It sometimes seems that Israel bends over backwards to give itself bad publicity, even when the decision rests with the Israeli decision makers whose job it is to improve, rather than worsen, the image of the country.

What difference would it have made if Israel had totally ignored the activists who flew into Israel on Sunday as part of a pro-Palestinian demonstration? The event would probably have made a few inches in the international press on the following day and would promptly have been forgotten.

It would have had absolutely no impact on the wider political debate concerning Palestinian statehood.

Instead, it was allowed to become a topic of major international coverage. The Israeli government wasted months infiltrating the pro-demonstration groups, interrogating left-wing Israeli citizens who assisted in making the arrangements – so that the hundreds of thousands of people who would not even have bothered to read a small report in the newspaper or on the Internet became much more aware of the event.

Now it will be presented globally as an attempt by Israel to prevent a peaceful, democratic demonstration – in short, the denial of freedom of thought and speech in the country which continues to sell itself as the only “true” democracy in the region, where people are allowed to express their political feelings as openly and freely as they want, even – and especially – when those views are contrary to the preferred views of the government of the day.

Most of the demonstrators are people who have not been active in anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the past (not that the two are necessarily synonymous).

Many of them are naïve, often ignorant of what is actually happening in the region, but have been swayed to action by a well-oiled “hasbara” program on behalf of the Palestinian cause. And yes, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated, it would give them more legitimacy if they were seen to be active in other human rights issues, such as Syria and Iran, and not to focus solely on the plight of the Palestinians.

But regardless of all these arguments, we could, and should, have ignored their arrival altogether. Instead, the Israeli government decided to use its secret services (the Shin Bet) to infiltrate the groups, arrest and detain many of the demonstrators when they arrived in Israel, and immediately expel them from the country, along the lines of policies which are practiced in countries with which we in Israel do not want to be compared. No amount of handing out flowers to the wrong suspects, or distribution of a letter of explanation, will change the image of what happened on Sunday at Ben-Gurion airport.

This is part of a policy which Israel has adopted in recent years in relation to many who are critical of the country and its policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. It is a policy which is causing immense damage to Israel’s reputation as a democracy where free speech is allowed. Outspoken critics of Israeli government policies, such as Noam Chomsky, the noted Jewish linguist and philosopher, Norman Finkelstein, the American political scientists and activist who has been critical of the way in which the Holocaust has been manipulated for political gain, and, most recently, Gunter Grass, the German novelist and Nobel prize winner – have all been denied entry into Israel.

There’s no question their views and statements are not pleasant to the ears of the majority of Israelis. They are all highly critical of the continued occupation and the lack of movement toward Palestinian statehood and independence. In the case of Grass, given his Wehrmacht SS background, it is perhaps more problematic, but at the end of the day they have done nothing more than expressed views which have gained credence during the past two decades throughout the world, and which are also shared by large sections of the Israeli left-of-center population – people who live in Israel, serve in the army, pay their taxes and are loyal citizens of the country, yet at the same time highly critical of the government’s policies in the West Bank.

Preventing these critical voices from entering the country only draws added attention and headlines to their views. It is a policy which reflects a cowardice to engage in debate with people whose opinions do not fall in line with those of a state which has become increasingly hard-line in both its domestic and international positions in recent years. It raises questions concerning the very definition of the state as an open democracy. It makes us look pretty stupid in the eyes of the world, including those who strongly support and promote Israel within the international arena, but who believe that Israel has to justify its policies rather than simply shut the debate down because the views expressed are unpopular at the best, or indefensible at the worst.

Were they to come to Israel, engage in public debate, argue with their protagonists, Israel would be seen as a country which allows full freedom of expression.

The fact that these people are not even citizens or residents of the state and have almost no impact whatsoever on decision making makes the denial of entry even more incomprehensible. At the end of day, they will have let off a bit of steam, but will not have caused any harm to Israel’s open democracy and marketplace of ideas. On the contrary, allowing them unhindered access will give credence to Israel as a society where debate on all topics, even the most sensitive and the most political, is open, diverse and wide ranging.

Our ambassadors abroad have more important things to do then to have to spend the next week explaining to numerous journalists and government officials in countries whose citizens have been mistreated by the security personnel at Ben- Gurion airport why such a harmful policy was implemented. No one will believe the official line that Israel was guaranteeing its security or even preventing potential acts of terrorism, when they see elderly women, harmless teenagers, or philosophizing professors as the victims of the policy.

Instead of dealing with the real political issues on the table, or promoting Israel as a place of science, culture and tourism, our representatives will have to invest their time in trying to repair the considerable damage done to Israel’s international image as a place where almost anything and everything (short of Holocaust denial, outright racism, or delegitimization of the very existence of the state) can be aired in public.

The government should rethink its self-damaging policy and should instruct the Interior Ministry and its security forces accordingly.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.

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