Originally published under the title "Avoiding Clichés on Omar's Trip to Israel and Palestinian Areas."
Rep. Ilhan Omar's views about Israel are well-known.
Rep. Ilhan Omar's views about Israel are well-known.
US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar might be coming to Israel and the Palestinian territories in the coming weeks. This is an excellent opportunity for one of America's most high profile and controversial elected officials to see the situation for herself and also to avoid some of the pitfalls and clichés that too often encumber these kinds of trips. To be effective, Omar should come with an open mind and listen to stories that are off the beaten track.
The freshman congresswoman wants to learn more about the "occupation," she told Laura Kelly of The Jewish Insider. That is understandable. She is on the progressive left of the Democratic Party, a woman of color and a Muslim, symbolizing the younger generation rising in the US Congress. She not only represents her constituency with her historically more critical views of Israel, but she represents an America that itself has become more critical of Israel, especially among younger people and minorities.
For pro-Israel groups, this is a kind of elephant in the room, because the bipartisan consensus on Israel is being eroded after several decades where it was considered normal. She has been harshly slammed by US President Donald Trump in recent weeks in comments many called racist, and she has been accused of antisemitism in the past due to her tweets. This puts any trip to Israel and to see the Palestinians under an intense spotlight.
If Omar does come, she will likely be ensconced in the kind of trips we have heard of in the past, which usually involves going to Hebron to see the worst aspects of Israeli rule over Palestinians, and then discussions with Palestinians in refugee camps and maybe a visit to a Bedouin village threatened with home demolitions. One of the problems Israel faces in these kinds of narratives is that its views are usually presented by official spokespeople, while the Palestinian view is generally represented by average people, usually filtered through a translator and arranged by a fixer.
Given that Omar will likely want to have some of these experiences, the question remains how her trip might be effective, in terms of going beyond the obvious. One issue that is important to explore is what average Palestinians are actually saying about the current US policy, not just the official Ramallah talking points. The Palestinian leadership hopes to wait-out the Trump administration, which dovetails with what progressive Democrats also want to do. The hope is that the next administration – assuming that it will be a different one – will be friendlier to Palestinian issues.
But there is a lot to look at in the West Bank besides the obvious. For instance, what is happening with the Palestinian economy? What are the hurdles it faces? What about the infrastructure projects that the PA wants to invest in? What about the heritage sites of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization? The Palestinians are still part of UNESCO, even though Israel and the US have left.
Omar might take a trip to see Battir, the village that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. She might take a trip to Mount Gerizim to also see Samaritan history, which is important to the area of Nablus. If she has time, she should see one of the Palestinian universities. Al-Quds University's Abu Dis campus, which once had high hopes for its American Studies program, would be worth a trip. Omar should also explore the security training the US and EU have done with the Palestinians, particularly in Jericho. It would be good to be exposed to some of the advances and challenges that women face in the Palestinian Authority.
The most important thing to see in Israel is the average people in society.
A second hurdle for an Omar visit is getting beyond some of the traditional talking points in Israel. What's important in Israeli society, to understand its complexity, is to get beyond a few official and critical narratives that try to drown out average Israelis. The most important thing to see in Israel is the average people in society. Too often, Israel is portrayed as just a simple story. For critics, that means it is just "occupation" and not seen as a normal and complex society, similar to the US or other countries. It is judged almost solely on its government's actions.
Omar might benefit from hearing voices of minorities within the Jewish community – which means, for instance, Ethiopian Jews who have been protesting in recent weeks. This means meeting the actual people, and not just hearing non-Ethiopian Jews speak on "their behalf." This means also taking a trip to areas of Israel that are not just the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor, such as Hadera or Kiryat Gat. To understand Israel in America, it is important to also see the areas that Israelis sometimes call the "periphery" but which are not peripheral to Israeli society.
Too often, those in the US who read about Israel and hear about the country think they've learned all they can learn from a few articles and briefings, rather than looking at Israel as one looks at other countries in the region, such as Greece, Turkey or Iran. At the end of the day, Israel is in the Middle East; it isn't in America or Western Europe. It should be understood in its location and by speaking with a spectrum of voices, not just the elites. Too often, the hurdle Israel faces is that some of the "explainers" or experts in the US only talk to a few elite voices in their Israeli social circle, and much of the country and its changes are ignored.
One of the issues that some also face in coming to Israel is the concept that the peace process has a simple end stage – a "solution" – that the "conflict" will actually end, and that areas like Jerusalem, the Golan, the West Bank and even Israel itself are somehow negotiable, like one trades cards playing Monopoly. But Israel isn't an art project. One can disagree with US policy on Jerusalem or the Golan, but it's important to get a sense that, for many average people in Israel and the Palestinian territories, lives are more than just slogans, peace plans and simple answers.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.