Michigan, bordering Canada, is best known for its once flourishing automotive industry. But the 2008 election of a Muslim woman of Palestinian origin to the Michigan House of Representatives revealed another aspect: Michigan’s strong Arab-American community.
“Miss First” elected with 84% of the vote
The eldest daughter of a Palestinian couple of modest background, Rashida Tlaib is the only one of fourteen siblings to have pursued higher education: political science at Wayne State University and then law at Western Michigan University. Far from the Ivy League – the eight private universities of the Northeast, the most prestigious in the country – and its intelligentsia. Her rise is relentless, nevertheless.
After three successive terms in the Michigan legislature, Rashida Tlaib targets the federal level. In 2018, “Miss First” – as her relatives call her – was nominated by the Democrats for the 13th District of Michigan. Elected with 84% of the vote, she has been a member of the House of Representatives since January. She is the only woman of Palestinian origin and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
The lawyer immediately made it her duty to deny the image of the submissive Arab woman to whom some seemed ready to assign her.
Even before she arrived in Washington, she wondered how Donald Trump, “son of a b…,” had been able to escape impeachment. Salty language much criticized by her opponents.
Since arriving on Capitol Hill, she and three other Democratic colleagues – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, llhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley – with whom she formed the ‘The Squad’, have been working to impeach the American President. “Democrats are wasting their time,” say several analysts in Washington, for whom the dismissal of Donald Trump is “impossible at the moment.
Regardless, not a week goes by without the media and social networks jumping on the shots fired between the White House and the Democratic Quartet. Donald Trump displays little restraint when he calls the American-Palestinian woman “crazy” and “hysterical”, urging her and her comrade Ilhan Omar to “go home”. “He’s afraid of us,” says Rashida Tlaib.
Boycott of Israel
In August, it was the long soap opera of her trip to Israel with Ilhan Omar that caught the headlines. The two women, who support the Israeli boycott movement BDS, had the door slammed in their faces by the Israeli authorities at the request of Donald Trump, ahead of their trip to the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The Israeli authorities eventually granted Tlaib the right to visit her sick grandmother, which the Michigan representative refused to do “in order not to submit to this oppressive and racist policy”. A position that raised hackles with certain members of the Democratic Party.
“Many Democrats would prefer Tlaib and his Squad colleagues to stop playing the provocation card,” says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.
“The House of Representatives, after the victory of 2018, is younger, more feminine, more diverse, closer to the activist circles of the militant base and more critical of the centrist status quo of the democratic elite,” decrypts Benjamin Haddad, European director of the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council and author of Paradise Lost: Trump America and the End of European Illusions.
“Tlaib and the Squad are protesting against Trump but also against the moderate Clintonian branch of the Democratic Party,” Haddad continued. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, has tried to curb their influence since their election. ”
“New generation of the Democratic Left”
With the support of young people and minorities, Rashida Tlaib has succeeded in changing the momentum on the Palestinian question. Recently, when democrats were quick to reiterate their unwavering support for Israel by seeking to pass a bill on anti-Semitism – and de facto against Tlaib and Omar – they faced an outcry. The young democrats “clearly said that this would no longer be the case within the party,” Zogby explains.
For Benjamin Haddad, “Tlaib and Omar are part of a new generation of the Democratic Left that is questioning more generally certain fundamentals of American power. They point to interventionism in the Middle East, plead for a reduction in the defence budget, question the alliance with Israel, etc. “A small victory for the Palestinians? “Rather a step forward,” an Arab diplomat in Washington tempered. In his eyes, Tlaib’s merit is “to say things clearly.
Historic law on the minimum wage
“She is undoubtedly a presence, even if the most popular personality of this “gang” is clearly Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has also positioned herself on environmental and corruption issues,” adds Benjamin Haddad.
For Rashida Tlaib, a representative of one of the poorest states in the United States, it is social issues that she champions most fiercely. Supported by Bernie Sanders, she is behind the Lift bill establishing a refundable tax credit for the middle class.
In July, the House of Representatives passed a “historic” law to increase the minimum hourly wage to $15. One of Tlaib’s campaign promises.
The Democratic Party’s primary, a first test for Tlaib
What can we expect to see on the national stage?
This is not yet certain, according to Benjamin Haddad: “The Democratic Party’s primary school in 2020 will be a first test of where the base lies: with centrists like Biden who want to beat Trump first and foremost? Or with the camp of the new left embodied by Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, behind candidates like Sanders or Warren, who also want to transform the left in depth?”
Trump made his choice. “By targeting the quartet in particular, he wants to force the Democrats to show solidarity with Tlaib and Omar, and thus pull them to the left,” says the international relations researcher.
“Trump believes that a more left-wing Democratic speech will drive moderate voters away. But that is not so certain, if you look at the polls… After all, Tlaib is a representative of Michigan, one of the key states for 2020”, says Haddad.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.
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