Years ago, I visited Gaza. It was in 2009, shortly after the disastrous Israeli war, and I was there to see the damage firsthand with other activists. There was devastation, but that’s not what I remember most.
More than the skeletal remains of a hotel on the beach, riddled with holes from artillery fire, I was struck by the laughter of the children running past it, playing. More than the rubble of the American International School of Gaza, I was moved by the sounds of a wedding parading in the street.
I was deeply impacted by the warmth of new friends, eager to share a meal in a break with the isolation that Palestinians — especially in Gaza — face. That longing for connection and solidarity was something that resonated with me deeply as a Black person from the United States.
I think about this visit a lot when I consider why Donald Trump is so afraid of Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
Even for a man known for petty, personal attacks against his enemies, Trump has taken his offensive against Tlaib and Omar to a new level — from telling them to “go back where they came from” to responding to saying he doesn’t “buy Rep. Tlaib’s tears” about her Palestinian grandmother. He simply can’t let it go.
On one level, maybe Trump hates Omar and Tlaib for who they are: progressive women of color who wildly disrupt Western stereotypes of Muslim women. But I think he’s also afraid of them for what they do — especially when it comes to challenging the U.S.-Israel relationship and humanizing Palestinians.
Omar, for instance, recently charged that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “consistently resisted peace efforts, restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, limited public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump.” Likewise, Tlaib has warned that “if you truly believe in democracy, then the close alignment of Netanyahu with Trump’s hate agenda must prompt a re-evaluation of our unwavering support for the State of Israel.”
Despite tidal waves of condemnation from media across the U.S. political spectrum, repeated false accusations of anti-Semitism (which have been repudiated by organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace), and at times, efforts by their own party leadership to marginalize Omar and Tlaib, they have persisted in their criticisms.
Perhaps that’s why Netanyahu, at Trump’s urging, denied the two permission to travel to Palestine this August, where they had planned to gather facts on the impacts of U.S. policy toward ordinary Palestinians.
In his decision, Netanyahu expressed indignation that the members even acknowledged the existence of Palestine as a place. “They called their destination ‘Palestine’ and not ‘Israel,’” he complained. “And unlike all Democratic and Republican members of Congress before them, they did not seek any meeting with any Israeli official, whether government or opposition,” he claimed.
That was a lie. Omar discussed their proposed itinerary after the trip was blocked, and it included meetings with Israeli members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
The episode highlighted Israel’s desperation to control the narrative about its occupation.
Just the week before Omar’s and Tlaib’s trip would have taken place, the largest congressional delegation ever — involving 72 members — was admitted to Israel. That trip was organized by an affiliated partner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the key pro-Israel lobby organizations in the United States. Such delegations happen regularly.
The AIPAC trip participants lavished praise on their hosts, subsequently tweeting about the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel and comparing notes on border security — ominous, given what the U.S. is doing at its borders — and sharing photos of representatives posing in front of Israeli weapons systems.
Tlaib and Omar refuse to toe that line. Even after Israel later offered permission for Tlaib to visit her grandmother in Palestine — on the condition that she not criticize Israel — she and Omar held a press conference to reject the offer, taking another opportunity condemn Israeli violence. “The only way” Israel manages “to preserve [its] unjust policy” toward Palestinians, Omar said, “is to suppress people’s freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of movement.”
Tlaib followed up the press conference with an even greater challenge to Israel’s narrative: She talked about her Palestinian grandmother, or sitty, on Twitter. “She deserves to live in peace and with human dignity,” Tlaib wrote, sharing a photo of her grandmother. “I am who I am because of her.”
The post launched a viral phenomenon, with other Palestinians taking to social media to post photos and loving messages of their grandmothers with the hashtag #MyPalestinianSitty. Israel supporters responded with contempt, dismissing the outpouring of love for Palestinian grandmothers as another cynical ploy.
But these right-wing complaints could not suppress the stirring moment. Referring to the affection for grandmas on social media, a CNN commentator remarked, “rarely is something sweet born of something so bitter.”
That fact speaks to perhaps the greatest fear that Trump and other proponents of unquestioned, endless support for Israel and its abuses have: that Palestinians will be allowed to represent themselves — and be seen — as human beings. “It seems that many still refuse to see our humanity,” wrote Palestinian activist Jehad Abusalim, “because if they do, they’ll feel a moral responsibility to create change, so they choose hate instead.”
Maybe it’s Omar and Tlaib’s embrace of Palestinians’ humanity that makes them most dangerous to Trump, and why he works so hard to silence them. They know the most essential fact of the struggle for Palestine: that Palestinians are people who deserve to live freely, but whose personhood and freedom are denied every day — with great assistance from the United States.
They see that, just like I got to see it in Gaza years ago. Trump is afraid that you will see it, too.