April 2, 2020

Tlaib And Omar: What Would JFK Do?

From Left: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, July 25 REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert; Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) addresses her constituents during a Town Hall style meeting in Michigan Aug. 15, 2019. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook. Photo created by Jewish Journal

“The purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world.”
-John F. Kennedy, Sept. 26, 1963



In September 1963, less than two months before his fateful trip to Dallas, President John F. Kennedy felt compelled to defend America’s continuing postwar commitment to NATO. Addressing the rising tide of skeptics who sought to return to the country’s pre-war isolationist stance, the president reminded Americans that foreign policy demands serious engagement with those with whom we disagree. “If we were to withdraw our assistance from all governments who are run differently than our own,” he explained, “we would relinquish half the world immediately to our adversary.”

Kennedy’s clear-eyed focus on achieving desired foreign policy objectives is in stark contrast to the carnival-like atmosphere surrounding last week’s aborted trip to Israel of Reps. (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn). As everyone now knows, Israel barred entry to the two congresswomen after being urged to do so by President Donald Trump. Both have declared support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, and a controversial 2017 Israeli law entitles the state to deny entry to BDS supporters. At least three reasons have been cited in support of the decision:


1) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the lawmakers’ purported itinerary, which he said “reveals that the sole purpose of their visit is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it.”
2) The pair rejected an invitation to join a Democratic congressional delegation earlier this month with 41 other representatives, sponsored by an organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). That delegation met with both Israeli and Palestinian officials and activists, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
3) The organizer of Tlaib and Omar’s planned trip was a group called Miftah. The group supports BDS, has praised Palestinian suicide bombers, and previously published an anti-Semitic blood libel accusation in gruesome, defamatory detail.


No question about it — these concerns, and perhaps others, are justified. It is abundantly clear that Tlaib and Omar intended to meet solely with people who are critical of Israel, and sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle. They would likely admit that they intentionally skipped the AIPAC-sponsored event precisely because it included pro-Israel participants. And — there is simply no other word for it—the Miftah organization is reprehensible.

The question left to both Israel and the Trump administration, then, was clear: what to do about it? How best to blunt the impact of their intended action? Ignore it, and let them proceed with the trip? Or ban it, and give exponentially more attention to their goals, their mission, and their image of Israel — all while painting themselves as victims?

Stunningly, Israel chose the latter.

Netanyahu and Trump had obvious personal motivations for their coordinated action. Trump is attempting to raise the profile of Reps. Tlaib, Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) as the faces of the Democratic Party heading into 2020. Trump is popular in Israel; with another Israeli election on the horizon, Netanyahu needs to placate the president.

But for American Jews who care about Israel? How could they possibly believe that, in the real world, support for this ban somehow helps the Jews? For decades, Israel and American leaders have hewed close to a carefully tended bipartisan policy of support for the Jewish state. Administrations come and go, Democrats and Republicans trade large swaths of power. AIPAC’s grand strategy since its inception has been to safeguard that bipartisan support because the only way to ensure consistent American support for Israel through the shifting American political winds is to stay above American political partisanship — particularly in Congress. This ban has seriously challenged that strategy, which is why AIPAC opposed it.

Supporting the ban of these congressional representatives — regardless of how reprehensible their views are — in no way serves to “shape real events in a real world.” Will it discourage others from believing as Tlaib and Omar do? Of course not. Will it stop or slow anti-Israel agitation? No. Does it somehow demonstrate Israel’s sovereign right to control its borders? Of course not — every country has that right. Does it stand for any principle whatsoever, other than the notion that the ideas that undergird the Zionist project are now so weak and worn that they can no longer stand up to the opposition of two American congressional critics? Nope.

Instead, they should have been given full access to their entire planned itinerary. Every minute of it. Israel wins if she is strong enough to allow them access to every place they intended to tour, and every person with whom they intended to meet. Freedom to share their perspective about how evil the Jewish state is, even as it grants them courtesies they would never receive in a place of overwhelming oppression. The BDS skirmish, at least at this level, is a war of symbolism, not substance. Barring access shows cowardice, and gives the other side unearned talking points.

The last thing that American Jews should hope for is any exacerbation of waning support for Israel within the Democratic Party. Bipartisan support for Israel should be at the strategic forefront of every person who loves Israel. Don’t get caught up in the petty election year interests of two politicians seeking to ensure their political survival. Stick with AIPAC, which has been around Washington long enough to know how to keep its eye on the strategic ball. American Jewish reaction to those who seek to harm the Jewish state should not serve to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; they should seek to shape real events in a real world.

Stuart D. Tochner is a shareholder with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Los Angeles.