Will Israel’s treatment of Omar and Tlaib finally wake Democrats up?

Now that Israel has banned entry to Democratic Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, will Democrats affirm the right to boycott and hold Israel’s feet to the fire? Five takeaways.

The official headshot of Rep. Rashida Tlaib. (United States Congress)
The official headshot of Rep. Rashida Tlaib. (United States Congress)

1. Don’t let the headlines fool you: neither Ilhan Omar nor Rashida Tlaib had any intention of visiting Israel when they announced their trip to the region. They had hoped, instead, to visit the occupied West Bank, where Tlaib’s family hails from. The fact that Israel is the sole sovereign between the river and the sea and can decide who and what can enter or exit the West Bank is one of the most fundamental aspects of Israel’s 52-year military occupation.

2. One must also take stock of Israel’s priorities when it makes decisions about who is or isn’t welcome. While authoritarian leaders such Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are welcomed with open arms, these two Democratic congresswomen are turned into enemies of the state. Why? Because they believe in the right to hold Israel to account, including through boycotts.

3. BDS, one should recall, is a nonviolent and legitimate tool of resistance, especially when considering that Israel has crushed all other forms of Palestinian resistance for decades, be it violent or nonviolent. Boycotts of and divestments from businesses that profit off of human rights violations and war crimes are common in various struggles for social justice.

Meanwhile, even Israel supports the use of international sanctions when it serves its political goals. But only when applied to Israel’s decades’ long occupation and apartheid policies — with the express purpose of promoting freedom, equality, and democracy for Palestinians  — are boycotts, divestment and sanctions demonized.

Reader survey banner

4. This is where parts of the left, whether in Israel, the U.S., Europe or elsewhere, also share the blame. Large segments among both Democrats and the Zionist left have historically taken part in delegitimizing BDS as a political tool for Palestinian liberation. By isolating BDS supporters, those on the left have paved the way for Netanyahu and Trump to go after Tlaib and Omar.

This can and should be a decisive moment. We are already hearing Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and left-wing and liberal groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street denouncing Israel for the decision. Even AIPAC is demanding Israel backtrack and allow the congresswomen freedom of movement.

5. As long as these statements are not followed by real action, nothing will change. Israel has become immune to criticism, whether coming from friends or foes. If Democrats don’t turn their statements into full support for the right to boycott and actively try to stop institutional attempts to silence criticism of Israel in the U.S., nothing will change. As long as the international community sits back and the U.S. continues to offer Israel diplomatic immunity and a blank check, Israel will continue to deny Palestinians their basic human and civil rights.

6. It has now been made public that Israel will, after all, be allowing Rep. Rashida Tlaib to visit her elderly grandmother in the occupied West Bank as a “humanitarian” measure. Tlaib has committed to respecting Israel’s conditions, and to refrain from making any statements in support of boycott while in the country.

This is a huge double victory for Israel. First, the ban punishes the two Squad members and sends a message against BDS (which is, again, a non-violent and legitimate tactic), while appeasing President Trump. Now, this.

The “humanitarian” permit means the complete de-politicizing of Tlaib. She will no longer be visiting as a political leader, a U.S. congresswoman enjoying freedom of movement. For Israel, Tlaib has now been “demoted” to the position of all Palestinians who need to beg for Israel’s mercy, as the all-powerful occupier of their land, in order to travel, work, study, or simply reunite with loved ones.

Once de-politicized, Israel can accept Tlaib, and even take credit for being a generous, benevolent occupier. That’s what most people are likely to remember from this story: that at the end of the day, Israel “did the right thing,” and that Tlaib got to visit her family in the occupied Palestinian territories. The initial ban on Tlaib and her continued ban as a congresswoman, together with Rep. Omar, will probably be forgotten. This will save Democrats the bother of having to oppose Israeli policies and, by extension, having to enlist for the rights of Palestinians and defend the right of free speech in the U.S., including BDS.

We can hope this won’t be the case, and call on Democrats to see through Israel’s trick. Let’s hope there’ll be someone listening.

Editor’s note: The article was updated on Friday to include a sixth point, following news of Tlaib’s approved entry to Palestine for a humanitarian visit.