On the face of it, Israel’s decision Thursday to ban Ilhan Omar and Omar Tlaib, two duly elected members of Congress, from entering the country is unprecedented, outrageous, and a shocking disrespect of diplomatic protocol.
It also appears, on the surface, to be yet another perfect match between the Islamophobe-nationalist American president, Donald Trump, and the Islamophobe-nationalist Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Both are seeking to demonize two American Muslim lawmakers to drive a wedge between nationalist Jews and liberal politics, and both are craven in their disregard for the truth, facts, or the values in play.
A perfect marriage, one might say, as Israel’s decision, announced by its deputy foreign minister, came just hours after Trump tweeted that letting the Americans visit “would show great weakness.”
Beneath that surface, though, the two men face very different political landscapes–and there’s reason to hope this will all blow up in Trump’s face.
First, it’s worth remembering that this entire episode is a gigantic, stinking pile of shit.
Reps. Omar and Tlaib are being blocked supposedly because they support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The extent of that support is debatable, but even if it were wholehearted, the BDS movement is not the antisemitic hate-fest that right-wingers like to say it is. It is supported by tens of thousands of Jews. It is nonviolent. And it is a response to Israel’s 50-year occupation of the West Bank and refusal to negotiate in good faith with Palestinian leaders.
One need not support BDS (as I have written many times, I do not) to recognize that it is a valid form of political expression aimed at righting a massive injustice being done to millions of innocent people. If anything, Trump’s ultra-nationalism makes the case for BDS more urgent, not less.
Next, even if BDS were somehow objectionable, Trump and his ilk have slandered Omar and Tlaib far beyond anything having to do with it. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people,” Trump tweeted last week (a claim he repeated in his Tweet Thursday). And of course, Trump has infamously jeered that the two should “go back” to their home countries–which in Tlaib’s case is Michigan. Her ancestral home is Palestine, as Trump is blocking her from “going back.”
Finally, the very notion that Israel, a supposedly democratic country, bans people from entering based on a political opinion is, as my fellow rabbis like to say, a shanda. A scandal. A disgrace. Repugnant. Vile.
I’ve had numerous friends and colleagues put on Israel’s ban list (I wouldn’t be surprised if I myself am on it, based on the ten years I spent writing for a left-leaning Jewish newspaper) and even turned back at the airport in Israel after taking the 11-hour flight from New York. In some cases, Israel’s ban list is actually taken from online blacklists created anonymously with no transparency or accountability.
All that being said, this is still a win for Netanyahu. He’s facing yet another election next month, after he failed to form a government in the wake of the last one, and he has opponents on his right and his left. He needs to shore up his base, and time and time and time again, he’s used Islamophobia to do so.
Trump, however, is another story.
Netanyahu, remember, is a cold, calculating political animal who has survived literally decades of scandals—bribery, financial improprieties, you name it—through his wit, nerve, and political opportunism. Who knows what Netanyahu really believes—the point is, he knows what to say and do to win.
Trump couldn’t be more different. He works on instinct, which often serves him quite well; he intuitively empathizes with and exploits white grievance better than any other politician alive today. When Trump scapegoats Tlaib and Omar, sometimes along with their Squad-mates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, there is some political strategy there: tarnish the Democrat brand by associating it with its youngest, most liberal, least Christian, least white, and least male representatives.
But more than strategy, there’s Trump gut sense that Muslim and non-white women aren’t really American.
That sense is often in conflict with public opinion, however,
Mainstream Americans, Republicans included, did not approve of Trump’s racist mob shouting “send her back” at a rally. A majority of Americans, and 24 percent of Republicans, believe the chants to be racist. That’s why Trump had to awkwardly backpedal, absurdly insisting that he didn’t approve of the chants, even though video clearly shows him approving.
This decision could be similar. It’s one thing to attack Omar and Tlaib for careless comments or tweets, even when cynically blowing those out of proportion. It’s another thing to want to ban members of Congress from visiting a key U.S. ally.
Not only is doing so a breach of democratic norms—it’s nakedly prejudiced. It casts Omar and Tlaib as Muslims first, Americans second. And while doing so may play well with Trump’s base and with some “Israel First” American Jews, it is not how reasonable, moderates centrists see things. Like Superman in the McCarthyist '50s, they know that discriminating against people because of their religion is Un-American.
Clearly, there’s no one straw that’s going to break the Trumpist camel’s back. There have just been too many of these straws, for too long. Does anyone even remember Trump calling Mexican migrants “rapists” as he launched his campaign in 2015? Or insulting a Muslim blue-star family?
No, it won’t work that way. But the camel’s back is sagging, bit by bit and straw by straw. With each over-the-top comment, Trump loses a few more moderates in the suburbs of Philadelphia or Detroit; a few more Reagan Democrats; a few more Panera Moms. There won’t be one moment where Mitch McConnell’s GOP has finally had enough of Trump. Rather, there will be a thousand moments where one suburban Mom feels he’s gone too far this time.
This is another of those moments.
That’s the difference between Trump and Netanyahu. One still has to shore up his base, but the other has to appeal to the middle. And that, it seems, requires more self-control, judgment, and intelligence that Donald Trump has in his brain.