The US House of Representatives on Tuesday voted to censure its sole Palestinian-American lawmaker, Rashida Tlaib, for her comments on the Israel-Hamas war.
The resolution, which was backed by some 22 members of her Democratic party, claimed Tlaib had been “promoting false narratives” regarding the October 7 Hamas attack inside Israel that killed more than 1,400 people. She was also accused of seeking “destruction of Israel” – a charge she rejected.
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So, who is Rashida Tlaib, why exactly was she “censured”, what does that mean, and what happened in the tense meeting that culminated in a resolution being passed against her?
Why was Tlaib censured?
The rare vote found a problem with the Democrat congresswoman’s embrace of the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – a pro-Palestine chant that has drawn scrutiny from Israel and its supporters in the West.
It claimed the slogan “is widely recognised as a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people”.
Tlaib has defended the slogan saying it was an “aspirational call for freedom… and peaceful existence and not death, destruction and hate”.
During the debate she along with her progressive colleagues in the House reiterated a call for a ceasefire as the Israeli military offensive has killed over 10,000 Palestinians, many of them children, in one month.
“Palestinian people are not disposable,” an emotional Tlaib said.
Tlaib has been a vocal critic of the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinians and had previously called for an end to Washington’s aid for Israel, including $3.8bn in annual military assistance.
She has lambasted the Israeli bombardment of Gaza that has overwhelmingly killed civilians, but she has also repeatedly condemned the deadly attack by the Hamas armed group.
But her use of the word “resistance” in the wake of the Hamas attack was highlighted by the politicians who introduced the resolution. She had argued that “suffocating, dehumanising conditions” in the Palestinian territories could “lead to resistance”.
Tuesday’s vote against Tlaib comes as US right-wing, including members of the Congress, have used inflammatory language against Palestinians in the wake of the Hamas attack. As Israel launched its war on Gaza on October 7, Representative Max Miller called for the laws of war be swept aside while Senator Lindsey Graham said Gaza should be “flattened”.
Who is Rashida Tlaib?
The 47-year-old Democrat politician and lawyer is a three-term Democrat congresswoman and currently serves as the representative for Michigan’s 12th congressional district.
She is the first woman of Palestinian descent in Congress and, alongside Ilhan Oman, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.
Tlaib and Omar are a member of “The Squad”, an informal group of progressive members of Congress that includes Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez among others.
She was born in Detroit to working-class Palestinian immigrants and still has family in the West Bank occupied by Israel.
What does it mean to be censured?
Passing a censure resolution against a member of Congress is a serious form of formal public admonishment that is seen as a punishment of last resort and is one step below expulsion. But it has been recently used with more frequency and in partisan ways.
Tlaib had avoided censure in another resolution last week filed by Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had accused her of “leading an insurrection” on Capitol Hill for speaking at a pro-Palestinian rally.
The 47-year-old lawmaker became the second member of the body to be censured this year, after Adam Schiff from the Democrat party, who in June had a resolution passed against him over Republican grievances for his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation.
Historically speaking, a censure is a rare move, with Congress only having censured 25 members before Tlaib during its entire history.
The first censure dates back to 1832 when a congressman was censured over insulting the speaker during a floor debate.
Ilhan Omar was also formally admonished – but not censured – in February, when Republicans voted for a resolution to remove her from the House Foreign Affairs Committee over her criticism of Israel.
The political divisions
A considerable number of Democrats voted against Tlaib, while a handful of Republicans voted in her favour, displaying political divisions over the sensitive issue.
The final vote was 234 to 188, and 22 House Democrats, including Jim Costa of California and four representatives from Florida, voted to censure Tlaib. Three Democrats and one Republican voted present. Four Republicans voted against the resolution, largely on grounds of freedom of speech.
Jewish Democrat Brad Schneider, who voted against Tlaib, said he recognises her right to freely express and views censure as imperfect, “but unfortunately it is the only vehicle available to formally rebuke the dangerous disinformation and aspersions” that Tlaib uses.
Democrat Jamie Raskin, who defended Tlaib, said the resolution degrades the US Constitution and “cheapens the meaning of discipline in this body for people who actually commit wrongful actions like bribery, fraud, violent assault and so on”.
I am the only Palestinian American serving in Congress, and my perspective is needed here now more than ever. I will not be silenced and I will not let anyone distort my words.
I’m from Detroit, where I learned to speak truth to power, even if my voice shakes. pic.twitter.com/bXhGPCcKat
— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) November 7, 2023
In a speech for the representatives, Tlaib defended herself by saying she “will not be silenced and I will not let you distort my words”.
She said her criticism has always been directed toward the government of Israel and its leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not against Jewish people.
“The idea that criticising the government of Israel is anti-Semitic sets a very dangerous precedent. And it’s been used to silence diverse voices speaking up for human rights across our nation,” she said.