When Israel barred two U.S. congresswomen from entering the country earlier this month, I initially thought it a stupid decision. But after hearing the reactions from both American politicians and American Jews, I’ve started to think it may have been necessary.
This isn’t to deny the substantial damage it has caused. Pro-Israel Democrats felt betrayed, and even some pro-Israel Republicans were outraged. Most of the organized Jewish community was horrified. And the BDS movement received media exposure it could never have gained on its own.
But nobody would have felt outraged or betrayed had Israel barred, say, white-supremacist politicians. Thus the underlying message of these reactions was that unlike white supremacism, advocating Israel’s destruction is a legitimate opinion, entitled to the same respectful treatment as the view that Israel should continue to exist. Yet no country can or should treat its own erasure as a legitimate option.
To understand why this was the issue at stake, a brief review of the facts is needed. When Israel originally agreed to allow a visit by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), it knew they enthusiastically supported BDS, a movement unambiguously committed to eliminating the Jewish state. It also knew they would use the visit to tar Israel in every possible way.
However, it assumed that they would at least pay lip service to Israel’s existence by following the standard protocol for official visitors—meeting Israeli officials and visiting some Israeli sites. On that assumption, and since the law banning entry to prominent BDS supporters permits exceptions for the sake of Israel’s foreign relations, Israel decided to admit them “out of respect for the U.S. Congress,” as Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said at the time.
A few days before the visit, however, the proposed itinerary arrived and proved that assumption wrong. Far from paying lip service to Israel’s existence, the trip literally erased the country from the map.
It was billed as a trip to “Palestine,” not, say, “Israel and Palestine.” It didn’t include visits to a single spot in pre-1967 Israel, aside from the unavoidable landing (for those too lazy to take the longer route through Amman) at Ben-Gurion International Airport. And even that was billed simply as “arrive in Tel Aviv,” with no hint that Tel Aviv belonged to a country other than “Palestine.”
Nor did the trip include meetings with any Israeli officials; Omar’s subsequent claim that she, unlike Tlaib, did plan to hold such meetings is patently false. According to her own story, she planned to spend Friday, Aug. 16 and Saturday, Aug. 17 in Israel before joining Tlaib’s trip on Aug. 18. But official meetings are always arranged in advance. And as of Aug. 15, when Israel nixed the visit, she hadn’t yet approached a single Israeli government or defense official (though she did contact one Arab Knesset member). Did she really think she could just show up at the last minute, on the two days when Israelis aren’t in their offices (Israel’s work week is Sunday through Thursday), and magically arrange meetings?
Finally, the trip was organized by Miftah, a Palestinian organization that supports terror and regularly spouts anti-Semitic blood libels, including accusing Jews of poisoning wells, drinking Christian blood and organ theft.
In short, this was a trip that literally negated Israel’s existence. Yet all the outraged reactions either ignored this fact or, worse, treated it as unexceptionable. The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC exemplified the former approach, tweeting, “Every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand”—just as if Tlaib and Omar hadn’t deliberately shunned experiencing Israel. Leading pro-Israel Democrats epitomized the latter approach.
“The decision of the Israeli government to deny entry to Israel by two Members of Congress is outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views,” declared House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who had just returned from leading 41 Democrats on his own congressional trip to Israel. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) opined, “No democratic society should fear an open debate.” Congressmen Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the “close relationship enjoyed by the United States and Israel should extend to all its government representatives, regardless of their views on specific issues or policies.” Former Vice President Joe Biden said, “No democracy should deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas—even ideas they strongly object to.”
In other words, even some of the most pro-Israel voices in Congress insisted that wiping Israel off the map is a legitimate opinion, one Israel must accept just as it accepts disagreements over government policy. It shouldn’t “fear an open debate” on whether or not it should continue to exist. It shouldn’t “deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas,” even if the idea in question is its own destruction.
This is simply ludicrous. For Israel to deny entry to advocates of its own dissolution should be as uncontroversial as denying entry to neo-Nazis. And it’s deeply worrying that even Israel’s genuine friends in America evidently think otherwise.
Yet Israel can’t expect its overseas friends to treat this view as illegitimate if it doesn’t do the same itself. And allowing entry to people like Tlaib and Omar would do the exact opposite: It would send the message that their desire to destroy the Jewish state isn’t beyond the pale, but merely a legitimate political disagreement.
Perhaps U.S. President Donald Trump’s crude intervention made this the wrong moment to take a stand. Because Israel’s decision came just hours after he tweeted that admitting Tlaib and Omar would show “great weakness,” it was widely perceived as a capitulation to Trump rather than an independent decision on a crucial issue of principle.
But on the flip side, this was by far the most blatant, controversial and high-profile case Israel is ever likely to encounter. Thus barring Tlaib and Omar sets a clear precedent, whereas failing to do so would have completely erased a crucial red line.
And because the world will never be more pro-Israel than Jerusalem is, holding that line is essential. If Israel wants the world to treat its eradication as an illegitimate aim, it must first do so itself.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.
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