BDS and Israel’s Barring of US Congresswomen

“Israel Bars Two US Congresswomen” blared the headline from the front page of the Chicago Tribune. I thought that you might want to hear my thoughts on this. By now we all have heard the story. Following a tweet  by the President suggesting that Israel block the planned visit of Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to Israel, the Netanyahu government did just that. The reason given by Israel for barring the two Congresswomen is that they are supporters of BDS – The Boycott Divestment and Sanction Movement, led by Palestinians, that vilifies Israel as an apartheid and colonial-settler state. The movement was co- founded by Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian who was born in Qatar, raised in Egypt, and educated in the United States. He currently lives in the Israeli city Acco, and is studying for a PHD in Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. Barghouti is on record as opposing the two-state solution. He advocates a one-state solution encompassing all of the population from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, and a right of return for the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel in the War of 1948. The ultimate goal of the BDS movement is to destroy Israel as a Jewish State and replace it with a state which will be majority Arab and Muslim. We are supposed to believe that  the Arabs who for the last    hundred years have attempted to drive the Jews into the sea will  now safeguard the rights of the Jewish citizens of this new secular, democratic state –at least the Jews who the majority deem worthy of remaining in the new state as citizens.

It is no wonder that Israel has a law the bars supporters of the BDS movement from entering Israel. Supporters of BDS seek to abolish the State of Israel and replace it with another state. The United States also has a law that bars visitors from outside the country who advocate overthrow of our government.Nevertheless, Israeli law also gives the government some discretion in applying the law. That is one reason why Tlaib and Omar were initially welcome to come to Israel in their roles as members of the US Congress. .

I personally think that the decision to deny them the planned visit was a mistake. First of all, these are not any American citizens, these are elected members of Congress. In their role as legislators, they ought to be able to visit any country, especially an ally like Israel that receives billions in American tax dollars. These visits are invaluable for legislators to better educate themselves about the particulars of the country  and the people living there. I heard it said that their itinerary was going to be one-sided, that they would only be seeing those things that confirmed their pre-conceptions of Israel. Now, I haven’t reviewed their travel plans, but even were that true, it would not change my opinion. They are duly elected representatives of the United States and as such should be granted entrance into Israel. Period.

The second reason I think it was a mistake to bar entry to them is that it makes it look like Israel has something to hide. It makes it appear as though there something Israel does not want them to find out about. It also gives the BDS movement publicity. Sure enough, hours after the decision was made, BDS supporters began appearing on news shows lambasting Israel’s decision and slandering Israel.

I want to conclude by giving you a snapshot that reflects the real Israel, not the Israel portrayed by the BDS movement. This glimpse comes by way of Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, who retired last year after 30 years from North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park. He and his wife made Aliya to Israel in June of this year. As part of a rabbinic seminar, he and his wife made a half day trip to Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. There they saw Jew and Arab, black hats and kafiyehs, Arab and Jewish women with scarves covering their heads. They spoke to an Arab nurse, an Arab woman who works as a family psychologist, and a Jewish nurse who is trying to bring nurses of all backgrounds together for the betterment of their profession and patient care.

A few weeks after that visit, Rabbi Kurtz got a more up close and personal view of Hadassah hospital. He was rushed to that very hospital by ambulance after suffering a heart attack. He writes that he had Jewish doctors and Arab doctors, Jewish nurses and Arab nurses taking care of him. They all showed great care and concern for his health and well-being. He heard both Hebrew and Arabic conversations in the nurses and doctor’s areas. They worked together as a team all trained properly. On his floor were Arab and Jewish patients. He writes, “It made no difference to any of the patients who treated us and to the doctors and nurses who they were treating, all that was important was the welfare of the patient.”

This is the Israel that is not highlighted or communicated enough. The fact is that Israel is a democracy thriving in the midst of an area of the world whose states are governed by dictators, where countries have no freedom of press, countries where dissident voices are suppressed and  countries where those who advocate for change are jailed or killed, countries where women have no rights, where gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people are persecuted. Israel is a country where Omar Barghouti can live in Acco, study at Tel Aviv University, and yet lead a world-wide movement that threatens the existence of Israel as we know it. Israel is a country where T-shirts saying “Free Palestine” are openly sold in the Arab market in Jerusalem!

Maybe some of us want Israel to be a perfect country.  But this is unrealistic.  No country is the world is without its problems, internal contradictions and difficult challenges. But we should be proud of what we, the Jewish people, have built on that tiny strip of land that is our ancestral home. And we should oppose all efforts to delegitimize Israel, to slander her, or to replace her with something else.

Shabbat Shalom