Let Omar and Tlaib in!

Where to begin? Perhaps I would begin at the beginning of my relationship with Israel — the state, the land, the people. I grew up in your average nominally Conservative Jewish family. We went to shul on High Holidays, had two seders for Passover and lit Hanukkah candles. That’s about it. I went to Hebrew school and quit after my bar mitzvah. There was virtually no Zionism in my nuclear family.

I was also what one might call a “troubled teenager” growing up in the late 60s. The only advantage I had was that I knew it, and, to paraphrase Cat Stevens, I knew I had to go away. So it was either a commune in Arizona or a commune in Israel, and since I wasn’t quite prepared for total alienation from my parents, I wisely chose a commune in Israel.

Without going into all of the details, everything that I am today — both personally and professionally — was determined by what turned out to be a two-year stint in Israel. This began in 1970, when Israel was only 22 years old. It was still something of a frontier state; young, vibrant, idealistic.

I was a kibbutznik, a halutz, a pioneer. I traipsed barefoot and shirtless through date palms that were armed with thorns the size of swords, picking dates in the 120-degree temperature of August at Ein Gedi along the Dead Sea; and I loved it! I had Shabbat dinner with an aging David Ben Gurion on Kibbutz Sde Boker, which he helped to found. I dug ditches for foundations of apartment complexes in Eilat.

Of course, Israel has changed a great deal since then. It’s no longer a frontier state, but a world-class high-tech bastion. Some of those changes are for the better. Israelis are generally more affluent, though there is a problem of income inequality as there is in the US. The shuk at Mahane Yehudah in Jerusalem is now filled with boutique bars and restaurants instead of the stench of rotting vegetables. Heck, even the shuk in the Old City of Jerusalem smells only of Mediterranean spices and not of reeking rotting meat. The butchers and fish mongers have discovered refrigeration and chipped ice.

There is still something magical for me about this Jewish state. I feel it the instant the airplane I’m in crosses the coastline. I love the fact that I can walk into most restaurants and know that I’m eating kosher meat. I love that Shabbat is Shabbat, even for the most secular of Israelis. I loved the fact that when I was there in March of 2003 and walked into the kanyon in Jerusalem, there were bins loaded with oznei haman/human taschen instead of Easter eggs and marshmallow chicks.

But the changes have not all been all positive. The lurch toward an anti-democratic, ethno-nationalist, oppressive political system increases in tandem with similar trends here in the US and around the world. The so-called “Jewish-State Law” is an abomination, and the thought of allowing the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court rulings, not to mention annexation of parts of the West Bank makes me cringe.

But the barring of US members of Congress Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering Israel is in an entirely different category. It is not even necessary to go into the back-and-forth bickering over their alleged anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments. In this instance, that is all background noise. The only people who have the right to determine their legitimacy are the voters in their congressional districts. They are representatives in the Congress of the United States, a Congress that allocates $4 billion dollars a year to Israel. They have the right to visit the country that receives that largesse — period!

Yes, Israel is still a democracy, and Israel has the right to pass any legislation it wishes. The US is also still a democracy and can also pass any legislation it wishes. I would propose the following legislation: no country that receives allocations from the Congress of the United States may bar from entering it members of that same Congress that allocates that largess — period!

About the Author
Richard Lederman holds a BA in Religion from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature from the Annenberg Research Institute, now the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. After nearly 30 years as a Jewish communal professional, Lederman now serves as adjunct professor in the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. He blogs at www.thereligioushumanist.com.
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