Israel, Politics

Will the American Jewish Left Support Huwaida Arraf for Congress? Should It Even Matter?

By any measure – well, by any measure except one – Huwaida Arraf is a Congressional candidate who should be of strong interest to the American Jewish community overall, and especially to those on the left. 

Her background as: the daughter of a working class immigrant family; identity as a woman of color; support for progressive policies on the economy, labor organizing, climate, and gun control; concern about the way in which American foreign policy and interests undermine human dignity and human rights – these are the elements of a campaign that could have donations pouring in for a Democrat running for an open seat in the battleground state of Michigan.

But, in addition to everything above, Huwaida Arraf is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who are citizens of Israel (and, through her father, she herself is actually a dual citizen of Israel and the United States), and she has been an active fighter for not just an end to the Occupation but an undoing of the structure of colonialism that, as she describes it, preferences Jewish lives over Palestinian ones. And in the current context and realities on the ground, she sees the concept of a two-state solution as simply perpetuating that same structure.

Not surprisingly, her direct engagement on fighting for Palestinian rights and calling out, as she explains it, the colonialism and apartheid of the Israeli system has already led to her being described as anti-Israel (within a post about anti-Israel views being linked to anti-Semitism) by the Republican Jewish Coalition, a supporter of terrorism, and calling for the dismantling of Israel (spoiler alert: if you watch the AMP 2021 speech on which this last claim is based, she did not actually advocate to dismantle Israel, but rather the colonialist system in place in the West Bank; although, to some on the right, one could argue those have become more or less equivalents). 

That will likely lead, especially if her campaign gains traction, to this question: can someone with her history and views on Israel/Palestine win a race–even when she herself, given the district she is seeking to represent, is not focused on Israel as a central platform issue? Even if American Jews, particularly on the mainstream left, are not Arraf’s potential voters or a focus of her campaign, they may well have an outsized impact on that direct yet complex query.

Can Jobs Trump Trump?

Arraf is running to represent Michigan’s newly redrawn 10th district.* The district lines were only finalized on December 28, shifting from what was formerly a more rural district represented by first-term Republican Lisa McClain. Although as of this writing, she is the only candidate and assessment remains underway about the realities of the new district reality, Arraf explained in an earlier interview with Jewschool** that she is going to be almost exclusively focused on domestic issues as the key concerns for her constituents. As she sees it, the thrust of current economic policy “doesn’t work for working class people.” Arraf herself is the eldest of five kids and grew up watching her father work 80-hour weeks to make ends meet. As she explains, she has seen firsthand the struggles of the working class, both through her father and the fact that she started working at age 12 to help her family. 

The focus for Arraf, then, is not as much on Israel or Palestine as on issues that can help the people of this district in their everyday lives: “ensuring dignified jobs and living wages;” changing policies that treat “healthcare as a commodity rather than a human right;” a focus on the environment to blunt the affects of climate change; combating “laws that are moving us backward in terms of human and civil rights.” 

Arraf also sees it as essential to allow workers to organize–making clear she will support the PRO Act of 2021–and to break up monopolies and large corporations that are squeezing the working and middle classes more each day. She makes clear to distinguish herself from the Democratic Socialists but nevertheless believes more must be done to change the system we have. As she explains, “I am not preaching or talking about anything other than capitalism, but we need a capitalism that works for everyone and not just the wealthy few.”

To Arraf, the people of her district increasingly see the Democratic Party as an “elitist” one that would rather tell people what they need rather than “listening to the lived experiences” of residents. That’s how she plans to differentiate herself–by opening herself up and listening–to everyone. She recognizes that, demographically, she may not be the type of candidate to draw support from Trump-leaning Republicans, but she believes that creating the human connection and making clear how she will fight for her constituents for jobs, for living wages, for healthcare will overcome any initial resistance or even animus, people may feel toward a woman of color.  

Human Dignity-Centered Foreign Policy, Even in Israel

Her domestic policy platform makes clear that Arraf is focused on human dignity as a centerpiece of her approach. That extends to foreign policy as well. At an early age visiting family in Jerusalem, she recognized that American values did not always extend to the reality of what our country supports on the ground: the structure of the Occupation meant that some of her family members who were inside Israel could come to Jerusalem, while others living in the West Bank could not. It was an awakening for her that American values rooted in equality do not always play out that way in the world. 

“My position and my values and my advocacy will be centered on human rights. You have to put people’s rights above everything else… We can all come together to build the better world that we talk about. That sounds idealistic but I want to be on the idealistic and positive side because we can do better. Placing human rights first will inform policy wherever we are looking.”

Arraf gave Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as examples of countries where she is concerned about how American foreign policy looks past problematic regimes that repress their own people. In the case of Saudi Arabia, she has also been clear about her concern with weapons sales continuing despite the country’s responsibility for horrific conflict in Yemen.

That concern with how American foreign policy looks past repression stands out in Israel as well. At core, Arraf’s view is that Israel prioritizes one group over another, both inside Israel and in light of the Occupation and Blockade of Gaza. And through the assistance and support the United States provides to Israel, she believes that we, too, are prioritizing Israeli Jewish lives over Palestinian lives. Her main goal in Congress would not be a specific policy action or piece of legislation but rather, through her presence, to compel more people to step back and understand it is the colonialist structure that needs to change, rather than one policy here or there. 

Is It Up to Arraf to Reach out to American Jews? The Other Way Around? Neither?

Given her background as a founder of the International Solidarity Movement, leadership of the Gaza Flotilla in 2010, and ongoing activism, it is inevitable that her focus on the “colonialism” and “apartheid” of Israel will result in people, especially American Jews, looking past the underlying concepts of human equality and dignity that she believes must apply in Israel and Palestine and focusing on her as “anti-Israel” or, worse, anti-Semitic.

Arraf made clear in her AMP 2021 speech and again to me that she does not intend to chase down every such allegation, as it will only detract from running her campaign. Arraf expressed direct concern about the rise in anti-Semitism–especially given that the family of her husband, activist and filmmaker Adam Shapiro is Jewish–along with many other forms of racial and ethnic animus in this country, and that she will work to combat all hatred.

At the same time, she does not see a need to moderate her views on Israel or to reach out the American Jewish community, especially to the organizations or leaders on the more mainstream left, where there would otherwise be significant alignment policy-wise. Arraf’s view is that it is not up to Palestinians to demonstrate that they deserve the full rights they are entitled to as human beings. Thus, her concern with building bridges to American Jewish groups that remain focused on the two-state solution is that they continue to be rooted in an approach that will only further marginalize Palestinians, both those who are citizens of Israel, like she and her family, and in a Palestine that cannot be fully realized. Unless there is action against decolonization and toward justice, there will be no meaningful peace. 

In the end, for Arraf, it is about much more than decrying and working against settlements. Peace will only come when the system that privileges the rights of Jewish Israelis over everyone else is ended. In Arraf’s experience, millions of American Jews stand up for just this kind of equality in every other situation, but most continue to apply a different lens to Israel. 

Where Will the American Jewish Left Stand When the Right Attacks? 

The question, then, is will that different stance also apply to Arraf’s candidacy when the attacks inevitably continue and escalate, likely to include further charges of anti-Semitism or support for terrorism?

And as is often the case, the burden will then fall to the American Jewish community to weigh in and even “decide.” That may not be fair or appropriate, and as Huwaida Arraf herself has made clear, not an opinion she is particularly focused on seeking out. She is clear in who she is and what she stands for. 

But I would argue that it does matter for the American Jewish community, especially on the mainstream left. For a community that continues to wrestle with Zionism, with how the likes of former President Trump and evangelicals continue to try to define what “pro-Israel” means (often with is own version of anti-Semitism), with what to think about Israel at all, and with how views on Israel can square with progressive domestic policy views, there remains a real question about if, whether, and how the mainstream left would defend a candidate whose domestic and foreign policy views quite clearly align. 

Huwaida Arraf is not, of course, the first Palestinian-American woman candidate nor the first to hold policy views like those she expresses related to apartheid, Israeli colonialism, BDS, and the need to move past a two-state solution. But she is still among a very small minority, and the first to have a documented background and history of directly confronting and fighting against Israeli policies on the ground, especially doing so as a citizen of both the United States and Israel. Ilhan Omar, AOC, and Rashida Tlaib have presented versions of this question in the last several years, but never quite like the one that will emerge with Huwaida Arraf.

That will leave the community with a choice: support and defend a candidate whose views, as she expressed throughout the interview, align with most policy positions on domestic and foreign policy during what will be an utterly crucial Midterm Elections cycle, where any and every seat will be critical to a Democratic Party that looks like it could face significant losses? 

Or, because of her opposition to the two-state solution and more direct criticism of/actions against Israel, though not a feature of her platform, remain more or less silent, and allow her views on Israel to be defined, at least within the Jewish community and perhaps more broadly, by the right?

Huwaida Arraf herself may not necessarily care, and neither may her opponents (though it’s likely they’ll go there, at some point) or the voters of her district. But this could be one aspect of the most critical, decisive–and divisive–questions for the American Jewish community itself in the 2022 Midterm cycle. 

Is the community up to the challenge?

* Note: the author has known Ms. Arraf and her husband for many years.

** Note: the article was revised from the original based on the redrawn Michigan congressional district map.

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