Cancelled Israel Trip: New Controversy, Same Old Misleading Coverage

(Updated August 28, 2019)

Freshmen Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar planned a trip to Israel. The Israeli government said it would facilitate the visit. Then it said it wouldn’t. Then Tlaib said she only wanted to see her aging grandmother one last time. Then Israel said she certainly could do that.  Then she said she refuses to do that.  

So goes the latest controversy about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the two divisive US Representatives who haven’t managed, since even before their election, to avoid trampling on Jewish concerns.

The cancelled visit dominated the news cycle, and was plastered on the front page of USA Today, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Debates on social media focused on the pros, cons, costs, and benefits of Israel’s decision, while news and opinion coverage speculated how Israel’s handling of the situation might affect the relationship between Israel and the U.S., its closest ally.

But the conversation about how Israel’s choices could potentially harm the country’s image in the eyes of Americans, and particularly American Jewish Democrats, tended to miss a vital point: When it comes to public opinion, it’s not, in fact, all about the Benjamin.

Benjamin Netanyahu, that is. The Israeli prime minister’s handing of the planned visit may have been unpopular with some Americans, including with some strong supporters of the Jewish state. But American opinion about the Jewish state doesn’t hinge on Israel’s visa decisions, popular or not. More important is the way those decisions are represented, framed, contextualized, and promoted by those with the power to shape public understanding: The media.

And with so much noise and heat generated by the journalists and commentators who fixated on the story, it’s clear that any shift in historically strong American support for Israel, if such a shift transpires, would be less a referendum on a controversial policy than a consequence of how the conversation about the affair was conducted online, on-the-air, and in print. 

And that conversation was conducted poorly.

Erasing Miftah’s Scandals

Consider the way the press characterized the organization that planned the representatives’ trip.

New York Times reporters Isabel Kershner, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Peter Baker told readers only that the group, Miftah, is “an organization headed by a longtime Palestinian lawmaker, Hanan Ashrawi.” The newspaper’s editorial board, meanwhile, referred to “a Palestinian organization, Miftah, that promotes ‘global awareness and knowledge of Palestinian realities.’”

It sounded even nicer in the pages of the Washington Post: “Omar and Tlaib’s trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank was planned by Miftah, a nonprofit organization headed by Palestinian lawmaker and longtime peace negotiator Hanan Ashrawi,” wrote reporters John Hudson, Ruth Eglash, Josh Dawsey, and Rachael Bade.

In Arabic, Reuters claimed Miftah is “a West Bank-based nongovernmental organization.”

How could Israelis possibly take issue with a nonprofit run by a peace-maker, readers might wonder?

For the full and unflattering facts of the story, news consumers would have had to consume elsewhere. New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, a critic of Netanyahu’s decision to bar the anti-Israel representatives, took it upon herself to share what her colleagues on the news side wouldn’t: Miftah is “an organization that has proudly praised female suicide bombers and pushed the medieval blood libel,” she explained. On CNN, Jake Tapper acknowledged the criticism, quoting Weiss’s description of the group during a panel discussion of the controversy. 

The “blood libel” — the charge that Jews murder Christian children for ritual purposes — is a staple of old antisemitism that has inspired the murder of countless Jews in Europe and beyond. When people drew attention to the antisemitic article on Miftah’s site, the organization quickly pulled it.

David French, another critic of Netanyahu’s handling of the aborted trip, noted that Miftah had re-published an additional anti-Semitic article written by neo-Nazis:

It’s also published an American neo-Nazi treatise called “Who Rules America: The Alien Grip on Our News and Entertainment Media Must Be Broken” (archived here).

As Vox’s Jane Coaston explained, “the original source was National Vanguard, a neo-Nazi group founded in 2005 in Charlottesville by members of the National Alliance.” The National Alliance “was for a time the best financed and best organized white nationalist group in America.” 

Here is a taste of what Miftah had chosen to re-publish: “The Jew-controlled entertainment media have taken the lead in persuading a whole generation that homosexuality is a normal and acceptable way of life; that there is nothing at all wrong with White women dating or marrying Black men, or with White men marrying Asian women; that all races are inherently equal in ability and character….” (This article, too, was eventually pulled from Miftah’s website.) 

So much for Miftah “promot[ing] ‘global awareness and knowledge of Palestinian realities.’”

Misrepresenting BDS

The mainstream press did an equally poor job informing the public about BDS, the anti-Israel campaign at the center of the controversy. 

Omar and Tlaib’s support for BDS — the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign — was the stated reason for the decision to deny them a visa. Israel recently passed a law that allows the country to prevent BDS activists from entering the country.

To understand the story, then, one first has to understand what BDS is, and how the movement is regarded by Israel and the Jewish community. (Spoiler: It’s a group committed to the destruction of Israel, and is widely viewed as antisemitic.)

The Washington Post story on the controversy spectacularly failed to inform readers, describing BDS as nothing more than “a boycott movement against Israel to oppose the treatment of Palestinians.”

Even a New York Times article focused entirely on BDS fell short. The piece, written by Niraj Chokshi and titled “The Anti-Boycott Law Israel Used to Bar Both Omar and Tlaib,” described BDS and Israel’s law as follows: 

Passed in 2017, the law was aimed at outspoken supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement who encourage individuals and institutions to work to pressure Israel to end the occupation of much of the West Bank, grant full equality to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and allow Palestinians and their descendants in the diaspora to return to the homes from which they were displaced after the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Chokshi’s description of BDS is an improvement over the Washington Post account — and over his own newspaper’s typically truncated description of a movement that’s merely critical of Israeli policy or opposed to the occupation. Unlike so many of his colleagues, he did report about BDS’s “return” demand. But the reporter nonetheless failed to convey why that demand, and by extension why the boycott campaign in general, is so controversial: BDS is committed to ending the Jewish state’s existence, and it hopes to do so by encouraging a so-called right of return to Israel for millions of Palestinians. 

The right of return demand, after all, is a call to demographically gerrymander an end to the Jewish majority in Israel, and with it an end to Jewish national self-determination. As BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti once admitted, his goal is “a unitary state, where, by definition, Jews will be a minority.” The admission is as blunt as it is disturbing. (Though earlier proponents of “return” were even blunter:To put it quite clearly,” an Egyptian foreign minister once said, “the intention is the extermination of Israel.”) Opposition to this anti-Jewish, eliminationist goal is the central motivation of Israel’s anti-BDS law. All of this is ignored by the Times

Even Rolling Stone, the financially strapped music publication that, since putting Representative Omar on its cover, has become one of her vocal defenders, weighed in. The magazine originally used an extremely misleading definition of BDS, calling it a movement that “aims to put economic pressure on the nation in order to force the nation to give equal rights to Palestinians.” After contact from CAMERA, the magazine changed it to the only slightly better, “aims to use economic pressure to push the nation for large-scale changes in its policies related to Palestinians.” And, although there is ample evidence of Representative Omar’s antisemitism, Rolling Stone referred to the President’s claim that she is antisemitic as a “smear.”   

Meanwhile, coverage by the Times, Post, and most other news outlets ignored the mainstream American Jewish community’s view, from the ADL to the AJC to the Conference of Presidents, that BDS is antisemitic. Why? 

The Arabic-language reporting of Western media outlets similarly downplayed BDS goals by inaccurately claiming the campaign is concerned only with policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

In Arabic, BBC asserted  that “Ms Tlaib and Ms Omar have voiced support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign – which aims to put economic pressure on the Israeli government – because of their opposition to Israel’s policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” Reuters stated in Arabic that “Tlaib and Omar have voiced support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement over Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” And according to Deutsche Welle’s Arabic coverage, the two congresswomen “publicly declared their support of the economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel as a protest against its occupation of the Palestinian lands.”

Erasing the BDS Component From the Congresswomen and Their Trip

Whether or not one disputes the wisdom of cancelling the Congresswomen’s entry into Israel, one cannot dispute that both are open proponents of the BDS campaign, and that their itinerary, entitled “Delegation to Palestine” was devoted to meeting with anti-Israel activists and promoting Palestinian accusations against Israel to undermine support for the Jewish state.

Yet, many in the media have attempted to erase this controversial fact. NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, interviewing Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, implies in her introduction that the reason Israel banned the two is simply because they are Muslim, Democrats and critics of Israeli policy:

“The Travel Humiliations That All Palestinians Know About” — that’s the title of an op-ed that Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab sent around today. He was writing in response to the drama over whether Israel would bar a visit from two U.S. congresswomen — Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Both are Muslim, both are Democrats, and both have criticized Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.

And later Kelly erroneously denied that BDS had anything to do with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib:

And I should jump in and note there has been some dispute over what exactly their itinerary was. She has been very clear about saying if she went, she would not promote boycotts. That is not in debate.

In fact, Tlaib’s  agreement not to promote boycotts was not in the context of Israel rejecting her visit, but the opposite: When she asked to visit her grandmother and promised to avoid pro-boycott activities, Israel agreed to grant her entry. But she quickly reneged, precisely because she decided the ability to promote BDS was more important than her ability to visit her family.  

Also on NPR, Matthew Yglesias, co-founder of Vox, a self-described explanatory journalism site, similarly omitted BDS from his description of why Israel barred Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar. According to Yglesias, BDS had nothing to do with it:

And, you know, the press — had this trip happened and had press followed them and seen life under occupation, what it’s like to struggle when your water is being diverted to settlements that need swimming pools, when you’re cut off from your land by walls — things like that — it’s eye-opening. And it’s important. And I think, you know, there’s a reason why the Israeli government is restrictive in general about who’s allowed to visit and who’s allowed to see these things. 

Thus Vox’s explanatory journalist confuses anti-Israel propaganda with impartial explanation, as he pretends Israeli swimming pools — but not, of course, the many Palestinian swimming pools in the West Bank! — are responsible for a shortage of water, and more absurdly insinuates that the press doesn’t have access to the West Bank to “see life under occupation.”

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is among the most scrutinized of the world’s conflicts. (And no, it’s not because, as Vox once laughably claimed, it’s one of the world’s most violent conflicts.) Journalists from across the world crisscross the West Bank on a daily basis to report on Israeli misdeeds, both real and imagined. Does Yglesias really want listeners to believe that the 14 politicians and anti-Israel extremists who’ve been denied entry to Israel would have uncovered secrets that hundreds of foreign journalists have failed to find? That Rashida Tlaib would stumble across a secret Israeli gulag that no Palestinian has ever mentioned to no news reporter?  

Turning Antisemitism into Criticism of Israel

Just as some reporters downplayed Omar and Tlaib’s support for BDS, others downplayed their history of antisemitic comments. At the top of a Wall Street Journal story, for example, reporter Felicia Schwartz stated that “Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar had drawn fire from Mr. Trump and others because of their criticism of Israeli policy.”

But readers who click on the link in the online version of the story are taken to an earlier piece that tells a different story. “A Minnesota congresswoman apologized Monday for using language that was criticized as anti-Semitic after both Democratic and Republican leaders condemned her suggestion that lawmakers’ support for Israel was driven by money from a pro-Israel group,” the older article explained, before adding that “Earlier in the day, a statement by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership called Ms. Omar’s tweets anti-Semitic.” There’s obviously a substantial difference between Trump attacking “criticism of Israeli policy” and Omar’s own Democratic colleagues charging her with antisemitism. It’s a difference that goes a long way in explaining skepticism of Omar’s intentions. 

Schwartz did eventually note that “critics” had once slammed Omar’s comments as anti-Semitic, but not until 22 paragraphs after the watered-down and misleading “criticism of Israel” charge — and even 13 paragraphs after the reporter, apropos nothing, stated that the “lawmakers have denied allegations of anti-Semitism.”

Parroting False “Muslim Ban” Charges

Schwartz uncritically quoted Omar’s allegation that the visa denial is part of some Israeli “Muslim ban”:

Ms. Omar, a Somali-American representing Minneapolis, called the ban an affront that impedes her efforts as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs from conducting oversight of U.S. foreign aid. “Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected Members of Congress,” she said in a statement.

Other journalists and politicians did the same. 

None, it seems, bothered to note or to quote someone who notes how absurd the allegation is. They could asked any Israeli official about the charge. They might have pointed out that nearly 20 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, and that scores of Muslims enter the country every day. Or if that’s too much, Schwartz could have turned to none other than Rashida Tlaib, who convincingly undermined Omar’s accusation (albeit while trying to damn Israel):

 

Suggesting that Israel is Violating U.S. Law

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian-American journalist, was interviewed on NPR to explain why the requirement for Tlaib not to promote BDS on her trip to Israel was problematic. His charge against Israel was both unchallenged and absurd:

And I think the – really, the commitment not to promote something really is the problem because it violates the First Amendment in the U.S. and also violates the immunity of members of Parliament around the world have, that they can say anything they want because they are members of a legislative council.

Kuttab might not have looked at a map recently, but Israel is not an American state. It’s a sovereign country that has its own rules of entry, which include barring those who seek to foment unrest and undermine the Jewish state. As a sovereign state, it is not bound by any amendment to the U.S. constitution; and there is no international law that ensures members of Parliament “immunity” from visa restrictions and entry requirements — in the same way Israel’s laws don’t force the U.S. or any other democratic country to grant entry to foreigners, whether members of parliament or otherwise, whom it deems undesirable. 

And, in fact, Section 212 (a) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act declares would-be visitors inadmissable to the U.S. on various grounds, including

those who are believed to seek entry to engage in any activity to violate any law of the U.S. relating to espionage or sabotage or any other unlawful activity or any activity which is the opposition to, or the control or overthrow of, the Government of the United States by force, violence or other unlawful means and those whose entry would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States.

Foreign diplomats and members of parliament banned from the U.S. include Narenda Modi, then-Chief Minister of India’s Gujarat state and currently India’s prime minister, and Israeli Member of Knesset Michael Ben Arieh.