WASHINGTON — Long after sundown earlier this week, a circle of progressive Democrats gathered on the House floor around Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib to pray after she became the 26th congressional representative in history to be censured by their peers.
Lawmakers had spent much of the afternoon emotionally debating whether Tlaib’s remarks defending Palestinians amid the Israel-Hamas war were also antisemitic and merited the formal rebuke.
It was but one of many instances of lawmakers trading accusations of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and politicizing tragedy in the month since Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel, which has since launched a casualty-heavy military response in Gaza. The left has reckoned with sharp divisions within its political coalition over Israel. Meanwhile, the right has seized on an opportunity to portray the left as the side with an antisemitism problem, while papering over its own issues with antisemitism and white nationalism.
The attempt to weaponize allegations of antisemitism for political purposes is the worst way Congress could be responding to bigotry, experts say. As the United States confronts a very real increase in violent antisemitism and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments, the political one-upsmanship inflames the situation.
“It is putting this issue right in the middle of the preexisting political divisions of the country and therefore the political divisions are being reinforced and strengthened, which will make the spiral and anger underneath this much worse,” said Robert A. Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and director of its Chicago Project on Security and Threats.
Pape was not speaking from a theoretical perspective. His research team and the Anti-Defamation League, which fights antisemitism, fielded a study this spring that eerily predicted the links between antisemitism and support for political violence.
Pape’s survey found that Americans who displayed high levels of antisemitism were also significantly more likely to support the idea of political violence, and vice versa, whether on the far left or far right.
“Far better here would be to have the joint condemnation of political violence whether it comes from the right or the left,” Pape added. “This isn’t about getting votes or attention or popularity, this is about reducing the threat to our population.”
Hamas’s attack in October, which killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, and Israel’s military response that has killed thousands of Palestinians in Gaza have prompted intense reactions in the United States. Beyond triggering emotional protests, antisemitic threats and incidents are approaching “historic levels,” the director of the FBI said. College campuses have been home to particularly high tensions. Most recently, a student was arrested at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for punching a Jewish student, and a student at Cornell University was arrested for posting threats to kill Jewish students at the New York school. A hit-and-run on a Muslim student at Stanford University is being investigated as a hate crime.
In the meantime, the House has been embroiled in partisan battles.
On the House floor Tuesday, Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, and her defenders argued that her words were being twisted and unfairly targeted. Republicans, meanwhile, recounted atrocities committed by Hamas and said Tlaib’s defense of the Palestinian rallying cry “from the river to the sea” amounted to supporting the group. Tlaib defended the phrase, which predates Hamas but has been used by the group, as a call for freedom for Palestinians; many outside that community see it as a call for the elimination of Israel, which is located between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.
“I can’t believe I have to say this, but Palestinian people are not disposable,” Tlaib said, growing emotional as she held a picture of her grandmother and argued against the censure.
The vote to censure was ultimately bipartisan, attracting the support of 22 Democrats and all but four Republicans.
It was the second voted on in as many weeks. Last week, Democrats and roughly two dozen Republicans joined to defeat another by Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has, herself, trafficked in antisemitic conspiracy theories including a meandering 2018 post suggesting a Jewish-connected space laser started a California wildfire. Last year, Greene spoke at a conference organized by antisemitic white nationalist Nick Fuentes.
Nebraska Republican Representative Don Bacon, who backed Greene’s measure, acknowledged it was the “wrong message” by the “wrong messenger.”
“We should be very clear about antisemitism, though, it is terrible,” he said.
Democrats have introduced two censure resolutions of their own targeting Republicans for alleged antisemitism or Islamophobia, but withdrew them before they were called for a vote. A third is reportedly in the works.
Democrats acknowledge their caucus is working through difficult differences and several have condemned Tlaib. But they accuse Republicans of being the ones to play politics with Israel, pointing to a House GOP bill that tied military aid to Israel to cuts in the IRS budget to go after tax cheats.
“If Democrats want to choose the IRS over Israel, it’s up to them,” Republican Chip Roy of Texas said in response to criticism that the bill inappropriately politicized Israel aid.
Though the bill passed, it is dead in the Senate and any aid to Israel remains in limbo.
Democrats also argue House Republicans’ resolutions that claim to condemn antisemitism are intentionally stocked with poison pills for progressives, such as excluding other forms of bigotry or loading them up with preambles that target specific offenders, to further the appearance of divisions, unlike cleaner resolutions that have unanimously passed the Senate. One example was a resolution last week to condemn Hamas support on college campuses, which 22 Democrats and one Republican voted against, including Worcester Democratic Representative Jim McGovern. McGovern said he opposed it because the president of Brandeis University said it included false information about the Waltham school.
California Representative Jared Huffman said he opposed the bill because it did not condemn Islamophobia and only targeted college campuses.
“All of these are gotcha votes, they’re taking issues that ought to be unanimous and they’re turning them into traps for Democrats, especially for progressives,” Huffman said. “I thought it was kind of a politically weaponized measure.”
Members on both sides of the aisle lamented the time such gamesmanship has consumed as Congress deals with a mounting to-do list including funding the government beyond next week.
“I’d rather we balanced the budget, avoid a shutdown, and seal the southern border,” said South Dakota Republican Representative Dusty Johnson.
“No, I don’t think it’s productive,” said Florida Representative Jared Moskowitz, a Jewish Democrat who voted to censure Tlaib. “But I also don’t think calling for the removal of an entire country is productive.”
Some experts fear that Congress is fueling the flames of a real threat of violence.
James Zogby, a cofounder of the Arab American Institute, argued that some pro-Israel voices conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism to shut down opposing views. He was critical of President Biden’s balancing efforts to develop a specific strategy on Islamophobia, saying that creating special categories of bigotry to fight was less productive than bringing people together.
“When you’re creating political issues that you can hurl back to the other side to score points, that’s not helpful,” Zogby said. “What the White House should be doing is convening all of us and having a discourse on hate and bigotry and how we deal with difficult issues and have civil discourse, and how we isolate those who want to spread bigotry and dissension within our communities.”
Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said politicians’ tendencies to excuse antisemitism on their own sides of the aisle have long been a problem, one that is only more heightened at the moment.
“If you are only calling out antisemitism when it serves your partisan interests, then you aren’t doing the Jewish community any favors and you’re not actually trying to fight antisemitism, you’re trying to win a partisan battle, period,” Burton said.