Nov 14, 2023

Congress censures Rashida Tlaib.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). Image: MPAC
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). Image: MPAC

Plus, a reader question about inexperienced politicians.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

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Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the only Palestinian in Congress, was censured for her comments about the conflict. Plus, a reader question about inexperienced politicians.

Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court said on Monday that it is adopting a code of ethics for its justices. All nine justices signed the code, which generally follows the same rules as lower courts and relies on self-enforcement. (The code
  2. A Secret Service agent protecting President Biden's granddaughter opened fire when a group of people tried to break into their unmarked government vehicle. (The shooting
  3. Retired federal judge Maryanne Trump Barry, Donald Trump's older sister, died at the age of 86. (The death
  4. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) will not seek re-election, but will instead run for Virginia governor in 2025. (The decision
  5. Year-over-year inflation dipped to 3.2% last month as gas prices fell, cooling significantly from the previous month and exceeding economists’ expectations. (The numbers)

Today's topic.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). On Tuesday last week, the House voted 234-188 to censure Tlaib for her rhetoric about the Israel-Hamas war. 22 Democrats joined Republicans to censure Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American in Congress, and all but four Republicans voted for the censure.

Although a censure carries no practical impact for members of Congress, it is the most severe condemnation a representative can receive from their colleagues.

Tlaib, who has family in the West Bank, came under fire after initially failing to condemn Hamas in the wake of the October 7 attack. Nearly all Democrats initially stood by her, but some — including prominent Jewish members — abandoned their support for her after she posted a video calling for a ceasefire where protesters were chanting "from the river to the sea." Tlaib was also censured for blaming the bombing of al-Ahli hospital on Israel, a claim that has been undercut by evidence in recent weeks.

The slogan "from the river to the sea" — which describes Palestine as covering the area from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the West — has been an intense flashpoint in the debate around the conflict. Many critics say it is an open call for the abolition of Israel as a Jewish state and, in theory, the genocide or forced displacement of Israelis and Jews. It is listed as an antisemitic expression by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. Many extremist groups, including Hamas, have used the expression to call for Israel's destruction.

“It is nothing else but the call for the destruction of Israel and murder of Jews,” Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) said. “I will always defend the right to free speech. Tlaib has the right to say whatever she wants... But it cannot go unanswered.”

However, many Palestinian activists — including Tlaib — say it is simply a call for Palestinian freedom. Tlaib defended herself, pledging that she will not be silenced and not allow her colleagues to "distort" her words. Some Palestinian historians have argued that the original meaning of "from the river to the sea" was a genuine call for a one-state solution where Palestinians and Arabs were living side by side with Israelis and Jews in harmony.

“From the river to the sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate,” Tlaib said on Twitter.

She added that her criticism of Israel has always been about their government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not Jews or Israelis.

Many Democrats criticized the censure of Tlaib, arguing that she is being targeted for being a Muslim and Palestinian.

“[The censure is] another shameful, but predictable ploy of distraction from the real traffickers of hate, who are obsessed with policing progressive women of color,” progressive Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) said.

Today, we're going to explore some arguments from the left and right about the censure, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left disagree with the House’s vote to censure Tlaib, though their reasons differ. 
  • Some suggest the censure flies in the face of democratic values, while others say Congress has misplaced priorities.
  • Supporters of the censure say Tlaib’s comments were reprehensible and needed to be rebuked.  

In Common Dreams, Jeffrey C. Isaac argued “the attacks on Rashida Tlaib are attacks on the ethos of pluralist democracy.”

“She might do well — for her own sake and for the sake of her cause — to avoid ‘loaded slogans’ and focus more on the concrete injustices that she rightly challenges. But that is for her to decide. And Tlaib’s real ‘crime’ is not the video; it is her consistent advocacy of Palestinian rights,” Isaac wrote. “And so she is the object of derision, scorn, denunciation, and political attacks — and the recipient of regular death threats — that have now led to her being censured by a majority of her House colleagues.”

“None of these attacks are nefarious or illegal. People have the right to denounce politicians they don’t like and to oppose them or support candidates they do like. At same time, the relentless and vitriolic attacks on Tlaib because of her stance on this one issue are deeply disturbing, and while they do not violate the letter of the law, they are in tension with its spirit, because they implicitly or explicitly attack two indispensable norms of pluralistic democracy that are often considered ‘guardrails’ by supporters of democracy.”

In The Los Angeles Times, Saree Makdisi wrote about “why Palestinian Americans believe Rep. Rashida Tlaib spoke the truth.”

“The House of Representatives saw this — of all times — as the ideal occasion on which to censure the only Palestinian American member of Congress for having expressed the rights and humanity of her battered but still steadfast people,” Makdisi said. “Variations of the phrase [‘from the river to the sea’] have been used by different parties, including, but not only, Hamas. In Israel’s Likud Party 1977 platform, for example, it was used to express uniquely Israeli sovereignty over all of historical Palestine, a theme also echoed in Israel’s 2018 Jewish Nation-State Law. In today’s context, for Palestinians and others opposing Israel’s system of apartheid, however, the phrase expresses a vision of freedom and equality for all.”

“Tlaib’s censure wasn’t merely an act of gratuitous cruelty. Political figures in both parties have repeatedly made clear their contempt for Palestinian life,” Makdisi added. “Palestinian Americans feel that official and institutional America are deaf to the cries of Palestinians, and, at best, indifferent to Palestinian suffering of any kind… Silence speaks as powerfully as words themselves, and the message is clear: Some lives matter; others just don’t.”

In The Tennessean, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) explained “why I voted to censure my fellow Democrat.”

“My vote was prompted by my conscience and the need to have honest information about what happened on Oct. 7 and what is happening in Gaza now. This was not a vote I took lightly. I listened to the entire debate on this issue as well as colleagues and constituents before making my decision. In that context, I felt the need to publicly rebuke the spreading of misinformation by a Member of Congress,” Cohen said. “In this terrible time, we must speak carefully.

“Instead of condemning the murder of innocent people, carried out in some of the most horrific and dehumanizing ways, Congresswoman Tlaib stated that the horrors we saw unfold in Israel on Oct. 7 were ‘resistance’ to Israeli policies. The murder of innocent civilians is never a legitimate form of resistance and should not be seen as such. If any Member of Congress had said something similar — blaming the victims or justifying their deaths — after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, I would have voted to censure them as well.”


What the right is saying.

  • The right is mostly supportive of the censure, arguing Tlaib’s comments were explicitly antisemitic.
  • Some say those on the left who defend Tlaib are undermining their credibility on other progressive issues.
  • Others say the censure is not the right way for Congress to respond to its members’ political speech. 

In Fox News, David Marcus said Tlaib’s comments revealed “how the left really feels on antisemitism.”

“The entire basis of critical race theory… is that motivation or intent is completely irrelevant when judging if a statement is racist. Why is this rule different for antisemitism?” Marcus asked. “We have also been told that demographic groups themselves decide what is and isn’t offensive to say about them. If a Black person or a gay person or a Martian tells us something crosses a line, the left says we must respect that. But here we have Jews all over the country insisting not only that these slogans are antisemitic and hurtful, but that they are causing legitimate fear of violence.”

“This is the pernicious and predictable, actual bigotry of a progressive left that can only see things through the lens of oppressor and oppressed. In this sad, twisted matrix, the oppressed can never be wrong, no matter how foul their motivations, no matter how many they kill. And the oppressor, unless they are actively fighting the alleged oppression, props up systemic bigotry merely by existing,” Marcus wrote. “For today’s American progressive, the double standard is the point. The rules of political correctness were never rules at all. They were an academic Rube Goldberg device meant to distract from the left’s one and only true goal, power.”

In Commentary Magazine, Seth Mandel said “Congress did the right thing” by censuring Tlaib.

“Censure is the most serious reprimand shy of expulsion from the House, and Tlaib’s genocidal incitement, cheering on the violent designs of those already attempting to carry out their murderous aims, certainly earned it,” Mandel wrote. “Putting ‘From the river to the sea’ at the center of the censure motion was important, and was foreshadowed by a specific type of response that bodes well for the American Jewish community,” Mandel wrote. 

“Members of Congress have resisted the temptation to say something like: ‘that’s not how Jews hear it’ or ‘that’s how Hamas interprets it and that’s what matters’ or the like, which would be an error and would also be inaccurate. The phrase ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ is not, in fact, open to interpretation,” Mandel said. “Those hoping for actual peace and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians, for Jews and Arabs, should hope Tlaib’s aspirations go unfulfilled.

In RedState, Jeff Charles wrote the censure “will not solve the antisemitism problem.”

“What good will a censure do anyway? In the grand scheme of things, having lawmakers vote to say, ‘Hey Tlaib, we don’t like your antisemitism,’ isn’t going to get her to stop. She will continue lashing out at the Jewish people while downplaying the brutality of Hamas. Tlaib has no reason to rethink her rhetoric — her voters will continue supporting her no matter what she says. Unfortunately, these people aren’t going away anytime soon, censure or no censure,” Charles said.

“The antisemitism shown by the likes of Tlaib, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and others is best fought on the battlefield of ideas, not the halls of Congress. One cannot legislate against bigotry, no matter how hard they try. The way to fight this is for more people to continue speaking out and educating the public on issues involving Israel, Hamas, and other factions in this conflict,” Charles added. “If we truly wish to fight back against purveyors of anti-Jewish bigotry, it would make more sense to meet bad speech with good speech instead of relying on Congress to pass a resolution.”


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I don’t think what Tlaib did required a censure.
  • I empathize with her isolated position in Congress, and the responsibility to speak for Palestinians.
  • But the phrase is antisemitic, and the way Tlaib and others are attempting to use it is a progressive redefinition.

Let me start saying that I don't think Tlaib should have been censured.

Censuring has long been just a step below expulsion as one of the harshest ways to condemn someone in Congress. It is a permanent scar on a member’s record — a branding that this person breached the rules of Congress and needs to be eternally marked for their actions. But how any one person views that rebuke is open to interpretation. And because that response is so subjective, finding the line of when a censure is appropriate is something few people will agree on. 

Only 25 other members have ever been censured in U.S. history. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) was censured recently for posting an animated video of a character beheading his colleague, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Other members of Congress have been censured for things like bribery and sexual misconduct, but many others haven’t. Even George Santos (R-NY) — who very clearly lied about his qualifications and is probably guilty of fraud — has evaded a censure.

What Tlaib did seems tame by comparison: Not even saying "from the river to the sea" herself, but posting a video where some protesters were chanting it for a few seconds. The most offensive action she is being censured for was defending the slogan afterward, but even that I can understand. At that point she was already under attack and in a classic partisan, defensive posture. All in all, a censure seems a little overboard to me.

I think it is also important to call out the context of how isolated Tlaib really is in Congress. She is the only Palestinian-American in the legislature. She has family in the West Bank. She has a unique responsibility, and I imagine an unbelievable amount of pressure from her community, to speak out for Palestinians. As someone who just spent weeks getting heat from "my people" over my writing about Israel and Palestine, I empathize with her.

All that said and putting the censure aside, I also think Tlaib is very, very wrong.

First, I found her initial response to the attacks highly insufficient, not for what she said but for what she didn’t say. It’s worth reading the full statement released on October 8:

“I grieve the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost yesterday, today, and every day. I am determined as ever to fight for a just future where everyone can live in peace, without fear and with true freedom, equal rights, and human dignity. The path to that future must include lifting the blockade, ending the occupation, and dismantling the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance. The failure to recognize the violent reality of living under siege, occupation, and apartheid makes no one safer. No person, no child anywhere should have to suffer or live in fear of violence. We cannot ignore the humanity in each other. As long as our country provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government, this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue.”

I agree with many commentators who found the lack of condemnation (or even mention) of Hamas deeply concerning. Likewise, the idea that Israel would respond to over 1,000 of its citizens being murdered by lifting the blockade and pulling out of the West Bank was an absurd notion, for the reasons I laid out a couple of weeks ago.

Second, she shared several tweets claiming Israel was responsible for bombing the hospital in Gaza. It is one thing for Instagram "influencers" and wannabe journalists to do that, but Tlaib is a public official and in times of war she needs to be extremely careful about the things she is sharing and elevating. As we've covered since that attack, many of those assertions were erroneous, and that should be called out.

Third, and finally, while it might be true that "from the river to the sea" has developed different meanings in different spaces, it has meant one thing for a long time. I think it is quite obviously true that it means, literally, the end of Israel — and all that comes with it. In Tlaib's usage of the slogan, that ending is one where Jews live as a minority in a single state, in peace and harmony, side-by-side with Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims. In many, many other people's usage, it means killing or forcibly removing the Israelis and Jews who are currently living between the river and the sea, and I struggle to believe Tlaib doesn't know how abhorrent many Israelis and Jews find the phrase to be.

Middle East studies professor Ezzedine Fishere put it this way:

"Now I heard Rep. Talib saying that she means she has developed this meaning that it means freedom for all — everybody, from rivers to sea, and so on. And it's a very commendable definition. But it is not the common definition. And that begs the question about, you know, can you use a sentence that's already used in a certain way and then have your own definition of it?"

It seems like many of the people who find this more recent, progressive redefinition convincing are those who are new to this conflict. Tlaib is decidedly not new. And Israelis and Jews shouldn't be expected to hear it as something other than what it has meant for so long. As Seth Mandel put it above, "The phrase 'From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free' is not, in fact, open to interpretation. It is open to gaslighting and revisionist propaganda, as are all things."

And while I strongly disagree with Tlaib doubling down on the phrase, as I said at the beginning, I don’t believe censuring her was necessary. But I do think she was wrong to post the video, wrong to defend it, wrong not to correct the record about the hospital bombing, and wrong not to more forcefully condemn terrorism in the wake of the initial attacks.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Lately, you seem to be citing lack of experience as a negative thing, both for the new Speaker and now for Phillips. Remind me, how much experience did Obama have before he became President? It seems that on the one hand you criticize long term members of Congress for their inability to do things differently and you support term limits, yet on the other hand you also cite lack of experience as a shortcoming. Is there some middle ground you support that I am missing?

— Chuck from Canyon Lake, Texas

Tangle: This is a fair point. I have been writing about my concerns over Rep. Phillips (D-MN) being inexperienced for a presidential campaign and over new Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) being inexperienced for that position. At the same time, I have also expressed concerns that Congress is too old, implying that we need less experience in government.

Those two points are, at their hearts, paradoxical. But I don’t take either position to its extreme, and I definitely think there’s a reasonable, agreeable, middle-ground position where both can be true. To illustrate that, I have three general points in response to your question:

  1. If I had been writing Tangle when Obama announced his 2008 presidential campaign, I would have had some concerns about his lack of experience as well. But his background isn’t exactly the same as Phillips’s. Obama was a one-term Senator at the time, and although Phillips is a one-term Representative, the Senate is generally a little more "primetime" than the House. Obama already had seven years of state legislature experience and a professorship in constitutional law before his Senate run to prepare him for government service.  
  2. Experience is not the end-all be-all! I don't think most people are single issue voters, and in writing about Johnson and Phillips I think I’m going about it like most people — tallying up pros and cons, and trying to look at the balance of things. If you do that exercise, then objectively experience is a con for Phillips. That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as too much time served, and it doesn't mean he would be a bad president. It just means there's reason to believe he may not be prepared for the job on day one.
  3. I think our standards for what qualifies as “inexperienced” should shift a bit, in two ways. One, when it comes to looking for a president, our standards should be higher than if we're looking for a state representative or a congressman. Two, if we do have term limits or vote out more incumbents in Congress, then what qualifies for being an experienced legislator should also change.

And to be clear, I don't think serving "only" one term in Congress necessarily makes someone inexperienced in government. I also don't think someone running for Senate with state House experience is wet behind the ears. I do think, however, that one term in Congress — without committee membership, and without signature legislation — does qualify as inexperienced when it comes to presidential or speakership qualifications.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

Authorities are on the hunt for someone who sent suspicious letters — some containing fentanyl — to elections offices across the country. In at least five states, the counting of ballots were delayed in local races after the envelopes were received. The letters were sent to elections offices in Georgia, Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington. Some were intercepted before arriving, and four contained fentanyl, according to the FBI. Election workers have been facing increasing threats of violence across the country in recent years. The Associated Press has the story.


Numbers.

  • 151. The number of privileged resolutions introduced in the House since 1983. 
  • 25. The number of privileged resolutions introduced during that period that involved the disapproval, censure, or expulsion of House members.
  • 26. The total number of censures in House history, including Tlaib’s. 
  • 1832. The year of the first House censure, when Rep. William Stanbery (OH) was rebuked for insulting House Speaker Andrew Stevenson during a floor debate.
  • 7. The number of House members who were censured between 1890-2010. 
  • 3. The number of House members who have been censured since 2021.
  • 9. The number of U.S. Senators who have been censured since 1789.
  • 1990. The year of the most recent censure in the Senate, when Sen. David Durenberger (R-MN) was rebuked for “unethical conduct” related to personal dealings, Senate reimbursements, and campaign funds.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about Democrats winning the Senate.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was our moderated debate of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
  • You did it, Joe: 544 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking how they viewed Joe Manchin's (D-WV) retirement from the Senate, with 69% saying they approved of his decision and that his legacy is mostly good. 17% approve but say his legacy is mostly bad, 6% disapprove and think his legacy is mostly good, and 2% disapprove and think his legacy is mostly bad. "He is 76. In what other profession would we be expecting someone to face a grueling campaign so he could work until he was 82? Can we please stop the insanity and let a younger group rise?", one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: The new hit single from The Beatles.
  • Take the poll. What do you think about Rashida Tlaib's censure? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

With the game tied 2-2 and about a minute left in the first overtime session, Tegra Mbele scored his second goal of the game to clinch the Class A state championship in boys’ soccer in Maine. It was a euphoric moment for him, his team, and his city, as Mbele delivered a much needed moment of triumph for the city of Lewiston, which was recently the site of a horrific mass shooting. Bringing a moment of joy to their hometown motivated the Lewiston Blue Devils throughout their run to the title. “We have been saying the past few weeks, ‘Do it for the city,’” Lewiston goalie Payson Goyette said. "It was the joy we brought to the fans, which made them go crazy,” Mbele told the newspaper. “We just wanted to give back to the city with all they have gone through. It brings me great joy, and to everyone who made it happen.” The Lewiston Sun Journal has the story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.