Michigan Primary: Palestinian-American Huwaida Arraf's platform puts human rights front and centre
Huwaida Arraf, daughter of Palestinian immigrants and later a founder of the Palestine-focused International Solidarity Movement, grew up in Michigan at a time when a basic salary was enough to take care of a large family like hers.
If elected to US Congress, which would make her one of the very few Palestinian Americans elected to the House, she says she hopes to help enact policies that would give Americans the same kinds of opportunities afforded to her family when she was growing up. She believes her time advocating human rights in Palestine could be an asset for the work she hopes to do in US politics.
“I am a long-time human rights activist and a civil rights lawyer, so I’ve been involved in standing up for people’s rights for most of my adult life, and I see this as an extension of that work,” she tells The New Arab in an interview.
“Because we fight in the streets and organise and fight in the courtroom. We have to be fighting at the ballot box, sending people to make laws that centre people and that uplift human rights and civil rights.”
On the eve of the election on Tuesday, her opponent Carl Marlinga is leading the crowded race in Michigan’s 10th District, which opened up this year due to redistricting following the 2020 census. Marlinga is in his seventies and leans conservative for a Democratic, which could give Arraf another opening in the future at the seat should he retire in the next few years, if she doesn’t succeed this time. For now, she appears to be fighting until the very end.
It might seem daunting for a Palestinian human rights activist to be running for Congress, given the traditionally strong favour in US foreign policy toward Israel. But Arraf sees that changing, as a growing number of progressives in the House are openly speaking out about Palestinian civil and human rights. Moreover, her district has a large Arab contingency that would likely support a more nuanced foreign policy in the Middle East.
Her entry into politics comes at a time when support for Palestinian human rights is becoming increasingly common, though not yet the norm, in the Democratic Party. In just the past couple of months, members of Congress have advocated for a full investigation into the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh; more than 20 members have asked the Biden administration to push Israel to reverse its terrorist designations of Palestinian NGOs; and some are even outspoken advocates of the BDS movement.
Arraf says she dislikes labels, preferring not to call herself a progressive, which is understandable in a swing district in a swing state. There are currently 13 congressional districts in Michigan (which lost a district after the 2020 census due to a loss in population). Six are solidly blue and six are solidly red, while Arraf’s home of district 10 is about a 50-50 split between the two parties, making running for office a delicate balance. In some cases, she has been able to win over Republican voters by focusing on issues rather than party affiliation, a case for taking party labels out of the equation.
“Even if you look at my website, or if you look at my printed material, I don’t even say I’m a Democrat or running as a Democrat, which I am,” she says. “And I’m not shying away from that. But sometimes it’s a conversation stopper because we’ve become so hyperpolarised.”
She is adamant that human rights should be at the centre of US policy. This goes for foreign policy in the Middle East relating to weapons sales, aid and crackdowns on democracy advocates; as well as domestic policy on the environment, fair wages, affordable housing, and accessible healthcare.
She sees her work in Palestine as an asset for getting into politics in the US, both of which relate to rights and basic dignity.
“I think that it very much fits, because it’s all about protecting people’s rights,” she says. “It is uplifting working families, making sure people’s human rights and civil rights are respected.
“The work that I’ve done in Palestine and other places will make me that much more of an advocate. People know I’m not afraid to stand up for their rights. I will not be bought, I will not cower. My work in Palestine is an asset for what needs to be done here.”