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Refusing to cross Israel’s ideological borders


I am her dream manifested, I’m her free bird so why would I come back and be caged and bow down? – Rep. Rashida Tlaib

The hashtag #MyPalestinianSitty trended on social media last week after Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was barred from returning to Palestine to visit her ailing grandmother. In an attempt to remedy the public backlash to their decision, Israel allowed Tlaib access under one condition: that she not promote the BDS movement during her visit. Tlaib ultimately turned it down, citing that it would be her Sitty’s wish for her to liberate Palestine from abroad rather than concede her political ideologies and familial histories to visit once. For many, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After citing itself as the “only democracy in the Middle East,” the exclusionary nature of settler colonial states reared its ugly head. This was not a democracy, but rather an ethnonationalist state predicated on the displacement and ethnic cleansing of an entire indigenous population. In response, #BoycottIsrael trended on Twitter and center democrats such as Nancy Pelosi condemned the state’s actions.

However, the sad fact of the matter is that Rashida Tlaib’s experiences entering Palestine are a microcosm for every Palestinian that has ever tried to go home. What Tlaib and Omar’s delegation prove, is that Israel’s borders are not just physical, they are political. They transcend lines on a map and constitute ideological values as well.

The majority of Palestinian, non-Israeli citizens, flying into Ben Gurion airport or crossing the Allenby bridge from Jordan to Palestine know the process well. Hours are spent being questioned, strip searched, and detained. These are long and arduous interrogations. An Israeli manufactured litmus test: Why are you entering our country and do you support and believe in Israel? These questions are loaded with ideological values. You may only enter this territory if you’re politically conservative and as long as you unabashadley support Israel even after you leave. These questions force Palestinians to underplay their solidarity organizing, their identities, and their family histories. These questions require Palestinians to pledge allegiance to a state that made them leave their homes and families in the first place. These are ideological borders that are fundamentally racialized and exclusionary.

AIPAC sponsors a variety of delegations to Israel for Congress, police agencies, homeland security, border patrol and ICE. They’re experts at facilitating meetings between the delegates and both Israeli military and political officials. Needless to say Palestinians, with the exception of the Palestinian Authority (PA), are rarely part of the equation. Countless US officials have been on government or AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel, whether we know about them or not. While we have information about what is planned for police that go to Israel, itineraries of congressional trips are hidden from the US public. Last week, a solidarity group even filed an ethics complaint against AIPAC precisely because what is planned for these trips is not usually available to the public. This year however, journalist Alex Kane managed to obtain a copy of the AIPAC itinerary. The Democratic delegation met people such as Yossi Klein Halevi, who claims that anti-Zionists cannot be Jewish, and settlement leaders like Oded Revivi. They received briefings in settlements by former military officers that are now professors at institutions complicit in the occupation, such as IDC Herzliya and think-tanks including the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies – INSS (see Uri Yacobi Keller). Additionally, delegates are given briefings in the occupied Golan Heights by former military personnel and meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Unsurprisingly only 180 minutes out of the six-day trip are dedicated to meeting with Palestinians. Half of this time is spent with one individual from the PA (Abbas) while the other half with “Palestinian students and entrepreneurs.” These stops on the AIPAC itinerary make clear that AIPAC’s delegations are one-sided and peddle a singular narrative on the question of Palestine that effectively erases Palestinians from the equation. With no regards to the people, it is a conversation between states, about states, and for states.

In response, Rashida Tlaib announced that she would lead an independent delegation to Palestine and in turn refused the AIPAC sponsored trip. She said:

“I want us to see that segregation and how that has really harmed us being able to achieve real peace in that region… I don’t think AIPAC provides a real, fair lens into this issue. It’s one-sided. … [They] have these lavish trips to Israel, but they don’t show the side that I know is real, which is what’s happening to my grandmother and what’s happening to my family there.”

From this quote alone, it becomes clear that Tlaib was driven by the Palestinian people. Questions of security, separation walls, and other forms of surveillance, while included in the agenda, were not of priority for her. Instead, doing their job as Congress members and witnessing the realities on the ground of those most-impacted yet intentionally silenced was the ultimate goal of the trip. Ilhan Omar tweeted that the delegation would include: holding meetings with Jewish and Palestinian Knesset members, Israeli security officials, US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. They would tour Hebron, and receive briefings on the Bedouin community in East Jerusalem and the effect of humanitarian aid cuts on Palestinians. They planned to have a video conference with youth from Gaza, and visit Bethlehem and the Separation Wall. Other members of Congress, Omar tweeted, have gone on similar trips. Thus, on an objective level, the itinerary itself was not polarizing or controversial. Tlaib and Omar themselves however, are.

Tlaib and Omar’s refusal to visit Israel with AIPAC was more than a condemnation of the lobbying group itself, it is a rejection of the ideological commitment it requires.

AIPAC’s trip is about more than just obfuscating the lived experiences of Palestinians, the trip also mandates delegates to support Israel long after the trip ends – to expand Israel’s ideological borders into the national fabric of the United States and convince their constituents of the same. Tlaib and Omar created their own itinerary because their beliefs ran contrary to those of AIPAC’s. As progressive, Muslim Congressmembers of color, they had their their own terms and refused to pacify the values that got them elected in the first place. They represent the growing acknowledgement that Israel is a settler-colonial state predicated on the continued exclusion and displacement of indigenous people. They are a threat to the very fantasies that have sustained Israel throughout the decades.

Their barring from entering Palestine had nothing to do with their itinerary, it had to do with their political record that started long before they planned the trip. We say this confidently as Palestinians who have organized for the liberation of our people. Every Palestinian who has been vocal or active and has tried to take a trip to go home or visit family, has to make political concessions. They are pulled aside at customs because of their Arabic name, they are questioned because their faces are on anti-Zionist blacklists such as Canary Mission, they are demonized and condemned by US bills that sanction anti-BDS as a state tool. What we are doing in Palestine is not as threatening to Israel as what we are doing for Palestine. Tlaib and Omar have gone on record to condemn the Zionist state for the blockade and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, settlements and settler violence, displacement of Bedouins, and its treatment of Palestinian children to name a few. While their itineraries might have been balanced, their politics and identities preceded them. It is because of Tlaib’s principled refusal of Israel’s ideological borders, that the Trump and Netanyahu administrations demanded she concede her right to boycott in exchange for entrance.

If Israel truly were a democracy, then the politics of individuals would not factor into accepting or rejecting visitors. However, as a settler-colonial state, one of the only ways that Israel can sustain itself is through exclusion. Palestinians cannot enter their ancestral homeland because we are a reminder of the violent foundations of the Zionist state. Tlaib could not visit her Sitty not only because she undeniably supports BDS, but also because she is uncompromisingly, unapologetically, and loudly Palestinian.

Zachariah Barghouti

Zachariah Barghouti is an organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) USA, New York chapter.

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Nicholas Kattoura

Nicholas Kattoura is a Palestinian-American and graduated from Oberlin College in May 2019.

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7 Responses

  1. Misterioso on August 23, 2019, 10:50 am

    “I’m Palestinian. Like Rashida Tlaib, I Am Barred From Seeing My Family.” In These Times, Aug. 20/19 – by Sandra Tamari

    “Rep. Tlaib’s experience is familiar to many Palestinians.”

    “Israel’s treatment of U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) has made Israel’s complete control over Palestinian lives clear. Rep. Tlaib, a Palestinian-American with family in the occupied West Bank, was forced to make a choice between her right to visit her grandmother and her right to political speech against Israeli oppression. She ultimately chose the collective over the personal: She refused Israel’s demeaning conditions that would have granted her a ‘humanitarian’ exception to enter Palestine, so long as she refrained from advocating for a boycott of Israel during her visit. Rep. Tlaib explained in a press conference in Minneapolis on August 19, ‘My grandmother said it beautifully when she said I am her dream manifested. I am her free bird, so why would I come back and be caged?’

    “Rep. Tlaib’s experience is familiar to many Palestinians, including myself. I, too, was barred from seeing my family in Palestine because of my advocacy for freedom and justice for Palestinians. In May 2012, I traveled to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv to participate in an interfaith delegation and to attend my cousin’s wedding in Ramallah. I presented my U.S. passport to Israeli authorities. At least five Israeli interrogators asked for the names of my father and grandfather; the names likely sounded too ‘Arab’ for the interrogators, who asked me numerous questions about where my father was born. I was taken aside and questioned at least five times.

    “At one point, an interrogator from Shin Bet turned his computer around and told me to log in to my email account. He threatened that if I didn’t comply, my employer would be contacted and would subsequently fire me. I was told that Israel and the U.S. have a close relationship and that I might not be allowed to go back home. After searching for information about me online, my interrogator asked me threateningly why I was ‘active.’

    “When I contacted the U.S. embassy to report my detention and ask for assistance, the embassy employee, whose official title I do not know, told me, ‘If you are not Jewish, there is nothing we can do to help you.’ After eight hours, an Israeli woman I had never seen before verbally informed me that I was a threat to the security of Israel. I was taken to a detention center near the airport and kept in a cell overnight. The next day I was sent back to the United States.

    “Palestinians like myself have no access to our homeland except at Israel’s whim. Because of the state’s exclusionary policies, I have not seen my family in Palestine in over 10 years. A whole generation of my young cousins has grown up, gotten married and had children of their own. I only know them through photographs.

    “My own father, born and raised in the West Bank city of Ramallah, can only return to Palestine as a ‘tourist’ on his U.S. passport. Israel can deny his entry at any time. Millions of other Palestinians—whose parents and grandparents fled or were expelled from Palestine during the 1948 war—remain barred from returning home. They remain refugees. Meanwhile, any Jewish person anywhere, even those with no family connections in Israel, can travel to Ben Gurion airport and immediately acquire Israeli citizenship.

    “Israel’s exclusionary policies are not limited to keeping Palestinians out: They also deny return for thousands of Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship. Take the case of Salwa Copty, born in July 1948. Her family lived in the village of Ma’alul outside of Nazareth, but the village was occupied and destroyed by Israeli forces in 1948. Salwa and her family became refugees, internally displaced within the state of Israel.

    “Salwa’s father was killed by Israeli forces a few months before Salwa was born, and was buried near the village. That area is now the location of an Israeli military base. Since 2000, Salwa has repeatedly appealed to the Israeli authorities to allow her to visit her father’s grave inside the base. It was only after the intervention of the legal center Adalah that Salwa finally won her right to visit her father’s burial site just last week. (Full disclosure: I am the executive director of Adalah Justice Project. We are independent of Adalah the Legal Center, but we work closely to support its work.)

    “’Since 1948,’ says Adalah’s general director Hassan Jabareen, ‘Israeli policy has been to prohibit Palestinian family unification, and to restrict Palestinians’ right to enter and leave their homeland freely. This policy has worked to fragment them, which has created a political disaster and a humanitarian crisis for the 12 million Palestinian people around the world.’
    “That policy applies as much to Rashida Tlaib and her living grandmother as it does to Salwa Copty and her deceased father. Indeed, Rep. Tlaib’s ordeal last week demonstrates that no Palestinian can escape Israel’s racism—not even an elected member of U.S. Congress.

    “This is what Israeli leaders mean when they call Israel a Jewish state. This racist ideology drives legislation like the Jewish Nation State Law, which declares that Jews alone have the right to self-determination in all land under Israeli control. Within this supremacist framework, Palestinians must be uprooted, disconnected and erased from the land and their identity as a people.

    “Despite the personal toll incurred, Israel’s latest blunder in banning Rep. Tlaib has elevated Palestinians’ demands for their right of return into U.S. mainstream discourse and policy debates. Support is growing in the U.S. for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel to support Palestinian rights and self-determination. This growing support scares both Israeli and U.S. leaders who are committed to maintaining the status quo of Israel’s domination over Palestinians and further territorial expansion. In Israel, support for BDS is a civil offense, and international supporters of BDS can be barred from entry into the country under a law passed in 2017. Last month, the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a resolution, H.R. 246, condemning BDS. Palestinians owe Rep. Tlaib gratitude for sticking to her political principles in order to bring the Palestinian collective struggle for return, freedom and equality into sharp focus.”

  2. brent on August 30, 2019, 12:48 pm

    Had Talib and Omar gone with the AIPAC tour, before continuing with theirs, they could have raised questions to enlightened the other Members.

    • Mooser on August 30, 2019, 5:51 pm

      “Had Talib and Omar gone with the AIPAC tour…”

      “brent”, there have been several articles about what happens when anybody questions anything on an AIPAC or Birthright tour.

      But you just go on pretending that the Israel-Palestine issue is just like a US state or municipality not implementing Civil Rights or Voting Rights laws fast enough.

    • Eva Smagacz on August 31, 2019, 9:42 am

      Brent, you said:

      Had Talib and Omar gone with the AIPAC tour

      I am sure this is just a typing error that made you substitute the name TLAIB which means seeker in arabic with the word TALIB which implies membership of Taliban – fundamentalist sunni muslim movement in Afghanistan.

      • echinococcus on August 31, 2019, 5:33 pm

        Sorry to object, Eva. Talib is a requester, by extension a seeker > a student, and taliban is its plural. In this particular case (can’t see how it “implies” anything, it applies to students in general), students of religion or so one supposes. Even if I don’t know the language too well.

      • Mooser on August 31, 2019, 6:59 pm

        “I am sure this is just a typing error…”

        “brent” is a “longtime follower of Palestine Question”.

      • Eva Smagacz on September 2, 2019, 4:18 am


        Thank you. I didn’t know that talib means a student in Arabic. I thought the word was pashtun in origin. I do wonder if brent knew it, though…..

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