Updated at 1:35 p.m. ET on Thursday, August 15, 2019.
The trip was always going to be bad PR for Israel. Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota planned to lead a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, meeting with “people in the refugee camps,” “people at checkpoints,” and “people who lost their lands and had their homes demolished,” as James Zogby, the head of the Arab American Institute, told the website Jewish Insider. No matter what, these kinds of photo ops from two of the U.S.’s most outspoken and visible critics of Israel would have provided powerful ammunition to the country’s opponents.
This morning, Israel handed its critics even more powerful material. According to Reuters, the government has barred Tlaib and Omar from entering the country.
This move is not unprecedented. In recent years, Israel has routinely detained, and in some cases refused entry to, foreign visitors associated with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which calls on governments and companies to put economic pressure on Israel. This policy reflects the current Israeli government’s intense fear of the BDS movement, and its growing intolerance for dissent from within or outside of the country. But in the past few years, the Israeli government has had a new ally encouraging and enabling its antidemocratic instincts: President Donald Trump. At every turn, the tight alliance between the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government has facilitated Israel’s drift to the right, further widening the gap between Israel and many of its Jewish allies in the United States.
In the days leading up to the congresswomen’s planned visit, Israel-watchers circulated rumors that they might not be allowed into the country. This morning, Trump definitively weighed in on Twitter. Israel should not let Tlaib and Omar in, he said, because “they hate Israel & all Jewish people.” (While Omar and Tlaib have both been vocally critical of the Israeli government, and have made controversial remarks about Jewish support for Israel, there is no evidence that “they hate … all Jewish people.”)
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 15, 2019
Shortly after, news broke that the Israeli government planned to bar the women from entering, despite the fact that Israel’s ambassador to the United States had previously said they would be admitted “out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.” Trump then tweeted again, seeming to relish the fact that he had once again turned the national conversation toward Tlaib and Omar, whom he has repeatedly targeted. “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!” the president claimed.
It is not clear whether the Trump administration actually worked behind the scenes to influence the Israeli government’s decision on this issue, or whether Israel acted specifically because Trump spoke out. It is entirely possible that the Israeli embassy would have preferred to let the congresswomen’s trip pass quietly, without any official acknowledgment. But with Trump’s prompting, the country fell back into an established pattern of banning its critics from entering the country.
In the past few years, Israel has turned away a Columbia University professor, leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and an American student. It has also detained Israel critics such as the Atlantic contributor Peter Beinart for extensive questioning, even though Beinart self-identifies as a Zionist. Last year, the government released a list of 20 international organizations that would be banned for their alignment with the BDS movement, including the American group Jewish Voices for Peace.
While the Israeli government has defended these decisions as preventing “such groups from spreading their falsehoods and odious methods from within the country,” as the Israeli minister of public security, strategic affairs, and information, Gilad Erdan, told The Washington Post, critics and allies alike have described them as fundamentally antidemocratic, because they have the effect of stifling dissent. That criticism will only intensify with this ban on two democratically elected American congresswomen; the ban directly plays into their argument that Israel does not behave as a free, democratic nation should.
Ayanna Pressley, a progressive congresswoman from Massachusetts who often allies with Omar and Tlaib but has not followed them in their criticism of Israel, spoke out sharply on Thursday: “I’m calling this like I see it: bigoted, short sighted and cruel,” she wrote on Twitter. “Any leader committed to advancing democracy would welcome with open arms two democratically elected United States Congresswomen. And every single member of Congress should be calling this out.” Prominent Democratic leaders who are strong supporters of Israel, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, also issued statements condemning the country’s decision. “Denying entry to members of the United States Congress is a sign of weakness, not strength,” Schumer said. “No democratic society should fear an open debate.”
Israel’s ban mirrors the larger dynamic of the fight over BDS. By consistently overreacting to the threat of BDS—a deeply unpopular movement in the U.S. that was recently opposed by Congress in a vote of 398 to 17— the Israeli government and its allies have elevated the work of their most vocal opponents.
Ultimately, Israel’s ban on Tlaib and Omar will exacerbate the already widening divide between Israel and its strongest historical allies: American Jews. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but abandoned Israel’s traditional stance of bipartisan diplomacy in the U.S., aligning himself with Trump on nearly every issue. In a statement, Netanyahu said “the itinerary showed that the congresswomen’s sole intention was to harm Israel,” with the qualifier that “there is no country in the world that respects the U.S. and the American Congress more than Israel.” But American groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying organization, issued statements calling Netanyahu out for his decision. “We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution,” the group wrote on Twitter. “We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”
Trump has exacerbated a growing divide within the American Jewish community, drawing support from a vocal minority that supports both his administration’s policies and Netanyahu’s government. But American Jews voted against Trump in greater numbers than any other U.S. religious group in 2016, according to Pew Research Center, and have been on the front lines of protest against his administration. As Israel’s politics become more right-wing and its government doubles down on its alliance with a deeply unpopular American president, the complicated divide between Israel and American Jews has widened, leaving the country ever more isolated as it feverishly works to keep out its critics.