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Opinion Lara Alqasem’s detention in Israel exposes campaign to police free speech and suppress critics

Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old American graduate student with Palestinian grandparents, has been barred from entering Israel. (Alqasem family via AP)

Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. 

As I write, Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old American student of Palestinian descent, is sitting in a “detention facility” at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. She has been there for a week. She arrived to begin a master’s degree in human rights at Hebrew University. Unexpectedly, her graduate work began with a case study: Israeli immigration authorities refused her entry, alleging that she had been involved in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. While she waits for a court to hear her appeal, she remains locked in limbo at the airport.

There aren’t enough synonyms for “absurd” for me to properly describe what is happening to Alqasem. What is even scarier for Israelis worried about the country’s eroded democracy is that her case is no fluke. It’s part of a trend by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to turn law enforcement, and the law itself, into tools for policing opinions.

Alqasem was denied entry based on information from Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs — information gleaned from a right-wing U.S. website and some Facebook links that supposedly identify her as a boycott activist.

Reality check: One prominent part of the BDS campaign has been seeking to isolate Israeli academia. Alqasem is showing her devotion to BDS by, uh, seeking an advanced degree at an Israeli university.

The larger pros and cons of the BDS movement are the stuff for another article. But if one part of the movement’s effort is clearly self-defeating, it is the boycott of Israeli academia and cultural activity. Universities should be the space for discussing ideas, not cutting off communication. What’s more, Israeli academia is the source of some of the most cogent criticism of the occupation, to the horror of Netanyahu’s government. Alqasem has shown academic openness. Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and company have responded by blocking her entry — effectively forcing her to boycott Israel.

The legal basis for barring Alqasem is a law passed by the Knesset in March 2017. It prohibits entry to foreigners who publicly act to boycott Israel or Israel’s West Bank settlements. Whether you support or utterly oppose the boycott campaign, it is clear that it is composed of political ideas and nonviolent tactics. Theoretically, it could hurt Israeli companies’ bottom line, but it will not put anyone in the hospital or a grave. The law tries to lock people with boycott ideas out of Israel, based on the illogic that boycotting the boycotters will change their minds.

This is just part of the government’s effort to hamper legitimate political activity. For a number of years, the Shabak security agency (whose proper mission is to prevent terror and espionage) has been targeting Israeli human rights and anti-occupation activists with summonses. The agency delivers “warning talks” that technically don’t break the law. The obvious intent is to deter them from activism. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last year that the Shabak must inform people that they have the right to refuse the summons. In at least one reported case, the agency ignored the ruling.

Many cases show how the political policing has turned acute. Last month, Julie Weinberg-Connors, an American Jewish activist in the process of moving to Israel, was detained at Ben Gurion Airport and nearly put on a plane back to the United States, apparently because of her previous visits to Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank. Only after Knesset members intervened was she allowed to enter Israel.

In August, American journalist Peter Beinart, a Zionist critic of the occupation, was questioned by a security official at the airport when he arrived. A couple of weeks earlier, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, an Israeli author living in the United States, got the same treatment. Among other questions, he was asked about his support for the anti-occupation Israeli veterans’ group Breaking the Silence.

Reza Aslan, the American religion scholar, was questioned for hours when he crossed into Israel from Jordan. One question related to his views on Netanyahu. American Jewish activist Simone Zimmerman got similar treatment, including questions about Netanyahu, when crossing from Egypt into Israel. In July, Meyer Koplow, a prominent donor to pro-Israeli causes, was grilled on his way out of Israel. Hehad participated in a Palestinian-Jewish dialogue program in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Koplow is the chairman of Brandeis University’s board of trustees.

For many years, I could describe Israel as a flawed but functioning democracy within its pre-1967 borders. The Netanyahu government is expanding the flaws and shrinking the democracy in its effort to suppress criticism of what goes on beyond those borders in occupied territory. Not by coincidence, political policing has become more blatant since Donald Trump became president. Rather than intervening, even on behalf of U.S. students, America has become a beacon of illiberalism.

For an Israeli, the answer to the government’s actions is to keep speaking out. For others concerned with what’s happening here, my plea: Don’t let Netanyahu keep you away. Come to our universities. Flood our airports. Staying away will only help the machinery of silence.

Read more: 

Gershom Gorenberg: Netanyahu weakens support for Israel in the United States

Gershom Gorenberg: Netanyahu’s warning: No news but my news

Christian Caryl: The forces of evil are getting bolder. We can’t let them win.