USCPR Executive Director Yousef Munayyer spoke with In These Times about Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel under the oppressive conditions imposed on her by the Israeli government.
On his initial reaction to Rep. Tlaib’s statement:
As a Palestinian, I think that what I felt is a feeling that many Palestinians have: the feeling of being heard and being seen. For a brief moment, others saw some of the really torturous decisions Palestinians are forced to make on a daily basis about things everyone else takes for granted. Rep. Rashida Tlaib wanted to go on this trip, to carry out her obligations as a member of Congress, and along with Rep. Omar, inform herself of the ways in which U.S. policy is impacting Palestinians on the ground. She also wanted to visit her homeland, the homeland of her family, and visit family members. Just to do so, she was forced to make a commitment to not be who she really is—to give up a part of herself, part of her rights, and commit to silence.
As I was watching this take place, and reading her statement, the only thing I could think about is how many Palestinians have had to make these calculations on a daily basis in so many different ways. It affects Palestinians inside of Palestine and out. Tlaib is from Detroit, and her family is from Palestine. Just to exercise her right to spend time with her family, she had to give up part of her humanity. Palestinians inside and outside of Palestine are always wrestling with these kinds of tradeoffs.
Palestinians are often faced with very difficult questions: Do I subject myself to interrogation at a checkpoint if it means I’ll be able to make it to a hospital appointment to get cancer treatment? Do I post on social media about what I think about the situation if it might mean never being able to see my family again? Do I stand back as Israeli soldiers detain my 5-year-old child if it means pushing back will leave them an orphan? These are the kinds of decisions Palestinians have to wrestle with every day. You’re asked to compromise parts of your humanity to have access to other parts.
What was so powerful about Tlaib’s decision, as difficult as I’m sure it was, is that it allowed the American public for the first time to have a little window into the daily realities of Palestinians and the way they face these torturous questions as full human beings. I think that’s why the Israelis are so concerned about her. She is forcing people to think about Palestinians as full human beings for the first time in spaces like Congress, where that has always been taboo and a nonstarter. The unfortunate reality is that that is revolutionary.
When you are living outside of Palestine, and your family is there, you have to take into calculation things most people will never have to think about. You have to think about whether the things you say or the positions you take or the arguments you make with people in a completely different country can have repercussions for your family thousands of miles away. Those are real things people in diaspora communities wrestle with all the time. When you’re living in a situation where you don’t have freedom or self-determination and you are extremely vulnerable, that becomes an added vulnerability. It’s a very heavy burden people in the diaspora have.
On the Democratic Party leadership’s response to the issue:
It is very clear the Democratic leadership feels they were betrayed and thrown under the bus by the Israeli government. Demoratic leaders knew these trips are annual events. AIPAC always takes annual events. They knew there were members of Congress expressing really pointed criticism of the U.S.- Israel relationship, and of the impact of groups like AIPAC. They were coming into this summer knowing this moment was going to potentially be a flashpoint. They have been for the past several months goaded into one catastrophe after another by right-wing forces—whether it’s Republicans in Congress, the president of the U.S., or other mouthpieces on the right that are not necessarily in government—to take action and isolate and marginalize their own caucus members for not carrying the orthodoxy on U.S. policy towards Israel. What they were hoping to do in this moment is to try to paper over what has become an undeniable partisan divide that is no longer just discernible in public opinion polling but also beginning to manifest itself in votes and actions and words of members of Congress.
What the Democratic Party leadership really wanted to have happen was for these trips to project bipartisan support for Israel. To make that happen, they needed assurances from the Israeli government, which they got, that Tlaib and Omar would not be denied entry on the later delegation, a scenario which would be a political nightmare. They got those assurances before they went, and they went on the basis this was not going to blow up on their face.
They did the whole AIPAC shuffle: took pictures with Israeli military and applauded Netanyahu. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was even asked by the Israeli media whether he agreed with Beto O’Rourke’s characterizations of Netanyahu as racist, and he said, ‘I don’t think he’s a racist. Period. No.’ They did all of this to try to project bipartisanship, and as soon as they got back to the U.S. they got double crossed. And the entire story became about the exact issue they wanted to pretend didn’t exist. You saw the response yesterday from Democrats saying this was wrong. The big takeaway message, which has been said over and over during the years—the Israelis have put all of their eggs in the basket of Republicans and white evangelicals. The Democratic leadership has to wrestle with what that means.
On the significance of Rep. Tlaib’s statement:
It’s important to contextualize this in the wave of right-wing nationalist politics on the rise in a number of places in the globe. Israel is a central component along with the forces that brought us Trump and forces that are in support of ethnic nationalism and anti-immigration in Europe, as well as right-wing forces in Brazil. Here in the U.S., the president has used racism and xenophobia and all forms of bigotry to pursue political power and a broader nationalist project. Donald Trump is not an everyday racist. He is a white supremacist demagogue who is using racism to pursue a broad nationalist project that is dangerous as hell. He’s instrumentalized Israel as part of this. Israel has willingly gone along, in part because their worldview reflects the ethno-nationalist idea that is part of what Trump wants to do.
On the brutal realities of Israeli oppression exposed by these events:
People are getting a tiny window into the reality. The reality is so much worse than what people have been exposed to in witnessing what Tlaib has had to wrestle with. It is much worse than that. Now they’re able to see it through the prism of an American elected official who happens to be Palestinian American.
It’s such a huge topic to discuss. Palestinians experience this across the globe and in different ways. Palestinians are living under military occupation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, where they are ruled by a military system that governs key choices in their life, and they have no say whatsoever in how that can be determined. Inside of Israel, you have Palestinian citizens of Israel living as second-class citizens in places where the government has passed into law the idea that Jewish citizens are superior—in the totality of the land, including the West Bank and Gaza. You have Palestinians living in the diaspora and in refugee camps who have never been able to return to their homes, never been allowed to return to their families, some living in a state of precariousness that in some instances is worse than what Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face.
Tlaib’s gut-wrenching decisions gave a tiny glimpse into the vast matrix into policies that are imposing these kinds of tradeoffs on Palestinians every day of their lives.