When grandma became a political football

Ilhan Omar (right) and Rashida Tlaib. Photo: EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

WITH all the polemics last week surrounding the visit-on/visit-off of two members of US Congress, let us not lose sight of a central element in the affair, writes Yisrael Medad.

Beyond the politics, a 90-year-old grandmother was a central figure in the tragi-comedy. Rashida Tlaib used her, as if she were some sort of human shield. As she wrote, she refused to go because she viewed the possibility of coming, for which she explicitly requested, as an act that would be “humiliating me & use my love for my sity [grandmother] to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies”. Yet just a scant few hour earlier, she published this: 

“My sity wanted to pick figs w/me. I broke down reading this & worry every single day after I won for my family’s safety.”

Muftia Tlaib, the maternal grandmother of US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Photo: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

Turning down Israel’s offer was Tlaib proving how cold-hearted she really is. She simply played politics with her grandmother.

Tlaib then callously wrote, “Silencing me & treating me like a criminal is not what she wants for me. It would kill a piece of me.” That it just might kill a piece of her grandmother was less important.

She could have come to visit her and after leaving continue to excoriate Israel. But no, she had to manipulate her grandmother and use her as an extra in her production.

Of course, she had Jewish support, from Jewish Voice for Peace to Breaking the Silence to Emma Goldberg writing in The Guardian. Jewish Senator Bernie Sanders again threatened to cut off funds to Israel. Tlaib’s partner in crime, Ilhan Omar, did the same, tweeting, “We should be leveraging that aid to stop the settlements and ensure full rights for Palestinians.” 

Tlaib compared her prevention of entry to a previous instance of a black congressman being denied entry into South Africa, though didn’t seek to justify her use of the notorious Miftah, Hanan Ashrawi’s NGO to arrange her trip.

The goal of the trip “was to witness firsthand what is happening on the ground in Palestine”. Israel didn’t and doesn’t exist for them. As Arsen Ostrovsky retorted to Omar, “Let’s be clear: The goal of your trip was nothing more than a cheap PR exercise to advance your extremist, racist and antisemitic agenda or promote BDS. Why should Israel welcome you?”

In response to Israel’s official explanation of the banning, Omar promoted IfNotNow and other anti-Israel groups to justify that she indeed would be meeting “Israel officials”. But even The Forward [known for its left-wing perspective] had to admit that Miftah, the group that had “arranged Tlaib and Omar’s West Bank trip once claimed Jews put Christian blood in matzah”, although it also provided vicious anti-Jewish Hebron activist Issa Amro with an op-ed platform.

Their campaign is clear. J.E. Dyer summarised so: “They’ve been labouring for months to shift the Overton window for American discourse on Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, lobbing out Hamas talking points and antisemitic tropes.” 

Indeed, Benjamin Netanyahu’s pushback zeroed in on this: “their itinerary for their visit in Israel … revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy.”

It’s a shame so many American Jewish organisations, including AIPAC and establishment people, as well as ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt, raced to join in the condemnation, more to illustrate their obsession over US President Donald Trump than anything to do with Israel. A US congressman twice tweeted antisemitic tropes. And David Suissa asked one of the more pertinent questions: “Why were Omar and Tlaib afraid to meet Israelis?” – that is, a pluralist and comprehensive group of Israelis representing all sides of all the issues?

Just like Tlaib wasn’t honest in her desire for a humanitarian consideration to visit (perhaps for the last time) her grandmother, they were not interested in learning and in hearing a balanced presentation. Bill Maher summed it up as: “BDS is a bullshit purity test,” noting its ridiculous premise and lack of knowledge by those promoting it.

I had originally thought the trip could have been authorised, as Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer had indicated. My presumption was that Israel was adequately prepared for a counter-offensive and able to quickly react to any of the expected bad PR during the trip. I had suggested she be asked to listen, firsthand, to Jews like me residing in Judea and Samaria. Even if she refused, that could be utilised to highlight her absolute unwillingness to learn.

I admit: I am less than confident in Israel’s ability to correctly and creatively respond in such a situation, and I was unaware of how negative and exclusive the trip being organised was. Israel now needs to use this opportunity not to engage with the BDS promoters, but to combat them. To go on the offensive and not just engage in defensive positioning.

If Tlaib, her advisers and her comrades in Congress sought to play Israel for a fool, it’s Israel’s responsibility, especially given the obvious fellow-travelling of too much of the mainstream media, to openly deconstruct the BDS movement, its supporters and its promoters in an assertive fashion.

Yisrael Medad is an American-born Israeli journalist and commentator.