OPN  Israeli-1566388447208
Image Credit: AFP

One minute it was a Palestinian American Congresswoman wanting to visit her 90-year-old grandmother in the old country and, the next, an emotive story that dominated the front pages in the American media.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, along with fellow Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, was to go on a four-day trip to Palestine to study the impact of recent United States policies, including massive aid cuts, on Palestinians living under occupation and, while there, visit her grandmother.

Tlaib, of Michigan, and Omar of Minnesota, are members of the Squad, the group of four House representatives that includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, all women of colour, all under 50, and all still bristling with assertiveness since the day they were sworn in as lawmakers on January 4 — for Tlaib and Omar, both Muslim, on Thomas Jefferson’s 1734 copy of the Quran. In their challenge to the established order, the four have often clashed with their own party’s Democratic leadership and been a thorn in the side of United States President Donald Trump. (“She’s vicious”, he hollered once, describing Tlaib at a political rally. “She a crazed lunatic”.)

Only in a warped, twisted and equally insecure apartheid system, such as the one we today see in Israel does a government feel the need to identify a visiting American legislator as an existential threat because that lawmaker supported a boycott movement.

- Fawaz Turki, journalist and author

Congressional travel on fact-finding missions is common and time honoured. In the year before the 2016 elections, for example, 557 such trips took place. Everyone yawned.

So, let’s, as they say, cut this long story very short. Israel last Thursday decided to ban the two Congresswomen from entering, an unprecedented move indeed. The ban followed a tweet by President Trump stating that, were Israel to approve the visit, it would “show great weakness”. Israel agreed but, in the wake of widespread criticism, “compromised” by declaring that it would lift the ban for “humanitarian reasons” if Tlaib, while there, did not promote the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Clearly this demonstrated contempt both for congresswoman and the institution she represented. Indeed, outside the far right, it was viewed as an outrage.

Racist Basic Law

Predictably, the Palestinian American lawmaker turned down the offer, justifying her decision by tweeting a quote from Desmond Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid cleric, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner: “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights”.

Only reviled apartheid states, as insecure as apartheid South Africa was in the 1970s and 1980s treated prominent American political figures with such scorn. In 1972, for example, South Africa refused to grant a visa to black House Representative Charles C. Diggs, Democrat of Michigan and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, claiming he “intervened in South Africa’s affairs”. In 1976, Percy Sutton, the Manhattan Borough president and, as the New York Times described him in an obituary in 2009, “One of the nation’s most prominent black political and business leaders”, was in like manner denied a visa, as was, in 1985, the celebrated politician and civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson.

Only in a warped, twisted and equally insecure apartheid system, such as the one we today see in Israel — home of the notoriously racist Basic Law — does a government feel the need to identify a visiting American legislator as an existential threat because that lawmaker supported a boycott movement. In an otherwise civilised society, a boycott is seen benignly, as it is in the US, as an expression of free speech, one of the most cherished of social values, protected by the First Amendment.

‘We Shall Overcome’

But, look, there is, beyond the paranoia, logic to Israel’s posture. In order for the occupation to endure, its cruelties must remain out of sight, out of mind. American officials who visit the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, never set foot where Tlaib and Omar planned to go. They never see the suffering, the destitution, the checkpoints, the house demolitions, and the rest of it.

Members of the Congress never go on visits such as, say, the one that, several years ago, a group of African Americans, that included Congresswoman Donna Edwards, a great friend of the Palestinians, made to Hebron — against the strenuous objections of their Israeli handler — where Edwards later said that the stories told to her by the locals “sounded like the stories that my mother and my grandmother told me about the South”. She then recalled how she and her colleagues, touched by they witnessed, then and there, found themselves locking arms and singing We Shall Overcome.

more from this writer

Palestinians, you see, can seduce you with their pain. You just need watch them living their daily lives as an occupied people, under the thumb of an apartheid regime.

Last Monday, feisty, passionate and self-assured, Tlaib and Omar held a press conference at the State Capitol in St Paul, Minnesota, where they effectively told America that taking Israel to task is an idea whose time has come. America listened and, one suspects, nodded.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.