What Rashida Tlaib Could Learn from General Washington

My initial reaction to Israel’s revocation of a visa given to U.S. Representatives Rashida Talib (D-Minn.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was that it was an insult to the U.S. government. To reject or rescind a visa application from a private citizen is one thing, but to reject visa applications from duly elected representatives, whatever their policy views may be, is quite another.

Further study changed my mind.

Many supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Tlaib ban have noted that at least one of the groups helping to organize the trip for Tlaib and Omar is nasty and anti-Jewish, going so far as to publish the blood libel. That anyone, especially an American congresswoman, would work with such people is bad enough. That could cross a line.

But morality and diplomacy are often separate, and have to be. Israel recognizes the United States and the United States recognizes Israel. Given that, political officials from each nation ought to have a presumptive right to visit the other. Few rules are absolute, however.

Yet the bias in favor of issuing visas grows from the logic of diplomatic recognition. And that is precisely the line that Representative Tlaib crossed when she posted her official itinerary featuring “Palestine” and not “Israel” as her destination. It was labeled “Delegation to Palestine.” That’s an implicit failure to recognize the government and state of Israel. It is the diplomatic equivalent of what the social justice warriors today call “deadnaming.”

Truly to understand the issue, it might help to look back to America’s founding. On July 14, 1776, William Howe, the commander of the British Army that had recently landed in New York, sent a letter to General George Washington. The writers at “Revolutionary-war-and-beyond” provide a nice summary of the story:

The message offered a “pardon” to all who would lay down their arms and pledge allegiance to Great Britain. The letter was addressed to “George Washington, Esq.” The letter was delivered to Washington, but shortly afterwards it was returned unopened to the messenger by Washington’s aide, Joseph Reed. Reed informed the messenger that there was no one with that title in the army.

Mystified, the messenger returned the letter to General Howe with the message that no one with that title was in the Continental Army. Howe, who was not amused, sent a second letter, this one addressed to “George Washington, Esq., etc.,” the etc. meaning… “and any other relevant titles.”

Washington rejected the second letter as well, as it was not addressed to “General.”

What was that about? Howe was seeking a meeting with the commander-in-chief of the armies of the United States of America. Even so, he was addressing him as a private person, “George Washington, Esquire.” Pointedly, Howe did not address General Washington by his rank and title in the Continental Army.

Why would Howe neglect to call Washington “General”? For the same reason, Washington refused to answer Howe’s summons. To call Washington by his official title would have been to accord recognition to the “The United States of America in General Congress Assembled,” which had commissioned Washington. (The commission was made in June 1775, long before Congress declared independence, but that didn’t change the diplomatic principle).

For his part, “George Washington, Esquire,” or a person identifying himself by that name and title could not receive such a letter without implicitly denying the very cause for which he was fighting. This argument may seem petty, but it is, quite often, the stuff of diplomacy.

There are workarounds. Washington met with a lesser officer in a private capacity, off the legal books. Similarly, Rep. Tlaib, apparently, was willing to observe proper forms for a low-key visit in which she could visit her aging grandmother. Either she changed her mind on her own or she was pressured to do so. At any rate, Tlaib did change her mind, and then the government of Israel did the same, revoking her visa.

Now we can understand why a public statement by a U.S. congresswoman that she will tour “Palestine” and not “Israel” triggered such a response. The government of Israel also listed other factors, notably Tlaib and Omar’s outspoken support for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement—a movement that often appears to be designed to delegitimize the state of Israel, although some disagree with that characterization.

Perhaps a publicly released itinerary such as the one that listed the trip as a visit to “Palestine” is not an official paper. Perhaps, but it is a type of official public statement by a public official. And, apparently, that itinerary billed itself as a “Delegation to Palestine.”

In short, by calling Israel “Palestine” on her official itinerary, a U.S. congresswoman denied the official policy of the United States of America.

Tlaib is also denying, by implication, the legal rights recognized by the very government that she has been duly elected to serve. As such, she is, by implication, practicing civil disobedience against the state of Israel, and is also failing to uphold the official legal commitments of the government she has been elected to serve.

Presumably a congresswoman, in her official capacity, has an obligation to observe such commitments in a formal way, whatever her private thoughts happen to be. Failure to do so is no small thing, as George Washington knew well.

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About Richard Samuelson

Richard Samuelson is associate professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino.

Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

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