The Impossible Decisions Palestinians Are Forced to Make

An interview with Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

Sarah Lazare

US Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) speaks during a press conference, to address remarks made by US President Donald Trump earlier in the day, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on July 15, 2019. (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

In a defiant statement released the morning of August 16, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) declared that she would not travel to Israel under oppressive conditions meant to humiliate me.” Her remarks came after a turbulent 24 hours that began Thursday when President Trump took the unprecedented step of calling on Israel to bar Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — the only two Muslim women in Congress — from entry.

For a brief moment, others saw some of the really torturous decisions Palestinians are forced to make on a daily basis about things everyone else takes for granted.

The two had been planning an alternative to the annual right-wing AIPAC-sponsored trip for congresspeople, which typically occurs during the first August recess. Tlaib and Omar intended to lead a delegation aimed at humanizing Palestinians, examining issues like poverty and education, and probing Israel’s child detention policies. Tlaib — who is Palestinian-American and a democratic socialist — was also going to visit family members, including her 90-year-old grandmother.

But in response to Trump’s demand, Israel agreed Thursday to deny the lawmakers entry. Following criticism, however, Israel walked back this decision, saying Tlaib would be given humanitarian” permission to visit her grandmother, but only on the condition that she agreed not to, in her words, promote boycotts against Israel” during her trip. This isn’t confined to Tlaib: Israel systematically denies entry based on people’s political positions, passing a law in 2017 denying entry to proponents of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

At first, Tlaib agreed to these conditions. But she reversed course and announced Friday morning she will not go, declaring, The Israeli government used my love and desire to see my grandmother to silence me and made my ability to do so contingent upon my signing a letter — reflecting just how undemocratic and afraid they are of the truth my trip would reveal about what is happening in the State of Israel and to Palestinians living under occupation with United States support.”

In These Times spoke with Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American writer and activist, and the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, about the significance of Tlaib’s statement, and what it reveals about widespread injustices against Palestinians perpetrated far from public scrutiny. People are getting a tiny window into the reality,” he says. The reality is so much worse than what people have been exposed to in witnessing what Tlaib has had to wrestle with.”

Sarah Lazare: First, can I get your gut response to Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s statement today that she will not go to Israel under these oppressive conditions meant to humiliate me”?

Yousef Munayyer: As a Palestinian, I think that what I felt is a feeling that many Palestinians have: the feeling of being heard and being seen. For a brief moment, others saw some of the really torturous decisions Palestinians are forced to make on a daily basis about things everyone else takes for granted. Rep. Rashida Tlaib wanted to go on this trip, to carry out her obligations as a member of Congress, and along with Rep. Omar, inform herself of the ways in which U.S. policy is impacting Palestinians on the ground. She also wanted to visit her homeland, the homeland of her family, and visit family members. Just to do so, she was forced to make a commitment to not be who she really is — to give up a part of herself, part of her rights, and commit to silence.

As I was watching this take place, and reading her statement, the only thing I could think about is how many Palestinians have had to make these calculations on a daily basis in so many different ways. It affects Palestinians inside of Palestine and out. Tlaib is from Detroit, and her family is from Palestine. Just to exercise her right to spend time with her family, she had to give up part of her humanity. Palestinians inside and outside of Palestine are always wrestling with these kinds of tradeoffs.

Palestinians are often faced with very difficult questions: Do I subject myself to interrogation at a checkpoint if it means I’ll be able to make it to a hospital appointment to get cancer treatment? Do I post on social media about what I think about the situation if it might mean never being able to see my family again? Do I stand back as Israeli soldiers detain my 5-year-old child if it means pushing back will leave them an orphan? These are the kinds of decisions Palestinians have to wrestle with every day. You’re asked to compromise parts of your humanity to have access to other parts.

What was so powerful about Tlaib’s decision, as difficult as I’m sure it was, is that it allowed the American public for the first time to have a little window into the daily realities of Palestinians and the way they face these torturous questions as full human beings. I think that’s why the Israelis are so concerned about her. She is forcing people to think about Palestinians as full human beings for the first time in spaces like Congress, where that has always been taboo and a nonstarter. The unfortunate reality is that that is revolutionary.

When you are living outside of Palestine, and your family is there, you have to take into calculation things most people will never have to think about. You have to think about whether the things you say or the positions you take or the arguments you make with people in a completely different country can have repercussions for your family thousands of miles away. Those are real things people in diaspora communities wrestle with all the time. When you’re living in a situation where you don’t have freedom or self-determination and you are extremely vulnerable, that becomes an added vulnerability. It’s a very heavy burden people in the diaspora have.

Sarah: Can you talk about the Democratic establishment’s response to the events over the last few days? It’s seemed to me that many of the statements from Democratic centrists have been tepid, superficially criticizing Netanyahu’s decision, but going out of their way to reaffirm their overall support for Israel. Nancy Pelosi’s statement on August 15 that Israel’s denial of entry to Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar is a sign of weakness, and beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel” seems to be an example of this.

Yousef: It is very clear the Democratic leadership feels they were betrayed and thrown under the bus by the Israeli government. Demoratic leaders knew these trips are annual events. AIPAC always takes annual events. They knew there were members of Congress expressing really pointed criticism of the U.S.- Israel relationship, and of the impact of groups like AIPAC. They were coming into this summer knowing this moment was going to potentially be a flashpoint. They have been for the past several months goaded into one catastrophe after another by right-wing forces — whether it’s Republicans in Congress, the president of the U.S., or other mouthpieces on the right that are not necessarily in government — to take action and isolate and marginalize their own caucus members for not carrying the orthodoxy on U.S. policy towards Israel. What they were hoping to do in this moment is to try to paper over what has become an undeniable partisan divide that is no longer just discernible in public opinion polling but also beginning to manifest itself in votes and actions and words of members of Congress.

What the Democratic Party leadership really wanted to have happen was for these trips to project bipartisan support for Israel. To make that happen, they needed assurances from the Israeli government, which they got, that Tlaib and Omar would not be denied entry on the later delegation, a scenario which would be a political nightmare. They got those assurances before they went, and they went on the basis this was not going to blow up on their face. 

They did the whole AIPAC shuffle: took pictures with Israeli military and applauded Netanyahu. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was even asked by the Israeli media whether he agreed with Beto O’Rourke’s characterizations of Netanyahu as racist, and he said, I don’t think he’s a racist. Period. No.’ They did all of this to try to project bipartisanship, and as soon as they got back to the U.S. they got double crossed. And the entire story became about the exact issue they wanted to pretend didn’t exist. You saw the response yesterday from Democrats saying this was wrong. The big takeaway message, which has been said over and over during the years — the Israelis have put all of their eggs in the basket of Republicans and white evangelicals. The Democratic leadership has to wrestle with what that means.

Sarah: But it seems that, in issuing criticisms, many Democrats at the same time were trying to prove their fealty to Israel. For example, Joe Biden tweeted on August 15, I have always been a stalwart supporter of Israel — a vital partner that shares our democratic values. No democracy should deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas — even ideas they strongly object to.”

Yousef: That is true. There is a degree of muscle memory in how people fashion language. But I think the bigger picture is more important. I think people are going to remember from this moment that a taboo was broken during this period. People took a stand they would never have taken. There is evidence of a continuing shift.

Sarah: What else do you think will be remembered about this moment? What does Rashida Tlaib’s refusal to travel to Israel under humiliating terms — even if it means not seeing her family — reveal to the broader public about the geopolitics at work?

Yousef: It’s important to contextualize this in the wave of right-wing nationalist politics on the rise in a number of places in the globe. Israel is a central component along with the forces that brought us Trump and forces that are in support of ethnic nationalism and anti-immigration in Europe, as well as right-wing forces in Brazil. Here in the U.S., the president has used racism and xenophobia and all forms of bigotry to pursue political power and a broader nationalist project. Donald Trump is not an everyday racist. He is a white supremacist demagogue who is using racism to pursue a broad nationalist project that is dangerous as hell. He’s instrumentalized Israel as part of this. Israel has willingly gone along, in part because their worldview reflects the ethno-nationalist idea that is part of what Trump wants to do.

Sarah: Do you think the U.S. public is being exposed to the reality of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies?

Yousef: People are getting a tiny window into the reality. The reality is so much worse than what people have been exposed to in witnessing what Tlaib has had to wrestle with. It is much worse than that. Now they’re able to see it through the prism of an American elected official who happens to be Palestinian American.

Sarah: Can you say more about the realities people aren’t seeing?

Yousef: It’s such a huge topic to discuss. Palestinians experience this across the globe and in different ways. Palestinians are living under military occupation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, where they are ruled by a military system that governs key choices in their life, and they have no say whatsoever in how that can be determined. Inside of Israel, you have Palestinian citizens of Israel living as second-class citizens in places where the government has passed into law the idea that Jewish citizens are superior — in the totality of the land, including the West Bank and Gaza. You have Palestinians living in the diaspora and in refugee camps who have never been able to return to their homes, never been allowed to return to their families, some living in a state of precariousness that in some instances is worse than what Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face.

Tlaib’s gut-wrenching decisions gave a tiny glimpse into the vast matrix into policies that are imposing these kinds of tradeoffs on Palestinians every day of their lives.

Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.