American Jewry’s main umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, withheld backing for the Israeli government’s decision Thursday to ban two Democratic congresswomen from visiting, instead expressing “reservations” over the move.
The Conference of Presidents, which is routinely supportive of Israeli government decisions and rarely publicly critical, hosted a conference call in which Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, set out the reasons for the ban. Dermer, who had last month promised that the pair, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, would be allowed to enter Israel, told the US Jewish leaders that the decision to ban them was motivated by the fact that the two Muslim lawmakers support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. He said their itinerary for the planned trip, which was to have begun on Sunday, listed their destination as Palestine, not Israel, and included no meetings with Israeli officials.
Dermer added that the congresswomen planned to meet with organizations promoting BDS, one of whose leaders has ties with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is designated by the US as a terror group. “The leadership of our country believes that this visit was designed solely with the intention of promoting BDS and they were going to use this visit as a platform for BDS activities,” the ambassador said.
After hosting Dermer on the call, the Conference of Presidents issued a statement acknowledging that Tlaib and Omar had “made clear that their self-proclaimed ‘trip to Palestine’ was intended to promote their anti-Israel agenda and clearly demonstrated a lack of interest in dialogue or true fact finding.”
Nonetheless, the Conference “expressed our reservations about the ramifications of the decision.”
It also stated that, in the call, “many” of the Conference’s 53-member organizations “expressed disagreement with the government’s decision and expressed concern that it will be exploited by pro-BDS and other critics of Israel, while several others expressed support.”
The Conference also indicated concern over the potential impact of the ban on bipartisan US political support for Israel: “Our hope is that bipartisan support demonstrated by the recent trips of members of Congress to Israel and the passage by overwhelming majorities of pro-Israel measures will continue unabated,” it said, “and bipartisan support for the US-Israel special relationship will be strengthened… The bonds between the two countries are vital to both, especially as they face common enemies who have pledged to destroy them.
The stated “reservations” over the ban by the Conference of Presidents, whose membership includes liberal groups such as Americans for Peace Now but excludes the left-wing J Street, came after the powerhouse pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, issued a direct criticism of the ban, and underlined the profound discomfort among mainstream American Jewish groups over the Israeli move.
While it disagreed with the two legislators’ positions, AIPAC said, “every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”
An educational organization affiliated with AIPAC this month brought dozens of freshman Republican and Democratic Congress members to Israel on overlapping visits. At a joint press conference in Jerusalem on Sunday, the leaders of the two delegations stated that Israel should allow Tlaib and Omar to visit.
In a furious statement on Thursday, the head of that Democratic delegation, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a staunch supporter of Israel, called Israel’s decision to deny entry to the pair “outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views” and urged Israel to reverse it. He said the move was “contrary to the statement and assurances to me by Israel’s ambassador to the United States that ‘out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any Member of Congress into Israel.’ That representation was not true.”
The “unwarranted” and “self-destructive” move, Hoyer said, “reflects weakness, not strength… Instead, the Israeli government should seek to engage these Members of Congress in a dialogue regarding Israel’s security and the future of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
JTA contributed to this report.