Congresswomen’s ban not the first
Last week, with encouragement from President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar would not be allowed to visit the country as planned because of their opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. On Monday, the two congresswomen held a news conference where they decried the decision as being “not consistent with democracy” and emphasised that their situation was entirely unprecedented.
Indeed, at first blush, the scenario seems unparalleled. Not only has a major US ally, one receiving more than $3 billion in military aid from the United States each year, banned elected members of Congress from visiting it, but it did so at the behest of the US President. As Tlaib noted, members of Congress have been barred from other places before, places such as apartheid South Africa, but never with the support of the US Government.
It’s a shocking and profoundly anti-democratic affair. And yet, it is actually not entirely without precedent.
Indeed, this is not the first time an elected official from the United States has been barred from visiting another territory, so as to protect an unpopular military occupation. Israel’s decision to ban Tlaib and Omar recalls an instance, about 90 years ago, when the anti-imperial Senator William King, D-Utah, was prevented from visiting US-occupied Haiti. Then, as now, top officials in the US Government urged a foreign administration to impede a member of Congress, all to keep American policy and complicity in oppression from scrutiny.
In 1915, the United States invaded Haiti, ostensibly to bring political stability to the country. Later, many people in both Haiti and the United States came to understand it as a venture designed to further US banking interests. The occupation itself was an ugly affair, particularly for the Haitians who had to live under it. US rule was violently imposed, and racism was rampant: US troops killed thousands, while the occupation authorities imposed a Jim Crow-style system of segregation and installed a client-government.
Not surprisingly, most Haitians deeply resented and opposed the foreign presence in their country. Over time, as they resisted US domination, the occupation grew increasingly unpopular in the United States, too. Not only had anti-occupation guerrillas, “Cacos”, turned Haiti into something of a quagmire for the US troops, but the efforts of political activists and journalists had forced Americans to reckon with violence committed in their name there as well.
King was one of those who opposed the occupation. Over the years, he made numerous attempts to get the United States out of Haiti. Most prominently, in 1922, he tried to amend a military appropriations Bill so that no money could be spent to maintain the Marines in Haiti, the Dominican Republic or Nicaragua, each of which were occupied by the United States. In 1926, he made another attempt, introducing a resolution in the Senate opposing any further involvement in Haiti.
Both efforts failed, but King persisted. In March 1927, he decided to raise the visibility of the issue by making a “first-hand personal investigation of conditions” in Haiti. The senator never got the chance to take the trip, however.
The Haitian Government barred King from entering the country because of his anti-occupation politics. Haitian President Louis Borno declared King unwelcome because of statements he had made in the Senate “regarding Haiti and the Washington Government’s politics there”. His efforts to end the occupation, including his 1926 resolution, made him “persona non grata to the Government of Haiti.” It was therefore “undesirable” that he should visit.
Borno’s edict was not well received in the United States, and the media deemed it a dangerous precedent. As the New York Times wrote, “This is the first time that any member of the United States Senate has been placed in the undesirable class and forbidden entry to a friendly country. It opens up an entirely new field of speculation with respect to the activity of senators who are interesting themselves more and more in Latin American affairs.”
This backlash prompted pressure for the State Department to intervene and ensure that King be allowed to enter Haiti. Department officials reported trying to sway the Haitian President by explaining the potential benefits of King’s visit, but to no avail. Since Haiti was a sovereign state, they declared, there was “nothing the United States Government can do about the matter”. As it turns out, though, there was.
Records later revealed that, despite the State Department’s purported attempts on King’s behalf, it was actually at the US Government’s urging that the senator was prohibited from visiting Haiti. One of the top US officials in Haiti had encouraged Borno to exclude King. The entire affair was contrived, that official later reported, to make Haiti seem independent and shield the occupation from criticism. It was, he said, simply a “ploy”.
For King, it was apparent that officials in his own government were complicit, if not actively involved, in keeping him out of Haiti. “The entire circumstances surrounding the exclusion show that it was an effort to keep alive the fiction of Haitian independence,” he said in an interview upon his return to the United States, noting that if the State Department had truly put any pressure on Borno, the ban would have been lifted right away. After all, he correctly noted, the Government of Haiti was fully dependent upon the support of the US occupation.
As the senator understood it, his exclusion was a result of his “anti-imperialist programme”. His advocacy against the occupation threatened both the “imperialistic” policies of the United States and Borno’s government, which would collapse if the occupation ended. He was a threat to the entire structure of US militarism and empire in Haiti. That is what made him “undesirable”.
A similar dynamic is at play today with the two congresswomen.
Arguably, Tlaib and Omar are engaged in an effort that King would have recognised as an anti-imperialist programme for today. With the United States complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories through the extensive military aid it provides to the country, contesting US support for the occupation and defending the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a move straight from King’s playbook. He had tried to cut the funding for the occupation of Haiti, after all. And certainly, Tlaib and Omar’s hopes to visit Israel and the occupied territories to “see the reality of occupation for themselves” is no different from what the senator tried to do in Haiti.
Similarly, what Trump and Netanyahu hope to do is not unlike what Borno and the US occupation officials aimed to do in 1927. By keeping Tlaib and Omar out of the occupied territories, they hope to protect the occupation from scrutiny, delegitimise major critics of US foreign policy and Israeli policy, and ultimately contain their entire programme. Whether it will work remains to be seen. But if the King incident is any indication, it won’t.
A few years after King was banned, he was welcomed into Haiti as the occupation neared its end. Barring him had not protected the occupation or kept US policy there from scrutiny. In fact, it may have brought even more attention to it.
With the scandal around Tlaib and Omar’s exclusion continuing to grow, the same may be true for this occupation. As Omar commented at her news conference, “We cannot let Trump and Netanyahu succeed in hiding the cruel reality of the occupation from us.” In trying to keep the two congresswomen out of Israel and the occupied territories, Trump and Netanyahu may have unwittingly done the exact opposite of what they intended to do.
• Matthew Davidson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Miami
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