August 16, 2019 — New York
This piece originally appeared in the Forward.
On Thursday, the Israeli government made a bad decision. Under pressure from President Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri decided not to grant an exemption from Israel’s anti-boycott law to Representatives Omar and Tlaib. As a result, the two members of Congress won’t be able to enter Israel.
We should be very clear about what this is: It is a wrongheaded decision. It forced Congressional Democrats, who seemed to have run out of patience for Reps. Omar and Tlaib, to circle the wagons around the two legislators-provocateurs. It was a poor pronouncement that was rightly panned by virtually all mainstream American Jewish organizations. And it is a round of CPR for the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the State of Israel, which had largely slipped into a comatose state.
We must also be clear, however, about what it was not. On Thursday night, Senator Tim Kaine tweeted, “PM Netanyahu – Drop your Muslim ban.” Former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes, Representatives Betty McCollum and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and, unsurprisingly, Rep. Omar herself all referred to this decision as a “Muslim ban.”
The problem with their statements should be obvious to all who have a realistic picture of Israel, and don’t see Prime Minister Netanyahu as a cartoonishly evil mustache-twirler: Israel has no Muslim ban.
It’s true that Palestinians who are not citizens of Israel face restrictions on their movement, and are often barred from entering Israel. And yet, this is far from a ban on Muslims. Roughly 1.5 million Muslim citizens of Israel enjoy equal rights and play crucial roles in Israeli government and civil society.
Furthermore, every year, tens of thousands of tourists from Muslim countries visit Israel, including countries that refuse to recognize Israel. In 2018, the number was 72,109 citizens of Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. That’s not even counting the tens of thousands more Muslims who visit from the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. The vast majority of these people visit Israel utterly without incident.
Incidentally, this also could have included Rep. Tlaib, who it was announced Friday would be permitted to enter Israel and the West Bank to visit her grandmother, who is 90. Tlaib made this request in writing, saying that the trip could be her “last opportunity to see her,” and that she would “respect any restrictions and will not promote boycotts against Israel during my visit.” After Israel approved Tlaib’s family visit, she made a quick about face and said that she would not travel after all.
So why were these two women banned if there is no Muslim ban? In 2017, Israel passed a law saying, in effect, that the country was going to boycott the boycotters. The legislation gave notice that if you were actively engaged in a boycott of the Jewish state, then the state was not interested in granting you entry. As it happens, neither Omar nor Tlaib had yet admitted that they supported BDS—they both denied doing so until after they were elected in 2018. (In fact, it was almost exactly one year ago, in August 2018, that Omar said in a Democratic-Farmer-Labor primary debate that she considered BDS “not helpful” and “counteractive” to her then-preferred goal of a two-state solution.) Last month, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, said that the two Congresswomen would be granted a waiver to the anti-BDS law “out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”
Then, apparently, President Trump turned on the pressure behind the scenes, culminating in his tweet Thursday morning that “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit.” At that point, when President Trump had weighed in publicly, it seemed obvious to observers that the fate of the trip was sealed.
There’s a tendency in contemporary society to say “X is in opposition to Y; I disagree with X; therefore I give Y my full support.” Today, “X” is Prime Minister Netanyahu. But just because Netanyahu was wrong to have banned the representatives, and Trump was wrong to urge him to do so, doesn’t mean that the two Congresswomen are right, or good, or blameless. Support for the BDS movement is grounds under Israeli law to ban foreign nationals from entry. Religion, race, ethnicity, or gender played no role in the decision.
In short, contrary to what Tim Kaine would have you believe, Omar and Tlaib were not banned for who they are, they were banned for things they have done and might have done had they been allowed entry. You might not think that that is much better. But it at least has the benefit of being true.
Seffi Kogen is the Global Director of Young Leadership of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).