By Seraj Assi
Last month, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to urge Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress, “to go back to her country.”
Yesterday, after Tlaib decided to go back to her country, to visit her family in the West Bank, Trump again took to Twitter to press Israel to block the Detroit congresswoman, along with Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar, from entering Israel and the Occupied Territories. “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” Trump insisted. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.”
Israel followed Trump’s advice (and accepted the ammunition of Democrats who attacked Omar). On Thursday, the government announced the two congresswomen were personae non gratae. In an official statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained: “Israeli law prohibits the entry into Israel of those who call for and work to impose boycotts on Israel. Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar are leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress.”
Immediately, David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, released a statement praising the ban: “The United States supports and respects the decision of the government of Israel to deny entry of the Tlaib/Omar delegation,” it read. (Bernie Sanders vehemently disagreed, saying last night on MSNBC: “If Israel doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country . . . maybe they can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel.”)
When the president of the United States urges another country to prevent the entry of US congresswomen, it’s a perilous precedent. Yet the move is hardly surprising given Trump’s anti-Palestinian record. You could even call it a product of Palestinophobia, a term that hardly exists, but is so prevalent in US politics it may as well become part of the lexicon.
Tlaib, in particular, is tailor-made to trigger Trump: She was sworn in on the Quran in her traditional Palestinian thobe. She supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and opposes Israel’s occupation. On her first day in office, she seized on a congressional map of Israel and sketched the word “Palestine” on it. And she herself is Palestinian, which, for a president fond of demonizing Palestinians, is enough to justify telling a congresswoman who was born in the United States to “go back to where you came from.”
Trump’s antipathy for Palestine extends to the Palestinian people as a whole. As he put it in a lavishly capitalized tweet last January: “We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect.” Trump’s administration has since inflicted a series of collective punishments on Palestinians, ranging from moving the US embassy to Jerusalem to shutting down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s diplomatic office in Washington to endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex the West Bank.
But it’s not just Trump.
Democrats have enabled anti-Palestinian sentiment by parroting unfounded charges of antisemitism against Omar. They were the ones that decided to push a resolution slapping down the Minnesota representative for daring to break with the bipartisan consensus on Israel. They were the ones who gave Trump the rhetorical cudgel he’s eagerly used to bludgeon Omar and Tlaib.
The bipartisan hysteria surrounding the BDS movement — exhibit A for Palestinophobia — is another good example. US lawmakers and state legislators, both Democratic and Republican, have all but declared war on the movement (which seeks to pressure Israel to end its occupation), enacting over 120 anti-BDS laws that criminalize Palestinian rights activism in dozens of states. Following suit early this year, the Senate approved the Combating BDS Act of 2019, which clearly violates the First Amendment.
What perhaps distinguishes “Palestinophobia” from other political phobias is that it’s so severe among some US politicians that they resort to denying the existence of the derided object itself. For Mike Huckabee: “There’s really no such thing as the Palestinians.” For Newt Gingrich: “There was no Palestine as a state, I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people.”
Another symptom is blame-shifting, which involves faulting Palestinians, whether under occupation in the West Bank or under siege in Gaza, for their own dire conditions. Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, betrayed this symptom when he stood at the new US embassy in Jerusalem last year and miscast peaceful Palestinian protestors in Gaza “as part of the problem and not part of the solution.” Fifty Palestinians were killed by Israel as Kushner delivered his speech.
Following the massacre, US diplomats, led by Nikki Haley, launched an aggressive campaign to provide diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations, blocking every single resolution that sought to hold Israel accountable for its atrocities against Palestinians. In a series of racist gestures, Haley walked out of the UN chamber as the Palestinian UN envoy began to speak, assured AIPAC that “there is a new sheriff in town,” and warned Palestinians, “I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because if I see something wrong, we’re going to kick them every single time.” John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, threatened to eliminate the International Criminal Court altogether for its investigation into Israel’s war crimes in Gaza. The Trump team then pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council, citing “anti-Israel prejudice.” Showing total disregard for Palestinian lives, the administration was also quick to condemn a recent UN report that found Israel guilty of war crimes in Gaza.
Palestinophobia targets even the most powerless — namely, Palestinian refugees. Haley launched her UN mission by calling for a reexamination of Palestinians’ right of return. Kushner called for “an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA.” Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East peace envoy, warned that UNRWA “perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”
The anti-Palestinian animus is not confined to policymakers. Palestinians are rarely heard in the mainstream media, as if they, to quote the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, “have no permission to narrate.” Words like “occupation” and “apartheid” are taboo in many media outlets, and Palestinian is still a dirty word, not only in right-wing outlets like Fox News, but also in centrist and left-leaning ones. Just last week, CNN’s Jake Tapper used the mass shooting in El Paso to compare Palestinians to white nationalists. Last June, the Times published an opinion article by former Israel UN ambassador Danny Danon calling on Palestinians to declare a “national suicide” and surrender to Israeli occupation and apartheid.
Palestinophobia is also rife on US campuses, where the space for Palestinian rights activism is shrinking thanks to pro-Israel blacklisters like Canary Mission. Most recently, Fordham University, in a stark violation of free speech on campus, denied official recognition to Students for Justice in Palestine, a student organization that supports BDS and opposes Israel’s occupation. (A New York judge struck down Fordham’s ban last week.)
And Tlaib and Omar aren’t the only individuals Palestinophobia has recently ensnared. Last year, Palestinian-American educator Bahia Amawi lost her job at a Texas elementary school for refusing to sign a “pro-Israel loyalty oath.” CNN fired commentator Marc Lamont Hill for criticizing Israel’s occupation and gross violations of Palestinian rights in a UN speech. A civil rights group in Birmingham, Alabama reversed its decision to honor Angela Davis, the prominent radical scholar and BDS supporter, amid pro-Israel protests.
Trump’s Twitter barrage against Tlaib is only a symptom of a deep-seated animosity toward Palestinians in US politics and the media. Despite some positive change in recent years, including the election of Tlaib and Omar, and the growing support for Palestinian rights among young people and progressive Jews in the US, Palestinophobia is unlikely to disappear overnight, and will undoubtedly outlast Trump. That’s because collective phobias tend to linger, and unlike individual phobias, they cannot be cured within a few sessions, but will take years, perhaps generations, of bottom-up activism.