In 609 BCE, Josiah, the young king of Judea, made a fateful decision about whether to let an Egyptian army pass through his borders, a move that ultimately led to his death and the Babylonian Exile.
Although 2,628 years have passed, deciding who can enter the Jewish state remains a challenging question. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was put in a difficult situation by Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar’s planned visit, which presented him with a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, Netanyahu did not want to play into their hands and prove their charges that Israel limits democracy and has something to hide. He certainly did not want to cause problems for American Jewish organizations or risk Israel’s bipartisan relationship with the United States. Perhaps ignoring the visit of the Congress members and waiting patiently for the world to forget about the visit of these fringe politicians would have been the right thing to do.
On the other hand, these women are considered by some to be anti-Semites who were up to no good. Their itinerary contained no meetings with any Israelis. Even if they have tough questions for Israel, they were not looking for answers but simply to embarrass and humiliate the Jewish state.
Reps. Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Omar (D-Minn.) are nothing like their more than 70 Democratic and Republican colleagues, who have visited Israel over the past three weeks and met with both Netanyahu and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
It should be noted that the United States also has limits on who can enter this country, and chose to deny the entry of then-Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari in 2012. (The State Department claimed that it wouldn’t allow him to enter the country because of his ties to a terrorist group; Ben-Ari is a long-time follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist group.) Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote a century ago that free speech in America does not include falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.
Every democracy would take steps against those who want to destroy it. The BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, the aims of which the congresswomen’s trip was set to advance, wants to destroy the state of Israel. The trip was set to be cosponsored by Miftah, a Ramallah-based organization whose leaders not only back BDS but have expressed sympathy for suicide bombers.
The most controversial reason for not letting in Tlaib and Omar was that President Trump asked Netanyahu not to do so and tweeted that letting them in would show “weakness,” in the president’s words. Netanyahu obviously cannot afford to be seen as weak with an election ahead, and this president has done so much for Israel that his request, reasonable or not, could not be ignored.
It could be argued that Trump’s motives are impure and Netanyahu harmed Israel by letting Trump use him to paint the Democratic Party in the extremist image of Tlaib and Omar. But if that is what it takes for Trump to win re-election, despite his fickle behavior on both the Middle East and the economy, that is clearly in Israel’s interest because no potential opponent would do for Israel what Trump has done.
For all those reasons, the decision by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, to give legitimacy to Israel’s critics by scolding Israel for not permitting Tlaib and Omar into the country was incorrect, even though it was understandable.
Further, AIPAC is supposed to follow the lead from Israel; Israel is not supposed to follow the lead from AIPAC. In the final analysis, Israel does not need to aid the enemy in the name of bipartisanship, and a congressional badge is not a shield for anti-Semitism.
Facing that double-edged sword, Netanyahu made the right decision. The result should be that unlike the negative future brought by Josiah’s decision, Netanyahu’s should enable Israel to continue to thrive.
Martin Oliner is the co-president of the Religious Zionists of America and chairman of the Center for Righteousness and Integrity and serves as a committee member of the Jewish Agency. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.