Let us start with the obvious.The law passed by the Knesset earlier this month granting Israel the right to deny entry to foreign nationals who advocate boycotting the Jewish state is a public relations disaster.Even to many of Israel’s most genuine and passionate supporters in the United States, the law is an acute embarrassment. Raised in a society that values freedom of expression above almost all else, they are appalled that the state that they love and that they have defended – even when doing so has been unpopular – now seems to be stifling legitimate political debate. What kind of democracy, they essentially ask, prohibits people from entering just because they disagree with its policies?
To Americans imbued with the values of liberal democracy, the Knesset’s law seems the very antithesis of what has made the free world free. What would we have said, they essentially ask, had the Johnson or Nixon administrations barred from the United States people who opposed the Vietnam War? What would we say today if the Trump regime kept out everyone who expresses disgust with the policies or personal morality of the new president? So for the sake of absolute clarity, let us be honest. With Israel losing the support of ever-growing swathes of the American Jewish community, this bill’s passage was a massive, clumsy blunder.Having said that, the law is not nearly as outrageous as many devoted American Zionists believe it is. For the law’s intent is not to limit free speech or legitimate political debate, but rather to respond to the simple fact that Israel is in a battle for its survival.The most dangerous assault on Israel’s survival today is not military conflict, but the battle over the Jewish state’s legitimacy. Mahmoud Abbas denies that the Jews have a historic connection to the Temple Mount, insisting that Zionism is a form of colonialism. The United Nations has long been the headquarters of a relentless and duplicitous assault on Israel. European capitals flirt with recognizing a Palestinian state, despite their knowledge that the Palestinians turned down significant offers from Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert and would not negotiate even after Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a settlement building freeze under president Obama.On American college campuses, Jewish students who support Israel are called “Zios.” Everywhere one turns, Israel and Zionists are under attack.The legislators who wrote the bill pose a simple question: why should Israel grant entry to those who seek to do it harm? Would not any self-respecting state keep out those who seek to undermine its very survival? To that, however, those who oppose the bill then retort, “Do you really think those people are seeking to undermine Israel?” The answer is “absolutely.” There is nothing at all wrong with American Jews’ wanting to end the occupation. Millions of Israelis (myself included) desperately want to find a way to end it.The difference between the two groups is that most of those Israelis see no way out for now. How would Israel prevent a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, as happened in Gaza? With Syria melting down, Jordan hanging by a thread and ISIS just over the horizon, would sane Israelis really agree to Israel once again being 15 kilometers wide? If holding onto territory captured in war is illegitimate, why will the international community not eventually pressure or force Israel to return to the 1947 Partition Plan lines? To urge Israel’s immediate departure from the West Bank without answers to those questions is to put countless Israelis and the Jewish state itself at risk. It is, therefore, egregiously naïve and fundamentally immoral.No less immoral, however, is the pretense that the movement to boycott Israel (the movement that the Knesset’s new law specifically targets) is simply the expression of political or moral conviction. One cannot boycott just the settlements; Israel’s economy is far too complex for that. A boycott of the settlements is a boycott of all Israel, designed to destroy its economy, to bring Israel to its knees and to force it to make accommodations to the Palestinians who still deny that the land is also the Jews’ ancestral home and that the Jews are not colonialists, but have returned to their ancestral homeland.The boycott plays right into the hands of those who insist that the Jews have no right to any land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.The purpose of the Knesset’s recently passed bill, however unsophisticatedly executed, is thus to begin to call Israel’s enemies what they truly are. All too often, they masquerade not as hostile to Zionism, but as deeply in love with Israel. It is time, insist those who drafted the law, to end the charade.A particularly galling example of the charade is a new video posted by Haaretz, featuring Simone Zimmerman, who during the American primary season briefly served as Bernie Sanders’s representative to the Jewish community.“What laws like this do,” says Zimmerman as she explains why the law is so unjust, “is that they make people like me afraid to speak their minds.” And who deserves to speak their mind more than she? “I’m here living in Tel Aviv for the year… to reconnect with the people, with the place that is so dear to my heart.”Precisely because Israel is “so dear to her heart,” Zimmerman, like many American Jews, is opposed to the occupation. I’ve never met her, so I’m inclined to assume that she genuinely believes that she cares about Israel. Interestingly, though, she then asks why a robust democracy would want to keep her out, and actually answers the question herself. “I’m not a member of the BDS movement, but I believe that BDS is a legitimate, non-violent tactic…”Much as I wanted to believe that Zimmerman was genuine when she said she cares about Israel, that was when I found the sentiment impossible to sustain. She is smart, a graduate of one of America’s finest universities. She has certainly read BDS’s website that says, in part, “We reject Zionism, as it constitutes the racist and discriminatory ideological pillar of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid that has deprived the Palestinian people of its fundamental human rights since 1948.” Zimmerman knows that the issue is 1948, not 1967. The issue is not settlements or Israel’s presence in the “occupied territories,” but the Jewish State’s very existence.Zimmerman asserts that BDS must be legitimate because it is “non-violent.” (So, too, thus far, is the American alt-right. Does that make it legitimate?) Zimmerman continues, "I don’t know, do you think that makes me an enemy of the state?” Sadly, whatever she thinks her intentions are, it does. For her to say that she believes that BDS is legitimate when she knows that BDS asserts that Israel has been an occupying presence since 1948, means that she endorses assaults on Israel’s very existence. How is this not a clever wolf in sheep’s clothing? If she endorses those who would destroy us, why, really, is she not an “enemy of the state”? Why should Israel have to let her in? The new law, public relations disaster though it is, asserts that the time has come for us to stop pretending that American Jews (and others) who endorse boycotts or who are unwilling to disavow BDS are merely naïve, liberal people with the best of intentions. The stakes in today’s battles are too high; Israelis will live and die by virtue of how these campaigns play out.We can certainly understand why Zimmerman bristles at being called an “enemy of the state.” Yet Jews who claim to love Israel but who knowingly endorse organizations that declare that Israel is fundamentally illegitimate are actually much worse than enemies of the state. They are, many Israelis believe, just traitors.That is precisely where the Knesset’s law gets it exactly right. Its unfortunate amateurishness notwithstanding, the law states unabashedly what many frustrated Israelis have long wanted to say: traitors simply have no right to enter the country whose destruction they actively abet. The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 “Book of the Year.”
Bill banning boycotters , anti-Israel activists from visiting Israel becomes a law after Knesset approval on March 6, 2017 (credit: REUTERS/KNESSET CHANNEL)