‘Furious and Confused’: Liberal U.S. Jews Fume Over Israel's Tlaib-Omar Rejection

As one longtime Israel supporter says on barring of Tlaib and Omar: ‘I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime American Jews walk back from Israel this much’

Activists supporting U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib at a "Shabbat in The Park" meeting in Detroit, August 16, 2019.
\ REBECCA COOK/ REUTERS

Tamah Graber says she felt a one-two punch of U.S. President Donald Trump pressuring Israel to bar two congresswomen from visiting and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu capitulating. It left her so distraught she had to turn off the TV news.

“I’m furious, it’s tearing me apart …. Now if I say I’m a Zionist, which I am, does that mean I support a country that keeps out elected officials of the United States?” says Graber, 73, a retired school librarian frclarom Rockville, Maryland. “This is not good for the Jews. I really would call Netanyahu a puppet, and he’s as autocratic minded as Trump is.”

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 35Haaretz

For Graber, and many other American Jews who support Israel, the country’s decision to ban representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib felt like an especially stinging blow to their perception of Israel as a democracy (even if Israel later backtracked and let Tlaib visit her grandmother in the West Bank, an offer she rejected because of restrictions put on the trip).

Then there are the fears that Israel’s days of American bipartisan support are numbered as both Trump and, some argue, the more progressive flank of the Democratic Party, work to make it a wedge issue. It’s a development that voters like Graber fear could leave them politically homeless.

“For Jews who are Democrats, [Netanyahu] just said ‘screw you.’ And what are we supposed to do? Become Republican? There’s no chance I would vote Republican,” Graber says. In the past she would occasionally opt for GOP candidates, but she says now she wouldn’t, given the party’s character at the moment.

Echoing others interviewed for this article, she fears that Democrats could shift toward what she describes as an anti-Israel stance.

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Jonathan Mayo, 48, a writer from Pittsburgh, describes himself as Jew who cares enough about Israel to be critical of it when he believes it’s going in the wrong direction. He says he’s deeply uncomfortable with Trump and Netanyahu’s motivation by electoral politics, as both face reelection campaigns.

“I feel the current administrations are driving Israel-U.S. relations off a cliff,” he says. “There’s a cruel irony here, isn’t there? The Trump administration loves using Jews as a wedge issue, as a bludgeon against the left in our country. Well, it’s not really Jews he’s using. We’re the pawns as he caters to the evangelicals in his base. At the same time, he supports and emboldens white nationalists in our country who wish to do Jews and others harm.”

Omar of Minnesota and Tlaib of Michigan, who have loudly criticized the occupation and supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement as a tool to end it, had been scheduled to arrive Saturday to tour the West Bank and predominately Arab East Jerusalem. Although many of those interviewed by Haaretz don’t agree with the two women’s stance on BDS, they question Israel’s assertion that Tlaib and Omar were a security threat.

“[I am] offended as an American, heartbroken as an Israeli, confused as a millennial Jew,” says Nicholas Ben-Marcus, 30, a native of Clarksville, Tennessee, who moved to Israel three years ago and now lives in Tel Aviv. He says the decision to bar the two congresswomen was a mistake; the Israeli government “literally built them a stage to deliver their message.”

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Israel’s so-called anti-BDS law, which blocks anyone who has publicly expressed support for boycotting Israel from entering the country, “gives BDS activists a grievance to hold onto and propagandize with,” Ben-Marcus says.

It’s not just politically-liberal American Jews, but other individuals and organizations across the political spectrum that fear that the Tlaib-Omar ban could damage ties between the American Jewish community and Israel. The response mirrored that of the Democrats in Congress, who across the board stood with their colleagues, even conservative pro-Israel voices.

Hadar Susskind, a veteran of Jewish community organizations, at the 2016 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia.
Hadar Susskind

“I think it has potential to be a watershed moment, and you can see this by the depth and breadth of response from American Jewish organizations,” says Hadar Susskind, 46, a longtime Jewish community professional from Takoma Park, Maryland. He mentions the long list of organizations that spoke out against the decision, most notably AIPAC.

“There is a joke that Israel is never the cause to bring Jews together on, but here all condemned the decision …. Coming together to disagree with the Israeli government is almost unprecedented,” he says. 

Another notch of disillusionment

In Las Cruces, New Mexico, Andrea Orzoff sees recent developments as part of Netanyahu’s longtime habit of inserting himself into American domestic politics.

“I was enormously frustrated to see two countries I love contort themselves in fear – again – in the name of performing ‘strength.’ Tlaib and Omar have no ability to threaten Israel in any real way – nor do the U.S. kids who’ve been sent home from Birthright trips for expressing the wrong opinion, or the journalists and academics who have been subject to absurd searches or interrogations at the airport,” Orzoff, an associate professor of history at New Mexico State University, wrote in an email.

“Since when is Israel so weak that it cannot allow people with critical opinions to enter its territory, or to express them there? Since when is it so weak that it does the U.S.’s bidding? Since when is the United States so craven, or such a bully, that its president would interfere in the travel of its congressional representatives?” she added.

Activists supporting U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib at a "Shabbat in The Park" meeting in Detroit,  August 16, 2019.
Rebecca Cook / Reuters

“I guess this episode felt like an encapsulation of all these tendencies. None of them new, individually, but taken collectively, it all suddenly felt intolerable.”

Tamar Wyschogrod, 57, a copy editor from New Jersey, believes that some American Jews, already deeply frustrated with the Israeli government, will use the Tlaib-Omar controversy as a reason to disassociate themselves from Israel. “I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime American Jews walk back from Israel this much,” she says.

She says her three children, all now in college, have been more openly critical about Israel than she. “One of the things I keep telling my kids is that Netanyahu is not Israel, but that argument becomes more difficult when he keeps being returned to power and the government keeps creeping towards nondemocratic norms,” she says

“At the same time, most people I know really want to believe it’s not too late. That Trump will go away, that Netanyahu will go away and somehow things will get better. I want to believe that.”

Sara Hirschhorn, who lives in Chicago and is a visiting assistant professor of Israel Studies at Northwestern University, says liberal American Jews’ sense of betrayal misses the point of what she sees as Netanyahu’s calculus about American Jewry.

She says the idea that Netanyahu "has thrown us under the bus is only relative because I don’t think he sees the necessity of the next generation, because he thinks they are already disassociated from Israel.”

As Ben-Marcus puts it, “It makes my heart sink. There shouldn’t be a conflict between being Jewish, American, or Israeli.” But now, he says, it’s becoming “hard to defend Israel to American friends, and it’s hard to defend America to Israeli friends.”

He says Israel “is supposed to be a very democratic country, but we have such random and intrusive restrictions of civil liberties and freedoms: marriage, transport on Shabbat. Loving Israel and loving democratic pluralism aren’t supposed to be mutually exclusive.”

U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and Jewish Voice for Peace members in a "Shabbat in the Park" meeting  in Detroit, August 16, 2019.
Rebecca Cook / Reuters

A new moment for BDS?

Amanda Berman, who founded Zioness, a progressive Zionist group, says Israel’s decision on the congresswomen wasn’t “strategic” and inadvertently handed BDS a public relations victory.

“If they had been there ... I think they would have shown quite the opposite of the message that they’re trying to impress, which is that they have concerns but that they do believe in the humanity of both sides,” Berman says. “Ultimately I would have liked for them to have the opportunity to prove that they meant that, and Israel took away that opportunity.”

Berman says she’s “frustrated, disappointed and concerned” regarding the American Jews who already “feel really uncomfortable with the Jewish state doing things that seem antithetical to our Jewish values.”

Ron Klein, a former congressman from Florida who today chairs the Jewish Democratic Council of America, says that although he doesn’t support or agree with Tlaib and Omar on Israel issues, Trump’s push for them not to be allowed into Israel is “absolutely a historic overstepping of bounds.”

“Instead, this decision has given a greater amount of publicity and platform to these two members who virtually have no real political power in the House anyway for purposes of Israel policy, and now they’ve given them a lot more attention than they deserve,” Klein says.

Significant steps had recently been taken to show bipartisan support for Israel including a comprehensive anti-BDS resolution in the House, as well as the bipartisan trip of freshmen representatives to Israel this month.

“And now this decision has the potential of creating very negative consequences after a positive moment,” Klein says.

As Ben-Marcus puts it, “In trying to bar them, you legitimize their experience of being ‘persecuted,’ you give them an example to show anyone with any anti-Zionist sentiment that they’re ‘right.’ If there was any a chance of convincing Ilhan Omar that she hasn’t been given the full story, we’ve lost it.”

Yonah Lieberman, spokesman for the anti-occupation organization IfNotNow, adds, “More and more American Jews are seeing past the lies that our community leaders have been telling us for our entire lives. They understand that it is a Jewish moral imperative to criticize the Israeli government and to fight for the freedom and dignity of all Israelis and Palestinians.”

Malkah Bird, 40, a teacher from Indianapolis, says she understands why the congresswomen didn’t go on the bipartisan trip earlier this month attended by 72 members of congress.

That tour was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a bipartisan group affiliated with AIPAC. She says the AIPAC link was grounds enough to plan a different trip – one that would go beyond what the Israelis call hasbara, basically PR.

As Bird, a member of the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace, puts it, “I feel hopeful that the issue of Israel and Palestine, off the table for so long, is now being included in the Democratic party.”

Danielle Ziri reported from New York and Dina Kraft from Boston