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In Rep. Rashida Tlaib's district, the Israel-Hamas war is having ripple effects

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Michigan's 12th Congressional District, some of the state's largest Jewish and Muslim communities have personally felt ripples from the Israel-Hamas war. That has led members of both groups to put sometimes conflicting pressure on elected leaders. Colin Jackson of the Michigan Public Radio Network reports.

COLIN JACKSON, BYLINE: When driving north on the freeway coming from Detroit, you may notice Congregation Shaarey Zedek - a synagogue in the suburb of Southfield - out the window. It's where Rabbi Aaron Starr hosted several of Michigan's political leaders for a healing moment after the October 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel. Some 1,200 people were killed in that assault, and Hamas militants continue to hold hostages.

AARON STARR: There was so much leadership that really was speaking out about Israel's right to defend itself and our need to protect Jews everywhere around the world, that Jews shouldn't have to live in fear.

JACKSON: One leader who did not attend the gathering was Starr's own congresswoman, Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib. Starr says he reached out to her office following the October 7 attack. Several weeks later, he says they had a polite conversation. But he thinks Tlaib's remarks around Israel's response have been divisive.

STARR: No one that I'm aware of in the Jewish community, at least none of the Jewish leaders, claim that Israel is perfect. But we do think that Israel has a right to defend itself. And I would love to engage in conversation with the congresswoman on a deeper level.

JACKSON: Tlaib's leaves office did not grant requests for an interview with NPR. Last November, the GOP-led House censured her for using rhetoric critics described as hateful. They pointed in part to a video Tlaib posted on social media that included protesters using a portion of the chant - from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. She later defended the phrase - from the river to the sea - as a, quote, "aspirational call for freedom." Others consider it an antisemitic call for the elimination of Israel and removal of Jews. Speaking on the House floor before that censure vote, Tlaib said critics were distorting her words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RASHIDA TLAIB: No government is beyond criticism. The idea that criticizing the government of Israel is antisemitic sets a very dangerous precedent, and it's been used to silence diverse voices speaking up for human rights across our nation.

JACKSON: Tlaib, the only Palestinian American serving in Congress, pointed to her own ties to the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TLAIB: We are human beings (crying) just like anyone else. My sity, my grandmother, like all Palestinians, just wants to live her life with freedom and human dignity we all deserve.

JACKSON: Israel's counteroffensive into Palestinian territories has killed more than 28,000 people. That's according to Gaza health officials, who say most of the dead are women and children. Tlaib is calling for a cease-fire, but Starr argues that would allow Hamas to continue endangering Israelis. Drive about 30 minutes away from Starr's synagogue to a different part of the district, you'll find Dearborn, a largely Muslim Detroit suburb where many residents do want a cease-fire.

SAMRAA LUQMAN: I mean, in order for us American Muslims to feel like we are being heard, we want to see elected officials respond in a way that's moral and just.

JACKSON: Community organizer Samraa Luqman wants her elected leaders to show solidarity with the people of Gaza. Over 85% of its population has been displaced during Israel's retaliation - that's according to Human Rights Watch. President Biden's administration is trying to negotiate another pause in fighting. That pause would be tied to Hamas releasing hostages and humanitarian aid entering Gaza. In the U.S., all of this comes against the backdrop of an election year.

LUQMAN: It's a lost opportunity for any candidate if you don't take the moral high ground and solicit us for votes. This is - we're going to vote in a bloc this time, and it's going to be with Palestine.

JACKSON: Calls for political action are playing out in Michigan's presidential primary election. This weekend, Tlaib encouraged residents to vote uncommitted on their Democratic Party ballot, rather than for Biden. It's part of a statewide campaign called Listen to Michigan that's urging voters to use the primary to push for a change in Biden's policy toward Israel and Gaza. Early voting has already begun. The primary is next Tuesday. For NPR News, I'm Colin Jackson in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Colin Jackson