JERUSALEM — Lara Alqasem arrived in Israel last Tuesday, but she still hasn’t visited the sandy beaches in Tel Aviv or the holy sites in Jerusalem. The 22-year-old from Florida, who is hoping to start a law degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem next week, hasn’t even made it to the campus.
Instead, she has been held at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport for the past six days.
Alqasem, whose father is of Palestinian heritage, was refused entry to the country on the basis of a law barring foreign nationals who publicly back or call for any kind of boycott — economic, cultural or academic — against Israel or its West Bank settlements.
Passed in 2017, the goal of the law, Israel says, is to battle the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which has found growing support in Europe and the United States in recent years.
BDS activities, which range from discouraging the purchase of goods produced in Israeli settlements to pressuring international companies not to conduct business in Israel and urging celebrities not to visit or perform in the Jewish state, are increasingly seen by Israel as a threat.
The law is backed by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which compiles profiles of BDS activists based on public information online, including that published by Canary Mission, an anonymous website that claims to document “individuals and organizations that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.”
"Israel has the right to decide which foreign nationals can enter. Israel’s parliament passed legislation to prevent entry of foreign nationals who seek to harm the state and its security through the anti-Semitic BDS campaign,” said Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan. “Lara served as president of a chapter of one of the most extreme and hate-filled anti-Israel BDS groups in the U.S.”
He said it was “false to describe Ms. Alqasem as incarcerated in Israel — she is free to return to her home in the United States whenever she wishes.”
“Israel welcomes students of all backgrounds and political opinions to study in Israel, but, like any democracy, will not allow entry to those who work to harm the country, whatever their excuse,” Erdan said.
His ministry said in a statement that Alqasem “is a known boycott activist" and that she "deleted her social media profiles in an attempt to hide her role in such from border officials.”
Alqasem’s profile on Canary Mission shows she served as the president of Students for Justice in Palestine while she was a student at the University of Florida. She also called for a boycott of Israeli hummus.
Israeli authorities had hoped to deport Alqasem immediately after her arrival, but the future law student challenged the deportation order and requested to stay.
In her appeal, Alqasem said that she was never a senior member of Students for Justice in Palestine, that the group she headed had only a few members and she no longer supported BDS. A local court is expected to reach a decision in the coming days.
“Even if she supported a boycott in the past, we are talking about someone who now wants to come to Israel,” said her attorney, Yotam Ben-Hillel.
Hebrew University Rector Barak Medina said the university would lobby on her behalf, though the authorities prevented university representatives from visiting her on Sunday.
Medina said the university’s scholars have strongly opposed the BDS legislation since it was approved in March 2017 and are involved in a petition against the law filed in the Supreme Court.
“This kind of legislation might actually enhance the tendency to boycott Israel, instead of mitigating it,” Medina said. “We find the idea that a person interested in visiting Israel is not permitted to enter because of his or her views is not acceptable, especially when there is no such prohibition by law inside Israel.”
“Lara is very determined, she is optimistic, and she is still in a great mood for a 22-year-old that had been held in detention for six days,” party leader Tamar Zandberg said. “She is determined to go through the procedure and would rather spend a few more days incarcerated if it would give her a better chance to enter Israel.”
Zandberg said the BDS law, as well as some recent cases of Israeli citizens being questioned at the airport “under the pretense of security” but really because of their political views of the country, was “troubling.”
“These are a collection of policies that are not only aimed at narrowing freedom of speech but also show the extent to which Israel is not acting like a liberal democracy should,” she said.
Alqasem is the 15th person to be denied entry to Israel since the law went into effect. In July, prominent Jewish pro-Palestinian activist Ariel Gold was barred from entering because of her vocal support for a boycott of the country. A few months earlier, in April, Patrice Leclerc, mayor of the Paris suburb of Gennevilliers, was refused entry for the same reasons. The ministry also attempted to stop Dublin’s Lord Mayor Mícheál Mac Donncha from entering the country but failed because of a spelling error.