Rabbi Olitzky: Israel should welcome Tlaib and Omar
Though perhaps uncommon, countries occasionly bar entry to foreign elected officials. In January, Peru barred entry to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his cabinet. This move followed a decision by twelve Latin American countries (and Canada) not to grant recognition to Maduro’s hardline government after his controversial re-election in May 2018. Even the United States called the election a “sham.”
And here we are today, two days after Israel announced that its proverbial doors would be closed to members of the United States House of Representatives.
Unlike in Maduro’s case, no one is contesting the elections of Reps. Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Omar (D-Minn.). In fact, Omar won with the largest margin of any newly elected member of Congress, in a district (my district) with the largest voter turnout in the country.
But this does not mean Omar or Tlaib are without controversy. Omar has engaged in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric and openly supports the anti-peace boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement. Tlaib also openly supports a one-state solution. Indeed, none of these efforts pave the path to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They have fomented further hatred and discord.
Nevertheless, members of the United States Congress are a special case. They should be allowed to experience Israel’s vibrant democracy, irrespective of their political views or travel motives.
And we can be comforted knowing that open doors are not necessarily open arms. Still, welcoming these congresswomen does not suggest support for their positions or future candidacies. Open doors loudly and strongly emphasize the depth and significance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Beyond the political implications, and beyond the alliance between the U.S. and the state of Israel, there is a core Jewishness upon which the state is predicated. The most repeated commandment in the Five Books of Moses is to welcome the stranger.
The notion of welcoming the stranger is central to the Torah, and it is the reason the Jewish people have survived throughout the generations. In every generation, members of the Jewish community reflect on what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land—and many of them throughout the generations have felt that way themselves and were continuously treated that way.
The early stages of the Passover Seder proclaim: “Let all who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy come and celebrate Passover.” And, throughout history, in general, the Jews have been welcomed when they were welcoming.
Further, there are two key national leaders who welcomed the Jews, as a result of their virtue of welcoming the stranger.
Many scholars make the case that the French Revolution marked the dawn of modern Jewish history. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who enacted laws that emancipated French Jews, establishing them as equal citizens to other French citizens. And this continued throughout the conquest of the First French Empire.
Perhaps even closer to home is our forefather George Washington. On August 21, 1790, President Washington addressed a letter to Moses Seixas and the Hebrew Congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. There he wrote: “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Both leaders invoked actions of welcome and took their position one step further, ensuring that the Jews were not treated, nor felt, as strangers.
Effectively, a core Jewish virtue translated into a core American virtue, and a French virtue, and hopefully a global virtue.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to ignore this core virtue in barring entry to Tlaib and Omar. We know today that the pendulum has swung slightly, with the doors opening for a “humanitarian visit” so that Rep. Tlaib can visit her ailing grandmother. However, as one might have suspected, now the focus and dialogue are obfuscated. Tlaib has reversed her request citing oppressive and racist restrictions—and perhaps spinning this into another public relations opportunity.
These congresswomen are not strangers. They may not be friends of Israel, but the United States of America is a friend, a strong and committed friend.
Ironically, by ignoring the core virtue of welcoming, Netanyahu has begun to erode the Jewish character of the state of Israel, even if his intention in barring them entry is to ensure it.
And if we want to survive, we must continue the path of welcoming—right now.
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota.