By Laura Ben-David
TEKO’A, WEST BANK — When Israel announced that it would be banning lawmakers Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from visiting Israel, it caused a huge debate to erupt in the Jewish community for all sorts of reasons.
Supporters of the ban argue that if someone denies your right to exist — as Tlaib and Omar do through their support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel — then why would you let them into your house? Those who oppose the ban say that it is undemocratic or simply wrong to ban elected officials of our number one ally.
So what is the right course of action for Israel to take? Social media has been teeming with concerns and possibilities, with Israelis and American Jews sharing their opinions as if they were going to be taken into account.
Some of the details of the planned trip were disturbing at best: The fact that lawmakers were planning a trip to “Palestine” and didn’t even mention visiting “Israel”; the fact that Tlaib and Omar are BDS supporters and, in essence, deny Israel’s right to exist; the reality that they were going to be avoiding all of the usual meetings, visits and simple diplomatic pleasantries that an elected official would typically take part in.
Those who suggested Tlaib and Omar should come, but under some sort of controlled circumstances that included showing them what Israel is really about, quickly realized that this wasn’t going to happen once they read through the list of destinations.
Their planned visit to the Temple Mount could have sparked violence, bringing back alarming memories of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon‘s ill-advised visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 and the “spontaneous” eruption of rioting that tipped off the Second Intifada.
What good can come from allowing them in? We know there is no debating Tlaib and Omar. Their views have been set in stone for a long time, and we’re unlikely to change them. But what about their supporters? Even more so, would the trip show a new side of the conflict to those watching on the sidelines who are not quite sure what to think?
Until recently, I felt strongly that Israel should permit Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to enter the country and see Israel for what it is. I wish we actually had a chance of giving them a balanced experience.
But they clearly have an agenda, and frankly, the whole trip was just a public relations stunt.
If we couldn’t win no matter what we do, why give them this opportunity which we know they will be using to harm us?
I’ll admit that it was personally very satisfying to see the news that they were banned. After all, Israel has a law that allows it to bar BDS activists from entering.
But this isn’t about me. Was it the best thing for Israel? In truth, there was something I’d missed: Politics at the highest level.
President Trump had very strong opinions about the two Congress members’ proposed visit, and made them known on Twitter, of course: “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!”
And later: “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!”
For me, this changed everything.
Under normal conditions, if the leader of an allied nation told an ally to ban certain members of his own government for being known subversives, that would be something valid to consider.
Indeed, there are extremists on the far right and the far left in Israel’s political arena who most Israelis would be happy to tell the United States to ban — and a few are indeed barred from entering the country.
But unfortunately, there’s nothing normal about the state of America’s relationship with its tweeter-in-chief.
Trump did two things which changed my view completely: He supposedly pressured Netanyahu to bar Tlaib and Omar, though Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, denies this.
And Trump made the whole visit a partisan issue. Whatever legitimate weight we may have had on the side of barring them has been crushed under the terrible damage and toxic effects of Trump’s verbal onslaught.
Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee came out against the move:“We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand,” AIPAC said in a statement.
Yes, Reps. Omar and Tlaib should be able to visit and experience Israel firsthand. But would they have? There was no pretense. They were going to visit “Palestine.”
There was certainly no winning here. We truly were stuck between a rock and a hard place. But rather than allow ourselves to be turned into a political football, perhaps we would have stood to lose less by just gritting our teeth and letting them in. n
Laura Ben-David is a photographer, public speaker and Israel advocate.
—JTA News and Features