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Israel demeans and diminishes itself

On Aug. 15th, President Trump tweeted that “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”

As usual, Mr. Trump has it wrong. Israel demonstrates strength and confidence when it allows Americans who are critical of its policies to enter. Banning Representatives Omar and Tlaib from a visit that was set to begin the very next day, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially did, was an act of weakness and insecurity.

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Unfortunately, this was not the first time Israel has demeaned and diminished itself by refusing entry to American citizens solely because of their political ideas and speech.

In 2010, I planned a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories with my girlfriend (now wife). I had traveled to Israel twice before, once as part of a Taglit Birthright Israel trip, but she had never been. However, I was the one denied entry at Ben Gurion Airport, locked up in the airport jail for several hours, and then put on the next plane back to Newark.

What had transpired in the two years between my birthright tour, which was sponsored in part by the Israeli government, and my failed attempt to return? I organized a protest during an event at Georgetown University entitled “Israel: Sexy at Sixty.” The demonstration was covered in the student paper, and the article came up when an Israeli immigration agent googled my name. For that, and for vague and bizarre suspicions that I was planning to convert to Islam, I was barred.

In this instance, the Israeli government paid a distinct price when they were made to cover my legal fees after I successfully challenged the action and won my case in Israeli court. Unfortunately, this outcome is exceedingly rare. Most people denied entry do not seek legal recourse, and those that do rarely succeed.

Also in 2010, Noam Chomsky (like me, an American of Jewish descent, but unlike me, a distinguished professor emeritus at MIT) was prevented from entering the West Bank, where he had been invited to speak at Birzeit University. Professor Chomsky said he was turned back because “Israel does not like the kinds of things I say [and] they seemed upset about the fact that I was just taking an invitation from Birzeit and I had no plans to go on to speak in Israeli universities.” Micromanaging the schedule and topics of academic lectures is a sign of weakness and pettiness, not strength.

Las congresistas demócratas Ilhan Omar (izq) y Rashida Tlaib (der) en el Capitolio en Washington el 5 de febrero del 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Las congresistas demócratas Ilhan Omar (izq) y Rashida Tlaib (der) en el Capitolio en Washington el 5 de febrero del 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Israel’s discriminatory entry policies are nothing new. For years, Israel has barred Muslims, human rights defenders and people of Arab descent — including American citizens — from entering the country. This more recent history of Israeli discrimination at their border does not even account for the millions of Palestinians that Israel has denied entry to for decades.

Now, the individuals banned were members of Congress. Though Mr. Netanyhu later reversed himself regarding Ms. Tlaib, he attached conditions she called “oppressive,” rejecting the offer. By not allowing Representatives Omar and Tlaib to freely visit, Israel advertises the fact that they cannot countenance criticism of their military occupation.

Our alliance with Israel has endured for more than 65 years thanks in large part to shared ideals - democracy, civil rights and freedom of expression. These ideals, and thus the foundations of American support for the Jewish State, are made a mockery of when Israel refuses entry to our elected representatives. Messrs. Trump and Netanyahu are corrupting the American-Israeli relationship by cementing it into an exclusionary Republican-Likud union.

If this is the sort of confederacy the two leaders seek, Congress must respond. No members of the House or Senate should travel to Israel and American aid should be frozen until all of our elected representatives are allowed to see for themselves how Israel is using our tax dollars.

Representatives Omar and Tlaib are not the first Americans, or the first Muslims, to be barred from entering Israel. But, they are the first sitting members of Congress so treated. And quite simply, they must be the last.

Harald Fuller-Bennett (haraldfuller@gmail.com) lives in Maryland.

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