Tlaib cites Detroit roots in rejecting Israel trip conditions

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.

Fighting back tears, Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib said Monday that visiting Israel under conditions imposed by that country’s government would have undermined her fight to expose the kind of conditions her grandmother and others face in the Palestinian territories.

“I grew up in the most beautiful, black city in the country,” Tlaib said of Detroit, “where you don’t let anybody tell you you’re less than or humiliate you solely based on your faith or your ethnicity.

“And as a United States congresswoman, I could not do that to my grandmother.”

The first-term Democrat addressed what she described as a gut-wrenching decision during an emotional press conference in Minnesota, where she joined local U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and other residents of that state who have also faced travel restrictions in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration last week initially denied entry to the freshmen lawmakers, who are the first Muslim women elected to the U.S. Congress, citing their support for the movement to boycott, divest and impose sanctions on Israel.

The country's interior minister later granted a subsequent request by Tlaib to visit her 90-year-old grandmother on the condition that she promised not to protest Israel by promoting boycotts during her time there. Tlaib had signed a letter to Israel's interior minister Thursday pledging she would respect any restrictions but announced Friday she had changed her mind.

Her grandmother had celebrated her as a “free bird” when she won election in 2018, “so why would I come back and be caged and bow down?” Tlaib said Monday.

“So through tears at 3 o’clock in the morning, we all decided as a family that I could not go until I was a free, American, United States congresswoman coming there to not only see my grandmother, but to talk to Palestinian and Israeli organization that believe my grandmother deserves human dignity as much as anyone else does.”

Omar stood beside Tlaib and told reporters she routinely reminds her colleague: “You don’t’ ever allow people to enjoy your tears.”

President Donald Trump had discouraged Israel from allowing Tlaib and Omar into the country, suggesting it would be a show of “great weakness” to allow them in despite their criticism of Israeli policy toward Palestinians.

Trump and other Republicans have targeted Tlaib and Omar with repeated attacks in recent months, seeking to portray them as anti-Semitic, in part for their opposition to the anti-boycott legislation.

Israel was “very respectful” to Tlaib by allowing her to visit her grandmother, Trump said Friday night. “”As soon as she was granted permission, she grandstanded & loudly proclaimed she would not visit Israel. Could this possibly have been a setup?”

Tlaib and Omar on Monday sought to distance themselves from the Mitfah, a Palestinian advocacy group that was going to sponsor their trip and has been branded an anti-Semitic and “terrorist-supporting” entity by conservative media.

Other lawmakers have visited Israel on trips sponsored by the group, Tlaib said, comparing their planned itinerary to similar trips by dozens of colleagues.

“We’re also taken aback and learned from everybody else that there were some issues regarding them,” Tlaib said, suggesting she and Omar are usually “extremely careful” about vetting groups because their actions are often scrutinized by critics.

“I think the focus is hiding of the truth, hiding of the occupation that’s happening,” she said.

The Detroit Democrat compared herself to former U.S. Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr., who also represented Michigan’s 13th District and was denied entry to South Africa 44 years ago because of his opposition to race-based separations under apartheid.

“History does have a habit of repeating itself,” Tlaib said.

Omar accused the Israeli government of trying to suppress dissent to preserve “unjust” policies in the region.

“We cannot let Trump and Netanyahu succeed in hiding the cruel reality of the occupation from us,” she said, encouraging other lawmakers to make the trip.

Tlaib suggested Netanyahu had taken “a page out of Trump’s book, and even direction from Trump” by restricting her travel to Israel.

There are other Americans who are also not able to visit their families there, she said, noting other speakers at the Minnesota event.

“All of us Americans should be deeply disturbed.”