Several readers, perhaps assuming I’d be taking Israel’s side, sent me article about an incident that happened about a week ago. As CNN reports, Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old American student of Palestinian descent, flew to Israel with a visa, intending to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She never made it out of the airport, and as of yesterday she’d been detained there for a week. Why? Because the Israelis discovered that Alqasem was active in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. As CNN report,
The Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which handles BDS cases, called Alqasem a “prominent activist” who met the criteria of being refused entry into Israel.
In a statement to CNN, Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan said: “Israel, like every democracy, has the right to prevent the entry of foreign nationals, especially those working to harm the country. Therefore we work to prevent the entry of those who promote the anti-Semitic BDS campaign, which calls for Israel’s destruction.”
The ministry added that Alqasem is free to return to the United States anytime. Bechor said her client still hopes to attend the university and wants to fight the ministry’s decision in Israel, not as a BDS protest, but because she can’t afford to fly back and forth while the case continues.
To their credit, the faculty senate of Hebrew University has condemned Alqasem’s detention and called for her release into Israel. Her case is being heard today by an Israeli court.
As you can guess from what I wrote already, I think the detention of Alqasem is wrong, and that she should be allowed to study in Israel. Yes, she is an apparent supporter of a movement meant to pressure Israel by boycotting its products and visits to the country, and yes, BDS’s aim is clearly the elimination of the state of Israel, although they keep that under wraps. (Their cry, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is obviously a call for Israel to be eliminated.) But there are already plenty of vociferous critics of Israel who are residents of the country, so what does it matter if they let in a young woman who will join their ranks for a while before returning to the U.S.?
I know that Israel has the right to refuse entry to anyone, as does any country, and that countries like the UK or France often refuse entry to critics. But Alqasem is not a terrorist or someone who poses an immediate danger to Israel. Israel is supposed to be a secular and liberal state, and it’s unseemly to detail Alqasem for a week before deciding whether to let her in. Just let her in, already! It would be a generous gesture, and one that would speak to Israel’s professed freedom of thought and speech.
I agree, then, with the op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times written by Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss (Weiss’s critics will be flummoxed by this one). Click on the screenshot to see it:
Two excerpts from the piece:
Israelis have good reason to see the B.D.S. campaign as a thinly veiled form of bigotry. Boycotts of Jewish businesses have a particularly foul pedigree in Nazi Germany. And the same activists who obsessively seek to punish and isolate Israel for its occupation of the West Bank rarely if ever display the same passion for protesting against China for its occupation of Tibet, or Russia for its occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
It’s also true that Students for Justice in Palestine has received funding and other assistance from a group called American Muslims for Palestine, some of whose leaders have links to groups flagged by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for their ties to the terrorist group Hamas. The group seeks to end Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” along with “promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes” — language that has long been code for dismantling the Jewish state.
Israel, like all countries, has a right to protect its borders and to determine who is allowed in and out. But Israel is also a state that prides itself on being a liberal democracy — a fact that goes far to explain the longstanding support for Israel among American Jews and non-Jews alike. If liberalism is about anything, it’s about deep tolerance for opinions we find foolish, dangerous and antithetical to our own.
The case for such liberalism today is both pragmatic and principled. In practice, expelling visitors who favor the B.D.S. movement does little if anything to make Israel more secure. But it powerfully reinforces the prejudice of those visitors (along with their supporters) that Israel is a discriminatory police state.
. . . Societies that shun or expel their critics aren’t protecting themselves. They are advertising their weakness.
Stephens and Weiss conclude that critics of Israel should not only be tolerated, but invited to visit the country. Perhaps they’ll change their minds; most likely they won’t. But what does the country have to hide by refusing entry to a student who adheres to BDS? And, as Weiss says, it just makes Israel look illiberal and bad.