Feminist icon Steinem says she won’t visit Israel while ‘bully’ Netanyahu is PM

Jewish activist censures ban of boycott-backing US congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib

US activist Gloria Steinem (C) speaks to the media as her group of peace activists arrives at the inter-Korea transit office after they crossed the border line through the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas in Paju on May 24, 2015. (AFP/Jung Yeon-Je)
US activist Gloria Steinem (C) speaks to the media as her group of peace activists arrives at the inter-Korea transit office after they crossed the border line through the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas in Paju on May 24, 2015. (AFP/Jung Yeon-Je)

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem has called Israel’s prime minister a “bully” and said she won’t visit the country as long as he remains its leader.

In a statement posted online Saturday, Steinem said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to bar a visit by two boycott-backing Democratic congresswomen was “a welcome sign that I never have to enter any country or place under your authority.”

Under pressure from US President Donald Trump, Israel denied entry to representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar last week over their support for the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel. The ban came after Israeli officials had previously confirmed that the Jewish state would not bar the visit of the two lawmakers.

After the visit was canceled, Tlaib requested and received permission to visit her 90-year-old grandmother in the West Bank on humanitarian grounds. But she changed her mind about the family trip hours after it was approved on Friday.

In her Saturday comments, Steinem, who is Jewish, accused Netanyahu of bullying Omar and Tlaib. “You were a conversational bully to your guests” at a dinner table the two shared in the 1980s, she charged, “just as you are a bully to these two elected women leaders now.”

Steinem also criticized Trump, calling him the “accidental occupant” of the White House, and suggested Netanyahu had joined the ranks of strongmen like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.

“I know that Donald Trump, the accidental occupant of the White House, is drawn to successful bullies, from Russia to Saudi Arabia, but I hoped that as the leader of a nation dedicated to democracy and free speech, you would support the same rights for two elected leaders from my country.”

On Thursday, Netanyahu justified the unprecedented decision to ban serving US legislators from Israel by saying that Omar and Tlaib intended to use the visit to harm Israel. “Several days ago, we received [Omar and Tlaib’s] trip itinerary,” he said in a statement, “which clarified that they planned a visit whose sole purpose was to support boycotts and deny Israel’s legitimacy.” The itinerary included no meetings with Israeli officials or pro-Israel groups, he said.

Reps. Rashida Tlaib, left, and Ilhan Omar at a rally with Democrats in the Capitol, March 13, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images, via JTA)

Hebrew media reports said Netanyahu had been heavily pressured by Trump to block the two congresswomen’s entry. The announcement that Israel would not allow the pair into the country came shortly after Trump tweeted that the Jewish state would be showing weakness if it gave them permission to visit.

Tlaib then submitted a letter requesting to be allowed in despite the ban, citing her elderly grandmother, and promising not to promote the boycott of Israel during her visit. The request was approved Friday morning by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, but the congresswoman, facing a backlash of anger from Palestinian activists, backtracked hours later, saying she would not travel to see her grandmother in the West Bank village of Beit Ur al-Fauqa.

Trump on Friday weighed in on Israel’s decision to bar Tlaib and Omar, saying that Tlaib had “obnoxiously” turned down the chance to visit her grandmother. “The only real winner here is Tlaib’s grandmother. She doesn’t have to see her now!” Trump wrote.

US President Donald Trump smiles at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, after signing a proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, in Washington, DC, on March 25, 2019. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Her grandmother responded to Trump’s comments on Saturday, saying of the president, “May God ruin him,” and expressing disappointment and confusion over the fact her granddaughter would not be visiting.

The Israeli ban on the two congresswoman was criticized by centrist, left-wing and Arab Israeli lawmakers, and by many prominent US Democratic leaders, notably including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who had led a group of Democratic members of Congress on a visit to Israel just days earlier. The ban was also criticized by the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby group, and did not earn the backing of the umbrella Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, even after the Conference hosted a call by Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer seeking to justify the decision.

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