Israel’s Decision to Bar Entry to U.S. Congresswomen

(Courtesy: Flickr)

What Happened?

On August 15, Israel’s Interior Minister Arye Deri announced that Israel would bar entry to U.S. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib due to their BDS support and planned independent trip run by the anti-Semitic group Miftah. PM Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed this decision. The two congresswomen were planning a visit to Israel that Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, had assured would take place. However, U.S. President Donald Trump then tweeted that Israel’s letting the two women into the country would “show great weakness.” Following that tweet, Prime Minister Netanyahu denied them entry. Debates raged about the wisdom of this decision. 

The story does not end there. Tlaib subsequently requested permission to visit her grandmother, who lives in the West Bank, with the promise of a politics-free visit; Israel granted her request, but Tlaib chose to cancel her trip, saying she would not “bow down to their [Israel’s] oppressive and racist policies.” Deri (perhaps riffing off of Golda Meir) replied that “Her hatred for Israel is greater than her love for her grandmother.”

In the aftermath of all this, President Donald Trump declared: “any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”

Why Does This Matter?

1. Bipartisanship – A key aspect of the Israel-U.S. relationship is that it is supposed to transcend partisan lines. To varying degrees and perspectives, U.S. support for Israel has remained consistent under both Democratic and Republican presidents. While many people in Jewish communities love President Trump for his proactive support for Israel, some worry that Trump is turning Israel into a partisan issue, and that Netanyahu is stepping into a dangerous trap that could harm future Israel-U.S. relations. Indeed, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to assure her, and Americans at large, that Israel-U.S. ties “are not dependent on the relationship with one particular party.”

2. Jewish “loyalty” – In the aftermath of these events, Trump used a trope all too familiar to Jews when he stated: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat — I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Questioning Jewish loyalty (regardless if he meant to Israel or the Jewish people) hits a sensitive spot for many Jews, who, as a group, have a long-standing history of questioned loyalty (though usually to their host country, while Trump is questioning loyalty to Israel and the Jewish people). Let’s remember that it is not just President Trump who is guilty of this. Congresswoman Omar invoked the issue of Jewish loyalty back in March shortly after claiming that America’s Israel support is “All about the Benjamins.” AJC CEO David Harris responded to Trump’s statement: “This is a free country. Jews aren’t a monolithic bloc, nor single-issue voters. Some will vote Democratic, others Republican. As Americans, that’s their right. Please keep loyalty out of it.” 

3. Politics, politics, politics – As our friends at Makom pointed out, “All four politicians involved in this situation have come away with a win for their domestic constituencies.” How so? 

  1. Omar and Tlaib showed that Israel is a “secretive oppressive regime” without even stepping foot there. 
  2. Trump managed to place Israel on the “list of wedge issues to divide the Democratic vote.”
  3. Netanyahu demonstrated that he is “strong against Israel’s enemies, and a friend of America’s President, in the lead-up to the elections.” 

While all four politicians secured their own current agendas, time will tell what long-term impact, if any, this episode will have.

Diversity of Perspectives within Israel

Let’s go beyond the American Jewish perspectives and understand how Israeli leaders feel about this incident.

Some supported: Likud MK – and former Jerusalem mayor – Nir Barkat supported the move. He stated: “Instead of striving for peace and coexistence between Jews and Arabs, you have chosen a policy of hatred and boycott. With attitudes like those, you will never be welcomed here.” Former MK Einat Wilf supported the decision to ban Omar and Tlaib in principle, although she lamented that it came not from a place of principle but of “response to external pressure.”

Some disagreed: Netanyahu’s main political rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, criticized Netanyahu and said, “The decision to refuse entry to Israel caused damage internationally… The decision to refuse their entry… Not only goes against our national interest, but also fuels the BDS movement.” Politicians more to the left of the spectrum criticized the decision as well. 

Two leading American-Israeli authors and lecturers issued strong statements: Yossi Klein Halevi criticized Netanyahu’s damage to bipartisan support for Israel, “a precondition for a thriving American-Israeli relationship.” By barring these congresswomen, he argues, “Netanyahu did not weaken our enemies; he humiliated our friends.” Daniel Gordis maintains that Netanyahu made an unwise, short-sighted decision here, but that this particular moment will blow over. What will remain is the relationship, which he argues needs dialogue and a maintained connection, rather than disengagement. He reminds us that Israel’s purpose was to save the Jewish people: “Could we perhaps first acknowledge that, so that even when we are appalled, we remain deeply committed, even reverent, of all that Zionism has wrought? We need to learn to do that, for the alternative is a rupture in our people from which we might never recover.”

American-Israeli journalist Caroline Glick argues that the true sufferers from the BDS movement are not, in fact, Israelis but American Jews. She maintains that the movement’s goal is “to silence them as a political force in America” and further remonstrates, “by attacking Trump, the main politician supporting them, while giving a free pass to the Democrats who are facilitating discrimination against them, American Jews are disenfranchising themselves.”  

Israeli journalist and Israel Prize winner Yaakov Ahimeir argues that all things considered, Netanyahu couldn’t have acted differently. He explains: “Netanyahu’s personal relationship with President Trump is arguably the most significant national political asset Netanyahu possesses for Israel.”