Israel’s Snub of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib Is a Gift for the BDS Movement

By (Sam Brodey)
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

When the government of Israel blocked Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) from entering the country over their support of a movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel, it may have been a public blow to the two lawmakers—but a gift for the BDS movement. 

The activists who support the controversial strategy to isolate the Jewish state quickly seized on the move as proof that the Israeli government is fearful their movement is gathering steam. They also held it up as further proof for their argument that Israel is a discriminatory state with undemocratic tendencies—one that just bowed to pressure from President Trump, who has openly waged war on the recently elected congresswomen.

This week could prove to be a defining juncture for BDS and the broader protest movement against Israel, said Stefanie Fox, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish-American advocacy group that favors BDS. 

“This is a moment that is an opportunity and an obligation to see with clear eyes what is and has been happening to Palestinians for many decades,” she told The Daily Beast.

The fact that the support of two members of Congress for BDS sparked this controversy is seen as a sign of how far the movement has come. For the first time, it has vocal, high-profile advocates in federal office who are eager to challenge Capitol Hill’s long-standing, unequivocal support for the state of Israel. “It’s quite remarkable,” said Fox, “to see the wave cresting.” 

Among the vast majority of lawmakers, however, BDS is and has long been considered an unacceptable, fringe idea. Just last month, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a symbolic resolution opposing BDS—just 17 members voted against it. But a range of stakeholders in the debate over Israel policy are increasingly concerned that, despite its broad lack of support, BDS could become a focal point for a breakdown of U.S.-Israel ties in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s move to ban the congresswomen from Israel. 

“The only people to gain through this campaign against the BDS movement are the BDS activists themselves,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the advocacy group J Street, which shares the goal of changing the U.S.-Israel status quo but opposes BDS.

“The more you fight them and elevate their status into an existential threat to the state, the more they become a compelling outlet for people’s unhappiness over what’s going on in the West Bank,” he told The Daily Beast on Friday. Israel, he said, “played right into the hands of their critics.”

BDS began in 2005, launched by Palestinian activists seeking to emulate the international pressure campaign against apartheid-era South Africa in order to force Israel to grant further human rights protections to Palestinians and to withdraw from their territories in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. 

Since then, BDS has failed to garner popular support in the U.S., and has been mostly relegated to the most left-wing corners of the Israel protest movement. It’s been called inherently anti-Semitic by its critics and by the Anti-Defamation League, a leading watchdog group. It does not explicitly advocate for a one or two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, prompting many of its detractors to argue BDS favors the destruction of the Jewish state.

Both lawmakers’ embraces of BDS have been marked by public backtracking and inconsistencies. Omar only clearly expressed support for the movement after her election to Congress in the 2018 midterm, seemingly going back on a claim she made in a Democratic primary debate that BDS was “not helpful in getting that two-state solution.” 

Tlaib made a similar reversal: in the lead-up to her competitive 2018 election, she earned J Street’s endorsement by affirming support for a two-state solution and current levels of aid to Israel. After she won, Tlaib said in an interview “this whole idea of a two-state solution, it doesn’t work.” 

The offices of Omar and Tlaib did not return comment for this story.

The Israeli state has, since 2017, banned foreign supporters of BDS from entering the country. It’s the main reason authorities there gave for blocking Omar and Tlaib—even though some Israeli officials had been telling U.S. counterparts the two would be allowed to enter—and it’s also what American defenders of Israel have pointed to in justifying the move.

Indeed, Omar and Tlaib’s support for BDS has provided political fodder for the Republicans and Democrats who have sustained the unequivocal support for Israel advocated by influential groups like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. 

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The GOP in particular has been eager to use Omar and Tlaib’s support of BDS as evidence that Democrats are condoning extremism in their ranks and undermining the U.S.-Israel relationship. The July vote in the House to condemn BDS came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) successfully pushed anti-BDS legislation through the Senate and quickly raised questions over why House Democrats didn’t immediately embrace it. 

A House Republican leadership aide confirmed to The Daily Beast that they intend to keep BDS front-and-center on Capitol Hill when lawmakers return from the August recess. 

House Democrats are already bracing for that move. “I don’t think BDS, with respect to Congress, is a real movement at all,” said a Democratic aide. “But BDS has been used as a strawman by the Republicans, and by strong, pro-Israel Democrats, to create a threat that doesn’t really exist.”

Some Democrats are predicting that this week’s BDS-sparked firestorm will lead to lasting fissures in the pro-Israel consensus on the Hill, particularly among Democrats. “Now we’re going to see in the weeks leading up to the [Israeli] election, as the rhetoric increases, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for Democrats to have this blank check mentality in support of the Israeli government,” said the Democratic aide. “It’s going to be a real issue on the [U.S.] presidential campaign.”

Some Democratic supporters of Israel in Congress, meanwhile, are angrier at Netanyahu and his government for amplifying Omar and Tlaib’s criticisms of Israel, which they disagree with. Two Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Dean Phillips (D-MN) and Ro Khanna (D-CA), told The Daily Beast on Friday that their colleagues’ protest of Israel has been given a greater platform and lots of oxygen thanks to the week’s controversy.

“I think time will prove that it was a decision that will ultimately be to the detriment of Israel’s reputation around the world,” said Phillips, “and has certainly compromised one of the most important relationships with an ally that the U.S. has with anybody in the world.”

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