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 August 16, 2019

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 web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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