February 21, 2020

Banning Omar and Tlaib Ultimately is Detrimental to Israel

U.S. Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) react as they discuss travel restrictions to Palestine and Israel during a news conference at the Minnesota State Capitol Building in St Paul, Minnesota, August 19, 2019. REUTERS/Caroline Yang

Editor’s Note: This is part of a two-opinion analysis on Israel’s decision to ban United States Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). For the other view, click here. 

It’s not easy to turn avowed racists into objects of sympathy, but President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have managed to pull it off.

It’s not easy to drive a wedge between the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Israeli government. However, Netanyahu’s refusal to permit two members of the United States House of Representatives to enter Israel has exacerbated the growing tensions in an already strained relationship between Israelis and Diaspora Jews.

It’s somewhat easier to build a public platform for Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) to espouse their anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic prejudices that will allow them to be heard by a much larger audience than they could have achieved on their own. Trump understands that elevating Omar and Tlaib as the extreme and intolerant faces of the Democratic Party will benefit his reelection campaign, and Netanyahu’s political fate now is closely tied to Trump. They have decided their own short-term personal objectives must come before the endangered bipartisan foundation on which U.S. support for Israel has rested for more than 70 years.

Most pro-Israel Democrats now face an even greater challenge in limiting the growth of the anti-Zionist movement among their party’s most ardent progressive voices. Most pro-Israel Republicans now confront a more difficult struggle to explain that their support for a Jewish state is based on genuine principle rather than partisan convenience. And the next U.S. president and the next Israeli prime minister, regardless of their respective party memberships, will be forced to pick up the wreckage in the years ahead.

But the vast majority of Jews in this country, torn between their love of Israel and their hate for Trump, have actually been given a rare gift. This latest controversy allows the unusual opportunity to line up against their president on Middle Eastern issues without the nagging feeling they are not standing up for Israel. To be clear, this feeling of momentary relief does not suggest any significant level of approval for Omar and Tlaib themselves. Only the most fervent ideological outliers on the extreme left of the Jewish community here support the anti-Israel agenda these two congressional representatives espouse. 

But for Jews who despise Trump, his domestic policy agenda and his often odious sentiments regarding immigrants, women and minorities, this episode was a welcome reprieve that allowed them to strongly condemn Trump’s decision without feeling as if they had compromised their allegiance to Israel. 

It’s been a long time since being both anti-Trump and pro-Israel could come so easily for many American Jews — at least without requiring extensive explanation and rationalization. An uncomfortable aspect of Trump’s presidency for most American Jews is that they know they would have applauded most of his past actions regarding Israel if those actions had been taken by someone else. The most obvious example was Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Had Bill Clinton or Barack Obama made the same announcement, the American Jewish community would have erupted in unadulterated joy, but the reaction to Trump’s decision was much more awkward. Jewish leaders emphasized their discomfort with the manner with which the decision was made and the language Trump used in the announcement, but relatively few actually opposed the idea of the embassy relocation. In fact, most had supported the move for years.

There are many other examples in which Trump’s actions would have fit squarely within traditional pro-Israel orthodoxy. His administration recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel. Trump pulled U.S. funding from the scandal-ridden United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). His advisers have used increasingly strident language in criticizing the United Nations for its fierce pro-Palestinian tendencies. In each of these cases, the reaction from the Jewish community was noticeably muted. While each of these steps arguably are in Israel’s best interests — or would have been judged as such under an Obama or Clinton presidency — the Jewish community’s distaste for Trump overwhelmed the potential benefits of his decisions for Israel.

“For a few fleeting days, it will have been a pleasant experience to criticize Trump for actions that clearly is to Israel’s detriment, rather than looking for ways to avoid praising him.”

In the coming weeks, Trump will bestow other gifts on Netanyahu to help him cross the electoral finish line. He will shower Israel with economic, military and geopolitical support both before and after the election, forcing most American Jews back in the familiar position of minimizing the benefits of that support while continuing to work for Trump’s defeat. But for a few fleeting days, it will have been a pleasant experience to criticize Trump for actions that clearly are to Israel’s detriment, rather than looking for ways to avoid praising him. 

Make no mistake: Omar and Tlaib deserve no sympathy whatsoever. Their public comments against both Israel and the Jewish people have been chronicled, and only the most knee-jerk partisan automatons would argue they are not guilty of both anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Their trip was designed to be a political trap for Israel from the beginning. The very least they could have hoped for would have been to be granted several days in the region to attack the Israeli government at close range.

What would have been the best possible outcome for Omar and Tlaib? It would be to be forbidden to travel to Israel and being given the much more valuable prize of an even more visible platform from which to inflict even more damage. How fortunate for them, and how calamitous for the U.S-Israel relationship, that Trump prioritized his immediate political needs over the necessity of long-term bipartisan support for Israel in this country — and that Netanyahu felt that he had little choice but to meekly fall in line.

Dan Schnur is a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.