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American Jews unite to reject Netanyahu's decision barring US congresswomen

In rare show of consensus, anti and pro-Zionist groups condemn Israel's decision to deny Tlaib and Omar from visiting
Jewish-American protesters, organised by IfNotNow, rally earlier this year in New York (Facebook/IfNotNow)

When it comes to Israel, there are very few things that unite American Jews.

Under the vast umbrella of opinion over Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, its illegal settlements and the blockade on Gaza, the Jewish American community’s approach to Israel sits on a broad spectrum. 

But when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Thursday that US congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were barred from entering the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem on a planned visit later this week, these differences suddenly converged.

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From the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) to the more mainstream liberal Zionist J-Street, to pro-Zionist organisations like Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), organisations all appeared to agree that Israel had crossed a line.

Netanyahu blamed the unprecedented move on the congresswomen's itinerary. He said they wanted to harm and incite violence towards Israel. 

The decision to block their entry comes after months of virulent campaigning against them. Both Ilhan, a former refugee from Somalia and congresswoman from Minnesota, and Tlaib, a Palestinian-American congresswoman from Michigan, are routinely accused of antisemitism because of their critique of Israel's occupation and for supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) campaign.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J-Street, described Israel's decision as "dangerous, unacceptable and wrong".

"We may disagree with the views that the members hold on such questions as BDS or with Rep Tlaib on the two-state solution, but the right approach for a state that values democracy is to welcome criticism and debate, not to shut it down," Ben-Ami said in a statement. 

Likewise, David Harris, CEO of American Jewish Committee (AJC), an organisation that has been at the forefront of anti-BDS legislation in the US, tweeted that Israel "should've taken the high road" and "should have let them in, no matter how vile their views".

Even the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), known for wielding tremendous influence over the US Congress, said that "every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand".

But Palestinians have been quick to point out that Israel's actions were nothing out of the ordinary.

Even Tlaib's family, living in the occupied West Bank, said they were disappointed but not surprised by the news.

Jehad Abusalim, a PhD candidate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies and History at New York University, told Middle East Eye that the developments illuminated how the Netanyahu-Trump alignment had "reached a new level of collaboration that even surpassed the traditional lobbies like AIPAC".

"What we are witnessing here is a mixture of arrogance and disregard of politics as usual on the part of Trump and Netanyahu, and an Israel that no longer shies away from exposing its racist and discriminatory politics, empowered by Trump and his administration," Abusalim said.

It is a point echoed by the anti-Zionist organisation, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which said that Israel’s actions were consistent with its increasingly authoritarian policies towards Palestinians and all those who support the BDS campaign.

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"But for sitting congresswomen to be prevented from entry is a new low, that only serves to illustrate Israel's racist and exclusionary practices," JVP said in a statement.

However, part of the disdain across mainstream Jewish organisations is partly to do with the fact that Netanyahu's decision had reportedly come at the behest of President Donald Trump.

Trump continues to vilify and overstate Ilhan's and Tlaib's credentials within the Democratic Party as a way to hold on to his white-conservative base, say observers.

For organisations like AIPAC, AJC and even J-Street, Netanyahu's willingness to import Trump's domestic disputes reflects poorly on Israel and undermines mainstream efforts by American Jews to keep Israel's democratic facade afloat in the US, Abusalim said.

"AIPAC is concerned that without criticising Netanyahu's decision to ban Omar and Tlaib from entering Palestine they will fully burn bridges with the Democratic Party," he added.

Unaware of Palestinian strife

Writing in The Forward, Peter Beinart said on Thursday that mainstream American Jewish organisations continue to peddle the myth of democratic Israeli values because they are themselves unaware of the strife faced by Palestinians. 

'They've never heard Palestinian parents explain the terror they feel when Israeli soldiers come in the middle of the night to take their children to be interrogated'

- Peter Beinart in The Forward

"They've never heard Palestinian parents explain the terror they feel when Israeli soldiers come in the middle of the night to take their children to be interrogated, often for days, in the absence of a lawyer," he wrote.

Beinart adds that it is only when "Democratic politicians began demanding, by the dozens, to see the things that Omar and Tlaib were planning to see, then the cocoon will fall apart and the American debate over Israel will change".

Over the past five years, young Jewish Americans have been growing increasingly vocal about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and are evidently embarrassed by Netanyahu's close alliances with Trump, and other nationalistic, right-wing leaders like India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazil's President Jair Messias Bolsanaro. 

IfNotNow, a youth-led organisation that began in 2014 to demand an end to American support for the Israeli occupation, described the blocking of the proposed visit as "a cynical move right out of the authoritarian playbook".

"And to make matters worse, Trump encouraged the decision while doing what he and the right-wing media machine have repeatedly done: weaponised anti-Semitism to attack these progressive congresswomen for their critiques of Israel."