, she can try them out on the people who actually live in the area. We’ll see what happens.