I watched with unease last week as the Israeli government fumbled its response to plans by Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., to visit Israel and the territories.
When the two announced their trip last month, everyone knew that their purpose was not to gain a deeper understanding of the policies of the Israeli government. Nonetheless, Israel’s U.S. Ambassador, Ron Dermer, issued a diplomatically worded welcome: “Out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel.”
That’s where things should have ended. But last Thursday, Israel announced that the legislators were no longer welcome, declaring that their announced itinerary “reveals that the sole purpose of their visit is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it,” referring also to their support of the boycott, divestments and sanctions movement, and Israel’s prohibition on allowing BDS advocates to enter the country.
So what changed after the upbeat Dermer statement? Many observers pointed to a tweet from President Donald Trump, which warned, “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit.” Almost immediately thereafter, Israel announced the ban.
It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 15, 2019
But whether Trump’s tweet had anything to do with the ban is unclear, especially following media reports of the congresswomen’s scheduled itinerary while in Israel, and a revelation of the insidious anti-Semitism of the group that was sponsoring their trip, Miftah, an organization that has praised suicide bombers and once published an article, since retracted, that promoted the “blood libel” doctrine, claiming that “Jews used the blood of Christians in the Jewish Passover.”
Moreover, although Omar said that she planned to meet with some Knesset members prior to being joined on the trip by Tlaib, the congresswomen’s joint itinerary did not include meetings with any Israeli officials. Rather, the trip centered on visits to the Palestinian territories and meetings with Palestinian nonprofits and activists.
The decision of Israel to refuse admittance to Tlaib and Omar angered many of Israel’s Democratic friends, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who called it “a sign of weakness.” Many mainstream Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, Jewish Federations of North America and American Jewish Committee were also critical.
It is true that Israel made a mistake in changing course and banning two American legislators from visiting. But it’s also true that the barrage of criticism Israel has faced in the wake of its decision has gone overboard and is off-target.
When Israel announced it would permit a visit from Tlaib on “humanitarian grounds” so that she could visit her aging grandmother, she quickly decided she wasn’t coming after all. Although in a letter she had agreed to refrain from BDS activity if only she could visit her grandmother, the congresswoman had a curious change of heart, claiming that to refrain from BDS activities would be “oppressive.”
Both Omar and Tlaib have moved far beyond mere criticism of the Israeli government, teetering on the edge of anti-Semitism. On Aug. 16, the two shared a cartoon on Instagram by a cartoonist who placed second in Iran’s 2006 Holocaust cartoon contest. The cartoon depicts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump silencing Omar and Tlaib, with a Star of David prominently placed in the center of the cartoon.
Omar could not even muster condemnation of the Palestinian Authority for its recent ban of LGBTQ activities without trying to make it about Israel. Earlier this week, she tweeted: “Pretending that this act somehow balances or mitigates Israel violating the dignity & rights of Palestinians — or undermines case for defending Palestinian rights — is deplorable!”
Pretending that this act somehow balances or mitigates Israel violating the dignity & rights of Palestinians – or undermines case for defending Palestinian rights – is deplorable! https://t.co/ISzkNXT3eL
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) August 19, 2019
And both congresswomen have suggested that cutting U.S. financial aid to the Jewish state might be an appropriate response to their ban.
Israel’s first response to the trip — allowing Omar and Tlaib into the country — made sense. Members of the U.S. Congress, regardless of their political views, should be welcome to visit the Jewish state. That’s part of the price for America’s decades-long bipartisan support for Israel. Although the context in which the Jewish state made its decision is critical in understanding what was really going on here, the fallout has simply amplified the voices of these anti-Israel representatives.
Israel was faced with two bad choices. The one it chose was the worse of the two — but not by a lot.
Toby Tabachnick is a senior staff writer at the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.