If the word democracy has meaning and the claim to be democratic has important value, Israel made a mistake in its response to the prospective visit of two young Congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, this past week. Israel is a small but powerful state but is surely strong enough to have withstood the criticism and bad publicity that would have been stirred during a visit by these two prominent advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and opponents of U.S. aid to Israel.
Indeed, Israel initially announced it would permit entry, said Ambassador Ron Dermer, affirming that the country was open to all visitors from the U.S. Congress and was implicitly tolerant of criticism. But, then, following a tweet by President Trump, goading Israel that such tolerance would show “great weakness,” Prime Minister Netanyahu abruptly altered Israel’s stance and barred the women, citing a security rationale. In turning the two U.S. visitors into free speech martyrs, and annoying many friends of Israel in the U.S. Congress, including a good number who had recently voted for a strong anti-BDS resolution in the House, Israel scored an own goal to the benefit of its detractors.
No less than Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, called the situation surrounding a visit by Omar and Tlaib a “lose-lose proposition” for Israel but openly lamented that Israel mishandled it. There could have been a more intelligent and careful response, Oren said on CNN, including insistence on an altered itinerary, involving visits to the Knesset and to Yad Vashem alongside the planned visits to the West Bank. The onus for refusing entry under such conditions, Oren thought, could and would have been shifted to the visitors.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), normally a strong supporter of Israel, distanced itself from Israel’s action. It stated its disagreement with Representatives Omar and Tlaib in their support for BDS but also argued that every member of Congress should be able to visit. The head of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, too, noted that “Israel did not choose wisely,” worrying the cost of snubbing members of Congress might prove higher in the long run than if they had been admitted.
Numerous writers knowledgeable about Jewish affairs similarly criticized Israel’s response. Jonathan S. Tobin, as one example, called it “a terrible mistake” that would “only hurt Israel and help its enemies.” The Congresswomen sought to conduct a circus-like tour of Palestine accompanied by journalists aimed at one-sidedly smearing Israel as an oppressor; but by reneging on the initial promise to permit entry and hurting the country’s image as a free and open democracy, Israel’s action worked to assist her enemies. Said Tobin: “their exclusion made the region’s only democracy seem like just another petty tyranny” and “helped Israel’s foes more than it hurt them.”
But criticism of Israel’s mistake and of the careless willingness of its Prime Minister to play into the hands of Israel’s enemies carries with it a danger of simultaneously misapprehending the true character and agenda of these two Congresswomen and the nature of their political project. First, these actors have behaved with notable deceit from the outset. Before she was elected to Congress from the 5th district in Minnesota, covering Minneapolis and its nearby suburbs, Omar said in a primary appearance at a synagogue that she did not support BDS as it was “not helpful” in obtaining a “two-state solution.” As soon as she won the primary, she revealed to the contrary that she supported BDS, and since then she has actively spoken on behalf of BDS in the House and introduced legislation defending the movement to delegitimize Israel. Rashida Tlaib also before she was elected to Congress from the 13th district in Michigan, covering the western half of Detroit and nearby suburbs, said in the primary she was for a two-state solution and favored continued U.S. aid to Israel. But after she narrowly won her primary victory, defeating others in a multi-candidate race with less than a third of the vote, she announced she supported BDS and favored a one-state solution and an end to U.S. aid to Israel.
Second, although concern for Palestinian rights is a worthy commitment, especially when linked with support for negotiations and the creation of two states for two peoples, each of the Congresswomen has also flirted with expressing antisemitic sentiments on different occasions and addressed the Israel-Palestine conflict in sharply one-sided ways. Ilhan Omar has criticized the existence of an alleged lobby which owes its allegiance to a foreign power and attacked supposed “political influence … that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” At one point, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others identified Omar’s comments as “deeply offensive” and called her out to apologize. In response, Omar offered that “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” implying a Jewish lobby was buying influence and conspiring to pull unseen strings behind the scenes. Omar has indeed apologized when called out, but the pattern has been recurring and the learning curve quite steep. Rashida Tlaib, who has been less overtly antisemitic, has nonetheless openly characterized colleagues opposing the BDS movement as “having forgotten the country they represent.” She has also shown a worrisome pattern of associating with individuals who have embraced Holocaust denial, called members of Congress agents of a foreign power, and asserted that Israel’s existence is a crime. Tlaib speaks out for the BDS movement and favors creation of a single Palestinian majority (replacement) state.
Third, the non-governmental organization that was to have assisted the two Representatives, Miftah, which tabs itself “the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy,” favors “a sovereign, independent, democratic, tolerant, and inclusive Palestinian state.” But Miftah is notably silent on by what strategy such a vision is to be achieved – Israeli-Palestinian negotiation of a two-state solution or the creation of a single state. Miftah works to support women and youth in the West Bank, but embraces BDS, which opposes “normalization” involving dialogue or any negotiation whatsoever.
So there was truly much to worry about that these two bait-and-switch characters pressing the BDS agenda and insisting that Israel is a pariah state among nations and its existence an injustice would use their visit to condemn Israel and deride its policies toward the Palestinians. Again, though, there were ways for Israel to live with, minimize, blunt, or counter the impact of such an effort short of shutting the visitors out entirely.
The controversy persists, with Omar and Tlaib continuing to beat Israel and inject BDS claims into public discussion. Tlaib openly campaigns for a one-state solution and reconsideration of U.S. aid to Israel, even though she has less than full grip on her district where her mostly black constituents prefer that she pay greater attention to the district’s needs. Omar says she will push an effort in Congress to diminish aid to Israel. “We give Israel more than $3 billion in aid every year. This is predicated on their being an important ally in the region and the only democracy in the Middle East, but denying visi to duly elected members of Congress is not consistent with being an ally.” In truth, the proposed visit was shaped without any true interest in exploration and dialogue or any serious devotion to finding a path to peace. Those who care about democratic values must condemn Israel’s action but also recognize Omar and Tlaib as the dishonest poseurs and anti-democrats they are.