For the longest time, my response to critics of Israel online and in person has been that all American citizens have the ability to visit Israel without a visa. It is as easy as paying for a flight ticket. Certainly, one should keep in mind the enhanced security measures at Ben Gurion Airport and the 2017 law that bars entry to individuals actively engaged in the movement to boycott Israel.
Last week’s decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from entering Israel raises the question whether it is good for the Jewish state. Supporters of President Donald Trump and Netanyahu would note how the two “Squad” members pointedly referred to their destination as Palestine, did not plan to meet any Israeli government officials or Jewish community leaders, and had their trip sponsored by a nonprofit with a history of anti-Semitic statements.
Had they been granted the visas, Omar and Tlaib would have used the opportunity to publicize the suffering of Palestinian refugees, the apparent hardships of roadblocks and checkpoints, land allegedly stolen by Jewish settlers, “price tag” vandalism, and Jewish zealots likely welcoming them with curses and spitting, if not worse. Anyone familiar with such imagery would understand that such a publicity tour would not be breaking new ground.
On any given day, there are hostile activists shooting videos of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and Palestinian grandmothers crying about the homes they lost on the other side of the Green Line. In May 2018, Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory landed in Israel on a junket sponsored by a leftist organization. Her photos, videos, and tweets received plenty of likes, shares, comments, and retweets, but mostly from individuals who already shared her hatred of Israel. Her visit left no impact on American-Israeli relations and failed to sway public opinion.
Now let’s suppose that a bigger fish had landed on Israel’s shore with an agenda. “Should Israel engage its harshest critics or shun them? In 2006, I was asked by the Foreign Ministry if The Israel Project would take Jesse Jackson on one of its helicopter tours. I thought it worthwhile, and TIP Director Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi very much thought so,” wrote Calev Ben-David, an anchor at i24NEWS, who ran the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project at the time. For disclosure, I interned at TIP in 2006, assisting Ben-David with briefings that he shared with journalists and dignitaries. Jackson was a candidate in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary, infamous for the anti-Semitic “Hymietown” remark that he made during the campaign.
Our most valuable hasbarah tool was the “Intellicopter” tour, where visitors took a helicopter tour above Israel to realize how small the country is. “I did my best to justify Israeli security policies there. I could see Jackson shake his head in disapproval more than once,” Ben-David wrote. “But he listened to and engaged those arguments, while also taking the time to visit victims in Haifa and Kiryat Shmonah of Israel’s just concluded Lebanon War. I’ve no idea how much of an impression the tour really had on his views – but if the chance for dialogue exists, one wonders if Israel has the luxury of missing that opportunity for a shorter-term political gain or satisfaction.”
That year, another hostile celebrity, Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, had his concert in the Neve Shalom “peace village,” and since then has been pushing the lie that Israelis oppose peace. But he can’t say that he didn’t have the opportunity to see the country firsthand. It makes the falsehood of his claims much more evident.
In an interview with Ben-David on i24NEWS, fellow American oleh Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to the US, said that it was a tough call, but questioned whether it was a smart one. Had they been allowed to enter, he expected them to make a provocation, possibly atop the Temple Mount. But it would have been a situation that Israel could control as it would have its security personnel following the two lawmakers.
Among their Capitol Hill colleagues, condemnation of Israel’s decision came not only from their leftist colleagues, but also moderate Democrats and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican. “Denying them entry into #Israel is a mistake,” he tweeted. “Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along, in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state.”
Rep. Grace Meng, whose district covers much of this newspaper’s readership area, also voiced her disappointment, arguing that it was a “missed opportunity and does nothing to strengthen the US-Israel relationship.” Her statement went on to say, “I believe that every Member of Congress should visit Israel with an open mind – to see its beauty, strength, and innovation firsthand.”
Israel’s refusal to grant entry to the two lawmakers is not unusual for a democratic nation. Every country has the right to decide who gets to enter. Israel’s anti-BDS law does not discriminate by race or ethnicity, but the discretion of the government in relation to the visitor’s views of the country and the potential impact of the visit. Based on these criteria, in the past decade, prominent leftist Jews such as Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, and Ariel Gold, were turned away at the border.
I would like as many Americans as possible to visit Israel. Whether it is for tourism, business, religious pilgrimage, or to better understand the conflict, it would leave no excuses for our enemies that Israel is hiding something. Israel is not a closed country. It is among the most transparent for journalists and foreign visitors. Today’s Israelis are well-versed in explaining their country’s policies to a hostile audience. They can hold their own in the presence of last week’s would-be visitors.
By Sergey Kadinsky