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Mr. Prime Minister, you taught Minnesotans a lesson on Israel they won’t forget

Most of my fellow Minnesotans know very little about Israel; now, they know one thing, and it’s not a good thing
Reps. Rashida Tlaib, left, and Ilhan Omar at a rally with Democrats in the Capitol, March 13, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images, via JTA)
Reps. Rashida Tlaib, left, and Ilhan Omar at a rally with Democrats in the Capitol, March 13, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images, via JTA)

There will be no shortage of statements and op-eds excoriating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the decision to bar Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering Israel.

David Horovitz, The Times of Israel’s founding editor, bemoans Israel’s abandonment of the diplomatic field. “Closing our doors to these pernicious critics gives them a clear victory and denies us the opportunity to even make our case… as Netanyahu should know best of all,” he wrote.

Jonathan Tobin, editor-in-chief of Jewish News Syndicate (JNS), wrote, “Banning members of Congress, even anti-Semitic BDS supporters, from entering the country is a grave mistake that will only help Israel’s foes.”

Yossi Klein Halevi, recounting his warm and candid meeting with 41 freshman Democratic members of Congress visiting Israel last week, laments, “No prime minister has done greater damage to bi-partisan support for Israel, a precondition for a thriving American-Israeli relationship. In barring a minor politician from entering Israel, Netanyahu did not weaken our enemies; he humiliated our friends.”

Understanding the impact of this event requires a wide variety of perspectives. Organizations like AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee provide one important voice.

My perspective is different. It comes from the work that my JCRC colleagues and I do every day in classrooms, churches, and civic groups throughout our community.

This is our front line.

We will speak to over 500 audiences about Israel this year. Most of our fellow Minnesotans know very little about Israel. Now, thanks to the decision to bar Reps. Omar and Tlaib, they will all know one thing about Israel, and it’s not a good thing.

Reps. Omar and Tlaib are polarizing and controversial figures. Their animus toward Israel is well known. Nonetheless, barring duly elected lawmakers from visiting an ally will not sit well with fair-minded Minnesotans, and probably many others.

Last year, when Israel’s Nation State Law was passed, I likened it to a runaway marlin that once dragged my husband and kids into dangerous waters. Barring Omar and Tlaib is like the runaway marlin on steroids. There will be no end to its damage.

To those in the Israeli government that drove this decision — against the wise counsel of your own ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer — I have a few questions:

*Is this the frame for the conversation you want us to be having with people who are interested enough to invite us in?

*Is this the damage you want us to spend our precious time undoing?

*Why can’t a nation as strong as Israel, which thrives in one of the most dangerous regions in the world, survive a visit by two strident critics for a couple of days?

We realize that Israel was faced with two lousy choices: to let them in, knowing their goals were likely to paint Israel in the worst possible light, or keep them out and suffer the criticisms which have befallen Israel from the left, center, and right.

But, as my JCRC colleagues wrote,”[h]ad Congresswomen Omar and Tlaib been allowed to visit, the onus would have been on them to either experience Israel in all of its complexity, including its robust ideological, ethnic, and religious diversity, or simply seek out experiences which reinforced their negative preconceptions.”

By keeping them out, Israel has served up a PR grand slam that the Congresswomen and their ideological allies will hit out of the park, again and again. A partial reversal of the ban, allowing Tlaib to visit her grandmother in the West Bank (she declined), will not mitigate Israel’s self-inflicted wound.

This issue will be the elephant in the classroom, church, and civic group for a long time to come.

You just taught our fellow Minnesotans (and others) a lesson that, try as we might, we may never be able to unteach.

We know that Israel has nothing to hide, but today that feels like a very tough sell.

With appreciation to my JCRC colleagues, Holly Brod Farber and Ethan Roberts, for their contributions to this piece.

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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