Australian Jewish leaders react to Omar, Tlaib ban

Rashida Tlaib (left) speaks at a news conference on Friday as Ilhan Omar (right) looks on. Photo: EPA/Craig Lassig

AUSTRALIAN Jewish leaders have defended Israel’s handling of plans by two controversial US Congresswomen to visit there, although some stated that tactically Israel may have blundered.

Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – the first two Muslims elected to Congress, who are both BDS supporters – had planned visits to Israel.

Omar’s attacks on Israel are widely viewed as antisemitic, and Tlaib has repeatedly slammed Israel’s West Bank presence. 

But the pair have also been celebrated as members of “the squad”, a grouping of four rookie Democrat Congresswomen of non-white backgrounds targeted by US President Donald Trump in a tweet last month telling them to “go back” to their “crime infested” homelands, which was seen as racist.

Following exhortations by Trump to bar Omar and Tlaib, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu did just that, drawing widespread dismay from US Democrats.

Israel later reversed itself on Tlaib, saying she could enter on compassionate grounds – to visit her West Bank grandmother – but she declined.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-CEO Alex Ryvchin told The AJN this week the pair “despise Israel” and the government “has every right to deny them the opportunity” to undermine the Israel–US relationship.

But he said if Omar and Tlaib had been admitted as planned, “their visit would have likely been no more than a minor irritant … But by denying them entry, the racist BDS campaign has been elevated to national prominence, and many in the Democratic Party who do not share their hatred of Israel, have now rallied behind the Congresswomen”.

Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler said the government “was within its rights to refuse entry” to the duo but “it is critical for the State of Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora, that support for Israel remains bipartisan and this decision does risk making Israel a wedge issue within the Democratic Party … Time will tell whether this decision causes a long-term rift with the Democratic Party and [with] segments of US Jewry”.

Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein said, “Israel had to weigh up important competing imperatives and make a difficult decision.”

PETER KOHN