By Zachariah Barghouti and Nicholas Kattoura
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.