Rashida Tlaib on Democratic Socialism and Why She Supports the Palestinian Right of Return

The newly elected Democratic nominee for Congress talks about how she plans to help working-class Detroit and why she supports a one-state solution for Israel-Palestine.

Valerie Vande Panne August 14, 2018

"I hope people can see I’m sincere." (Rashida Tlaib for Congress / Facebook)

On August 7, Rashi­da Tlaib won the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry for Michigan’s 13th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, replac­ing long­time African-Amer­i­can Rep. John Conyers.

I’m a young mom that believes I can’t stay outside the ring anymore. I’m not going to sell out. I’m confident about changing the whole approach to public service.

Tlaib’s vic­to­ry has been show­ered with main­stream press around the fact that she’s the daugh­ter of Pales­tin­ian immi­grants and would become the first Mus­lim woman elect­ed to Con­gress. (Tlaib is run­ning unop­posed, and will most like­ly win in November.)

To pro­gres­sive Detroi­ters though, her reli­gion isn’t the rea­son for cel­e­bra­tion. Rather, it’s her rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing an unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to jus­tice for the poor, the dis­en­fran­chised and the mar­gin­al­ized of her dis­trict, which now encom­pass­es parts of Detroit as well as its work­ing-class white, African-Amer­i­can, and Arab-Amer­i­can suburbs.

The for­mer state rep­re­sen­ta­tive — and open demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist — is also known for her grass­roots orga­niz­ing and cam­paigns against cor­po­rate pow­er and pol­luters in her home com­mu­ni­ty of South­west Detroit. Tlaib recent­ly spoke with In These Times over the phone and dis­cussed her plans to bring the voice of her con­stituents to Wash­ing­ton, what demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism means to her and her views on Israel-Palestine.

This inter­view has been light­ly edit­ed for clar­i­ty and length.

How do you intend to help the res­i­dents of your dis­trict once in Congress? 

The 13th Con­gres­sion­al dis­trict — I believe we are the most unique­ly challenged.

Shame on Gov. Rick Sny­der. Shame on Democ­rats who keep vot­ing for tax breaks for Ilitch, [the Ilitch fam­i­ly, own­ers of Lit­tle Caesar’s piz­za and the Lit­tle Caesar’s are­na] and [Quick­en Loans own­er Dan] Gilbert. These peo­ple are fuel­ing the biggest prob­lems we have. The 13th doesn’t have fair access. There’s no jobs because you’re not putting mon­ey into the community.

I grew up in South­west Detroit, sur­round­ed by inhu­mane con­di­tions caused by pol­luters. I thought that smell was nor­mal. Cor­po­rate greed can hurt. I’ll take that lens to Con­gress, and I will not waver.

I’m giv­ing a voice and an opin­ion based on my res­i­dents who feel like they’re not being heard.

They [elect­ed offi­cials] haven’t been lis­ten­ing. I hope peo­ple can see I’m sin­cere. This isn’t polit­i­cal strat­e­gy. I want to change people’s lives for the bet­ter, and change the cli­mate in Washington.

I’m going to cre­ate neigh­bor­hood ser­vice cen­ters. There are resources now that peo­ple don’t know about. We’ll run them like a non­prof­it. This isn’t a dis­trict office for meet­ings. All the issues of the com­mu­ni­ty, it doesn’t mat­ter how diverse. My team will be ready and trained to help them.

Ele­vat­ing the voic­es of res­i­dents has to include grass­roots advo­ca­cy on the ground. Com­bined with my expe­ri­ence as an attor­ney, we’ll be able to change people’s lives for the better.

I’m a young mom that believes I can’t stay out­side the ring any­more. I’m not going to sell out. I’m con­fi­dent about chang­ing the whole approach to pub­lic service.

There is a good deal of cor­po­rate wel­fare in Detroit, yet the rest of us seem to be get­ting left behind. How can the com­mu­ni­ty work with you in Con­gress to curb cor­po­rate wel­fare and shift that imbal­ance?

What I can tell you is that we need to go beyond try­ing to get some­thing done through city coun­cil. I’m not sit­ting back because this is local. I want you to know that as a mem­ber of Con­gress, with [com­mu­ni­ty groups] that have seen more and more divest­ment than even 30 years ago, I know I’ll be able to raise the voic­es loud­er to use the pow­er to con­vene and the pow­er of the letterhead.

If I’m going to help fund dif­fer­ent issues around edu­ca­tion, I can get peo­ple across the aisle to under­stand how irre­spon­si­ble it is to divert pub­lic dol­lars into for-prof­it pri­vate development.

I feel like that con­ver­sa­tion hasn’t been tru­ly debat­ed prop­er­ly. That con­ver­sa­tion now, as an advo­cate, that voice will come with me to Congress.

You are a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and were endorsed by Detroit DSA. Can you explain what demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism means to you?

It means a strong part­ner. When I talk about equi­table, just fair­ness, I lean on a whole group of peo­ple who under­stand just how much the struc­tures in place are set up against the peo­ple, peo­ple of col­or, and the work­ing class. It helps me have an orga­ni­za­tion and peo­ple to lean on. It’s impor­tant to have that kind of partnership.

Do you see your vic­to­ry as well as that of Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez in New York and oth­er open demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists as part of a larg­er move­ment toward the left in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party? 

Absolute­ly. Peo­ple who talk about uni­ver­sal health care, acces­si­bil­i­ty, that’s what is mov­ing peo­ple towards us. When we stop try­ing to label it, more peo­ple will come.

South­west Detroit is mil­i­ta­rized because of ICE. It’s not keep­ing our fam­i­lies safe — it’s mak­ing fam­i­lies live in fear. It’s an inter­na­tion­al bor­der neigh­bor­hood. [ICE has] shift­ed toward tar­get­ing Amer­i­cans and our neigh­bors, folks try­ing to do the right thing. It’s made immi­gra­tion a mil­i­ta­rized oper­a­tion. I want it abolished.

You have a strong anti-war stance in your plat­form. How do issues of war and mil­i­tarism fit into your agenda? 

I don’t sup­port mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. If you go to the Depart­ment of Defense web­site, every day, Mon­day through Fri­day, there is an area called con­tracts.” Go there. You want to pay for col­lege? Medicare for All? Pay to take care of Amer­i­cans dying from famine to basic human rights abus­es? Look at those con­tracts. I’m floored at how much mon­ey [they’re spending].

Do you want to divert the DOD bud­get into social services?

Yes. We can build safer and more vibrant com­mu­ni­ties. I am tired of the ear­marks for cor­po­ra­tions. They aren’t going to Amer­i­cans. They’re going to pri­vate com­pa­nies. Not only have we made pris­ons into pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions, wars are a for-prof­it industry.

The [DoD is] a cesspool for cor­po­ra­tions to make money.

On the issue of Israel-Pales­tine, some writ­ers have crit­i­cized you for accept­ing dona­tions from J Street. Why did you take mon­ey from the group, and which of their stances do you agree and not agree with?

Once of the things [J Street liked] was my per­son­al sto­ry I shared with them. I knew we weren’t going to agree on a num­ber of stances. They didn’t ask me to waver once.

Amer­i­cans should not be aid­ing any coun­try that doesn’t sup­port human rights. I’ve been very clear. I will not sup­port racist coun­tries that pick and choose who gets access to jus­tice. My grand­moth­er shouldn’t be denied access or con­sid­ered less human because she is Palestinian.

I grew up in Detroit, where every cor­ner is a reminder of the civ­il rights movement.

See­ing the unequal treat­ment in Israel, in the dif­fer­ent col­ored license plates for Pales­tini­ans; and even in the ocean. When I was 19 and with my fam­i­ly and some of them had head scarves on, we all jumped in the water and the Israelis jumped out as if my cousins were dis­eased. That remind­ed me what I learned about the African-Amer­i­can strug­gle. That’s the lens I bring to Congress.

My social jus­tice and pas­sion for human rights was birthed in Pales­tine. My grand­fa­ther was shot 11 times — and he survived.

Those are the per­son­al expe­ri­ences I bring forward.

Pales­tini­ans are attack­ing me now, but I am not going to dehu­man­ize Israelis. I won’t do that. Just like peo­ple do not accept Trump, I hope they don’t reflect that on me.

Many [Israelis] are march­ing, say­ing no to Netanyahu’s apartheid poli­cies. There’s a move­ment in Israel I sup­port that wants an Israel that embraces Palestinians.

For me to see the beau­ty of march­ing togeth­er again… I come from a place of love and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of that.

I think we should inte­grate the schools, because those walls, the sep­a­ra­tion, the seg­re­ga­tion, us ver­sus them, isn’t going to get us there.

I do not sup­port aid to a Netanyahu Israel and I’m pro-human­i­ty. I think that’s why J street [sup­port­ed me].

Where do you stand on Pales­tin­ian right of return — sup­port or oppose?

Very sup­port­ive. I see what hap­pened to African Amer­i­cans in our coun­try. I sup­port right of return absolute­ly. I have fam­i­ly that left [Pales­tine] in 1967. They left, took their keys with them. They thought they could come back, and they’ve nev­er been back. My uncle would tear up because he couldn’t believe he couldn’t go back. He had to raise his kids in Jordan.

You don’t have equal access. Sep­a­rate but equal does not work.

Where do you stand on BDS — sup­port or oppose?

I‘m an ACLU card mem­ber. I stand by the rights of peo­ple who sup­port BDS. Allow the stu­dents to be a part of the move­ment. I am so proud of the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights in sup­port of stu­dent move­ments for BDS. If you don’t sup­port free­dom of speech, you’re in the wrong country.

What about a two-state solu­tion vs. one-state?

One state. It has to be one state. Sep­a­rate but equal does not work. I’m only 42 years old but my teach­ers were of that gen­er­a­tion that marched with Mar­tin Luther King. This whole idea of a two-state solu­tion, it doesn’t work. Even though we con­tin­ue the strug­gle in the Unit­ed States, we have a bet­ter chance to inte­grate. My grand­fa­ther said, I don’t under­stand, we were doing so good. My neigh­bor­hood, Arab-Jew. We picked olives togeth­er. Why now do they want to be over me?’ You did noth­ing wrong,’ I told him.

I feel the same way. Equal­i­ty isn’t based on faith.

The Unit­ed States is a safe haven for any­one who needs to be pro­tect­ed. I can see Israel mov­ing in that direc­tion. The only way to feel safe is when you look across the table and say they deserve to feel safe in their own country.

Valerie Vande Panne is an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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