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Haggai Matar, editor of #972 Magazine discusses Netanyahu’s Trump-inspired Omar and Tlaib ban, Trump’s bizarre retweets, and its effect on Jews and the U.S. election

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

In Israel, the discussion is intensifying about the banning of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from coming to Palestine and Israel, and the deeply negative response of Democratic Party leaders to that banning. Now on top of that, we have this series of Trump tweets where he admonishes Jews that they are being disloyal if they support Democrats. Then he retweeted a comment about that he’s the best thing that ever happened to Israel and the Jews, and that Trump should be the King of Israel. And he’s all but accepted the crown in his retweets.

This all began with the banning of Omar and Tlaib by Netanyahu, and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s refusal to be silenced if she accepted Netanyahu’s offer with his limitations. Omar said the United States aid to Israel must be conditional on Israel respecting human rights, echoing a similar statement by Senator Bernie Sanders.

Donald Trump, who called the two Congresswomen antisemitic, has now diverted his hate towards American Jews, alluding that if they voted for the Democratic Party, they’re somehow traitors, as I mentioned a moment ago.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: To lead with the tears. All of a sudden, she starts with tears, tears, and I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it for a second because I’ve seen her in a very vicious mood at campaign rallies, my campaign rallies before she was a Congresswoman. I said, “Who is that?” And I saw a woman that was violent and vicious and out of control, and all of a sudden I see this person who’s crying. Where’s the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone where they’re defending these two people over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.

MARC STEINER: And Trump’s latest tweets have been called antisemitic and have escalated the contradictions and battles over Israel, Palestine, the US aid to Israel, and has caused a major debate within the Jewish world. Joining us today is Haggai Matar who is the Executive Director of 972 Magazine, the online journal in Israel and Palestine. Haggai, welcome. Good to have you with us.

HAGGAI MATAR: Thank you, Marc. Good to be here.

MARC STEINER: So before we get into specifics about either one of these things, I just have to get your thoughts in this juxtaposition of the banning of these two women, the Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and how it’s snowballing into these insane tweets by Donald Trump. And what you see that juxtaposition as— before we even talk about either one in depth— and how they fit together and what did they say to you.

HAGGAI MATAR: Well, I think they really connect with what we’ve been seeing for quite some time now, which is the question of where are we looking when we’re talking about antisemitism. We’ve been seeing unfortunately more and more violent attacks on Jewish communities in the US and elsewhere by extreme right-wing individuals and groups that come from the Trump side of the political spectrum. And we’re seeing statements just much like Trump’s statement yesterday, kind of putting into question the loyalty of US Jews. And we’re seeing all those things. And the same time, we see the Right kind of trying to say that the real antisemitism is not the people shooting and killing Jews in synagogues, but actually people who support Palestinian rights, justice, freedom, and democracy for Palestinians in Israel and Palestine, and the BDS is antisemitic and so on. I think that what we’ve been seeing this past few days is exactly around that—the question of who’s really antisemitic and what is really antisemitic?

MARC STEINER: So not to get too bogged down on this because I want to talk about the specifics here, but I’m just curious. You’ve been writing about things like this for a long time and covering stuff in Israel and Palestine for a long time as well. What does this mean for the future? What could come out of this when you have on the one hand, as you described, these vicious anti-Semites who are inspired by Trump in many ways— not completely, but in many ways— attacking Jewish places in this country and across the globe?

At the same time, you have this very right-wing government in Israel that now is talking about moving people out of Gaza and talking about not even recognizing and having their settlements become just part of Israel proper and the right-wing push. And then you have Trump making these tweets, his son-in-law being a major player in the Zionist movement in America and on the Right. And you also have now Trump with these tweets where he basically says, “Thank you, I want to be the King of Israel, I appreciate that,” or whatever he does. So I mean, this is a very confusing moment. How do you see this playing out?

HAGGAI MATAR: Well, I think the thing to remember in both these cases is that Netanyahu is up for reelection in little under a month. Trump is up for reelection in little over a year. And it’s really up to voters to listen to these statements and say, “What do we think about them?” And unfortunately, in Israel, Netanyahu is either likely to win another term in office. Even though with his criminal investigations actually, he might fail at that. But even if Netanyahu is replaced, he might be replaced by someone who thinks just the same on the core questions of the occupation and justice for Palestinians and so on.

However, I think in the US side of things, things might be a little more optimistic. I think this is a good time for communities in the US, for American Jews, for progressive communities, and for communities across the country to say, “Wait a second, is this the kind of person we want to represent us?” I think the question is becoming more and more apparent and more and more critical, and there are actually positive alternatives in the US, unlike here.

MARC STEINER: Yeah. In the United States, when you have even some of the most conservative and right-wing elements in the Zionist movement and AIPAC’s criticizing Trump – criticizing Netanyahu I mean to say, for banning Tlaib and Omar from coming to Israel and Palestine, that portends something of a really interesting mix for the coming elections, as you described. And so, how is this playing out in Israel at the moment? Let’s start with to Tlaib and Omar in the banning, and how that’s playing out or what kind of conversations were actually taking place?

HAGGAI MATAR: I think we have been seeing people were more on the liberal side of the spectrum kind of criticizing Netanyahu not necessarily for the ban itself, but for the implications that it brings with it and kind of saying, “Look what you’re doing. While playing into Trump’s bigger plan and attacking Democrats, you’re actually making Israel a partisan issue in the United States.” And this might be okay as long as Trump is in office, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in 2020. And this is in the long term, a bad bet. So that’s kind of what you hear from liberals. But many people, and I think it’s important to remember that actually, like Trump said or tweeted, most Jewish Israelis are very, very supportive of Trump in exact opposite correlation to the situation with American Jews. So actually here, Trump is supported, and for Netanyahu to do his bidding is actually seen by many as a positive thing.

MARC STEINER: I mean, you can see perhaps the move against these the two congressional representatives as well as the new attacks on BDS and its supporters. BDS may have been at the back of the news, but now it’s at the very front of the news. And this could have a real interesting effect on the elections here and the dialogue between the United States and Israel. This can – maybe not. I maybe making too much of this, but in some levels this could be almost a game changer in terms of the US-Israeli relationship with now you’re seeing Sanders and others calling for using military aid to Israel as a way to make Israel change its policies.

HAGGAI MATAR: Totally. I very much agree with that. I think had Netanyahu just allowed Representative Tlaib and Omar to enter the country, visit the Palestinian territories, the occupied territories, and go through their trip as planned, I think not much would have come out of it. I mean, they would have had press conferences here and then back home. It would still be those two members of The Squad, the kind of radical faction within the Democratic Party, and it wouldn’t have the same ramifications that we’re seeing now that with the ban, it’s kind of forcing, it’s kind of polarizing and forcing even Nancy Pelosi and even APAC, as you mentioned before, and Mark Rubio and others to step up and say, “Wait a second, something’s gone terribly wrong.”

And the question is, where does that lead? Is it enough to just say, “Well Israel shouldn’t have banned Representatives Omar and Tlaib?” Or does that also mean that Democrats and maybe even others in Congress in the United States have to reconsider the relationship between the United States and Israel? Do they say, “Actually, we’ve been going the wrong way?” Because I think part of the problem is that Democrats or some of the Democrats have been kind of supporting that line saying that BDS is antisemitic, or saying that it’s not a legitimate tactic. That tactic of boycotts is not a legitimate tactic. Do they backtrack and say, “Actually, it’s a nonviolent, legitimate tactic to promote Palestinian freedom and Palestinian rights? And we support that, and actually if Israel is not willing to recognize that, are you willing to use certain steps considering the budget we’re offering Israel in order to change this dynamic?”

MARC STEINER: When you look at this, I mean it was also very difficult for a Congresswoman Tlaib to say no. But she rejected his offer, which also made huge news I’m sure in Israel as it did here in the United States. It was a very emotional thing that she did when she responded to it in the press because that means she’s not going to see her 90-year-old grandmother. I think it opened people’s eyes, at least in the West in this country, to what’s actually happening on the West Bank, to the kind of bans that are taking place, which are largely overlooked by the popular media.

HAGGAI MATAR: I think what happened with this proposal – turned down and rightly turned down by Congresswoman Tlaib, the idea of coming in for a visit that’s purely humanitarian was a terrible idea. It would have been an immense victory for Israel. Basically, this is very typical of the way that the occupation works. It says I want to be a benevolent occupation. I want to be generous towards my subjects, as long as they’re not politicized, as long as they are not organized, as long as they don’t demand their rights.

And basically what Israel tried to do here was to take a Congresswoman in the United States of America and kind of demote her from being a political leader who has the right to come here and make political statements and tour the country and say, “No, you’re just like any other Palestinian who’s under our control. And you need to give up on your politics and your beliefs and on who you are. And if you do that, we’re willing to be generous, and we’re willing to offer you kind of this humanitarian”— as if she needs humanitarian aid or something— this humanitarian stuff. So I think that would’ve been a terrible idea. It’s a good thing that eventually it was turned down.

MARC STEINER: So let me conclude with taking one last look here from your perspective, from the Israeli perspective of Donald Trump’s tweets, and just take a moment to reflect on these as we conclude our conversation. So in these tweets, he says, “Thank you to Wayne Allen Root for the very nice words. President Trump is the greatest president for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, and the Jewish people in Israel love him.” Then he goes onto the next tweet saying, “Like, he’s the King of Israel. They love him. Like he’s the second coming of God, but American Jews don’t know him or like him.”

And so, I mean, these kind of in one way, it’s just completely outlandish tweets on the part of Trump. It was really kind of mind boggling to me. I mean, every time he goes, it gets worse and worse. But how do you think that will play out in Israel itself among the Jews in Israel, among Palestinians in Israel?

HAGGAI MATAR: So, like I said before, unfortunately most of Israeli Jews are very supportive of Trump. This is what he’s saying in these tweets, “I’m very much loved. I’m very much appreciated,” which is actually true. I think the King of Israel part might be kind of pushing it a bit with a tad of messianic kind of air to it. I don’t think, however, that it’ll cost too much. I don’t think that Israelis will be outraged by the statement, and most will continue to support him because of the feeling that he gives Israel more of a free hand than any previous administration. And we’ve seen all previous US administrations give Israel a free hand to continue with the occupation, but the feeling is that Trump goes even further in allowing Israel to annex territories and doing basically really whatever it wants in ways that are seriously unprecedented. So I don’t think that this will harm Trump in the Jewish Israeli public opinion.

For Palestinians, however, they’ve been feeling betrayed by the United States because of the way Trump’s been behaving in supporting Israel for so long. This is not going to be the catalyst for them. The question is, what will be the case for American Jews, American Democrats, and American citizen generally?

MARC STEINER: We’ve been talking to Haggai Matar, who is the Executive Director of 972 Magazine, an online magazine that comes out of Israel. If you haven’t read it, go online and read it. It’s got an incredible bevy of articles. And Haggai, thank you so much for joining us. It’s really good to talk to you. I look forward to many more conversations.

HAGGAI MATAR: Thank you very much, Marc.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.