Banning Congresswomen of Color is a Microcosm of Israel’s Systemic Racism

Matthew J. Dolezal
Aug 18 · 4 min read
U.S. President Donald Trump meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Being silent and not condemning the human rights violations of the Israeli government is a disservice to all who live there, including my incredibly strong and loving grandmother”

- U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib

Freshman congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar had recently planned to tour the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as part of a delegation. Tlaib’s 85-year-old grandmother Muftiya, a resident of the West Bank, was in the process of preparing a menu, decorations, and activities for the long-awaited visit.

Tlaib (a Palestinian-American) and Omar (a Somali-American) are the first Muslim congresswomen in American history, and have faced consistent bigotry during their brief time in politics.

On August 15, Israel announced its decision to bar the two representatives from entering the occupied Palestinian territories due to their support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which seeks to pressure the Israeli government to comply with international law.

While certainly disheartening, the travel ban imposed on these two Muslim women of color shouldn’t be surprising if we examine the larger context of institutionalized discrimination within Israeli society.

For instance, a 2010 Human Rights Watch report described the “two-tier system of laws, rules, and services” that Israel upholds. The report further observed that “such different treatment, on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin […] violates the fundamental prohibition against discrimination under human rights law.”

In its 2018 overview of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Amnesty International called attention to the hundreds of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, the restriction of travel imposed on Palestinians in the West Bank, the collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza, torture of detainees, home demolitions, and “entrenched discrimination against non-Jewish citizens.”

A global controversy has persisted regarding whether or not this widespread discrimination should be characterized as “apartheid.” In 2016, the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia asked Virginia Tilley and Richard Falk to examine this concept as it relates to Israeli policy. Their final report included the following conclusions:

“This report establishes, on the basis of scholarly inquiry and overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid.”

“In the case of Israel-Palestine, any delay compounds the crime by prolonging the subjugation of Palestinians to the active practice of apartheid by Israel. Prompt action is accordingly imperative to avert further human suffering and end a crime against humanity that is being committed now.”

“Civil society institutions and individuals also have a moral duty to use the instruments at their disposal to raise awareness of this ongoing criminal enterprise, and to exert pressure on Israel to dismantle apartheid structures and negotiate in good faith for a lasting peace that acknowledges the rights of Palestinians under international law and makes it possible for the two peoples to live together on the basis of real equality.”

Israel’s well-documented apartheid policies have gained ideological justification through systematic efforts to dehumanize those on the receiving end. For instance, Israeli school children are inundated with negative stereotypes of Arabs and Palestinians in their textbooks, which often depict them as “bloodthirsty,” “tribal,” and “inferior.”

In a survey conducted by Israeli writer and researcher Adir Cohen, “seventy five percent of the children described the ‘Arab’ as a murderer, one who kidnaps children, a criminal and a terrorist. Eighty percent said they saw the Arab as someone dirty with a terrifying face.” Regarding popular Israeli children’s books, Cohen found that “sixty six percent […] refer to Arabs as violent; 52 percent as evil; 37 percent as liars; 31 percent as greedy; 28 percent as two-faced; 27 percent as traitors.”

Additionally, Israeli professor Nurit Peled-Elhanan found that many textbooks contain ubiquitious military propaganda, distortions of demographic statistics to reaffirm racial stereotypes, and that this pervasive racism extends beyond Palestinian Arabs to include Ethiopian Jews, African refugees, and even Jews from Arab countries.

This childhood indoctrination often persists into adulthood, as evidenced by the racist and genocidal rhetoric of Israeli politicians, as well as larger efforts to erase Palestinian history. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bigotry toward Arab Muslims has even caused him to espouse a revisionist theory regarding the original inspiration for the Holocaust.

Although Israel receives more U.S. foreign aid than any other country, its structural discrimination and dehumanization are often ignored by prominent American politicians (who sometimes even echo the rhetoric of Israel’s right-wing demagogues).


Israel’s decision to prevent Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from traveling to the Occupied Territories is part of a much larger problem. This episode calls attention to decades of systemic racism against indigenous Palestinian Arabs and other ethnic minorities at the hands of Israeli authorities.

Instead of chalking this event up to the unique racism of characters like Trump and Netanyahu, let’s broaden our collective understanding of the humanitarian crisis that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and make the case for full Palestinian equality. As Rep. Omar said, “The occupation is real. Barring members of Congress from seeing it does not make it go away. We must end it — together.”

Matthew J. Dolezal

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A working-class wordsmith in Austin, TX. My political commentary has been published by The Hampton Institute and Progressive Army.