On Thursday, news broke that the Israeli government would probably prohibit both Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Somali American refugee turned congresswoman and another frequent target of right-wing attacks, from visiting Israel on a trip scheduled to start this weekend. Israeli authorities justified the decision because of Tlaib and Omar’s stated support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel and its West Bank settlements. But the move appeared to contradict Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer’s insistence last month that the two congresswomen would be allowed to enter Israel “out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”
(On Friday, after a firestorm of criticism, Israel did another about face and announced it accepted a petition from Tlaib on “humanitarian grounds” to visit her grandmother in the West Bank, contingent on a pledge that she not promote BDS activities on the trip.)
What changed their mind? Almost certainly Trump. In private and public, the president urged Israel to bar Tlaib and Omar. He has repeatedly focused the brunt of his political attacks on the two freshman congresswomen — the only two female Muslim lawmakers in Congress — and some of their left-leaning colleagues. It’s part of a now-clear campaign strategy to tap into America’s simmering racial divisions and whip up his hard-line base. On Thursday, Trump tweeted with no real evidence that the two women “hate Israel & all Jewish people.”
Tlaib and Omar are outspoken progressives. In their rhetoric about Israel, they have unabashedly prioritized Palestinian human rights. In Omar’s case, a few of her attacks on the Israeli lobby in Washington invoked anti-Semitic tropes (a charge also leveled under different circumstances at Trump and other GOP politicians). But the routine vitriol hurled at both her and Tlaib by Trump, other Republican officials and the broader right-wing media ecosystem is marked by misinformation, cynical misreadings and thinly veiled bigotry.
Across the political spectrum, Jewish American organizations that focus on Israel policy raised objections to the initial ban on Omar and Tlaib. “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,” tweeted the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an organization criticized by Omar. “We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, said the move was motivated by “politics and ideology — not by the interests of the State of Israel.” And Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a leftist organization, said in a statement that the ban was a "perfect illustration of Israel’s racist apartheid policies in practice.”
Israel and its right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have had fewer qualms welcoming other controversial political figures. Under Netanyahu’s watch, a parade of far-right and ethno-nationalist leaders have visited Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The perceived anti-Semitism driving the illiberal politics of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban posed no obstacle to a cuddly alliance with Netanyahu. Italy’s Matteo Salvini and his political allies may celebrate fascist leaders and Nazi-era collaborators, but that was no impediment to a warm welcome in Israel. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines actively style themselves as bloodthirsty would-be strongmen, but they were feted in the country that brands itself as the Middle East’s “only democracy.”
Netanyahu’s openness to nationalist, illiberal politicians is shared by Trump and, increasingly, the Republican Party. Trump, with his incessant grandstanding over his love of Israel, may anchor himself in the long bipartisan U.S. history of support for the Jewish state. But he’s also acting out a distinct right-wing agenda that is only partially about the religious zeal of his evangelical Christian base.
Republicans “conflate love of Israel with love of America because they see Israel as a model for what they want America to be: An ethnic democracy,” Peter Beinart wrote in the Forward. “Israel is a Jewish state. Trump and many of his allies want America to be a white, Judeo-Christian state. Israel, despite its free elections and parliamentary institutions, structurally privileges one ethnic and religious group over others. That’s what many Republicans want here.” When Trump began lobbying for a wall on the Mexican border, Netanyahu cheered from thousands of miles away, tweeting about the success of such barriers in Israel; when Netanyahu controversially moved to mass-deport asylum seekers, far-right U.S. pundits hailed his defense of Israel’s ethnic character.
For decades, U.S. and Israeli officials have talked about the “shared values” between the two countries. But the clash over Omar and Tlaib’s trip, said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, highlights “a real, profound divide” over what those values are. “Are they the values of nativism, Islamophobia, discrimination,” Munayyer told Today’s WorldView, “or are these values about equality, pluralism and anti-discrimination?”
That’s a question that’s gaining more and more traction within the Democratic Party, where even the most pro-Israeli lawmaker is getting exasperated with Netanyahu’s nakedly partisan approach to U.S. politics. Netanyahu and Trump have leaned on each other, and the Israeli prime minister will once more tout his close relationship with the current occupant of the White House as he seeks reelection in September. His need to keep Trump on his side probably motivated his government’s decision to reverse its plans and block the two Democratic lawmakers.
“Trump’s racism and Netanyahu’s dependency have brought us to this point: Israel is showing disrespect to the U.S. Congress and looking afraid to engage Americans who disagree with them,” wrote Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “Together, they have produced deep alienation among some of Israel’s closest friends in the Democratic Party, like House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, who led a large delegation to Israel just last week. They have provoked deservedly harsh criticism of Israel’s decision from progressive and minority Democratic constituencies, the rising American majority. And they have elevated Tlaib and Omar into heroes.”
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