A few years ago, a journalist friend called me from the Allenby Bridge. He was coming to Israel from Iraq and had flown to Amman. At the border, Israeli security detained him for questioning. He was born in Western Europe to parents from an Arab country. He looked Arab, had an Arabic name and had dozens of stamps in his passport from countries across the Middle East.
While a simple Google search would have resolved the security officials’ concerns, they preferred to speak to someone who could vouch for him. I made a call and with that, he was let into the country.
This was not an isolated incident. Many journalists who travel throughout the Middle East know that when they come to Israel, they will likely be detained and questioned. Israeli security is known for being tough, inquisitive and competent.
The basis for Israeli security is profiling. It is controversial and not politically correct, but it is effective. In America, all passengers take off their shoes; in Israel, only the profiled ones do. It is not a case of mass security screening, but rather a focused, strict and consistent one.
It might be intrusive and insensitive, but it is needed in a country like Israel, which faces unique threats on the ground and in the air.
I mention all of this because what has been happening at Israel’s border crossings in recent months has nothing to do with security.
The detention of American Jews who disagree with the Likud is part of a different policy, one motivated by politics and a desire to prevent opposition and criticism.
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Peter Beinart, the well-known American-Jewish journalist, was not detained because of any security risk he poses to Israel. Meyer Koplow, chairman of Brandeis University’s board of trustees, was not questioned before boarding a flight from Tel Aviv out of concern he was smuggling something illegal onto the plane. The detention and interrogation of Simone Zimmerman, a known radical left-wing American-Jewish activist at the Israeli-Egyptian border, was not due to some suspicion that she was carrying weapons in her suitcase.
All of these people were stopped by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and questioned because of their political opinions.
Zimmerman is the founder of IfNotNow, a radical Israel-criticizing activist group. Kopolow had participated in Encounter, a program that takes Jewish leaders on tours of the West Bank to better educate them about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Beinart is a known critic of Israeli settlement policy and has called for a boycott of settlement products.
ALL ISRAELIS should be concerned with what is happening. Like any country, Israel has the right to stop people it views as a threat from crossing its borders, but these three recent examples show something else afoot. This is not about security, but about the type of democracy we want to see in our country.
Sadly, this trend fits into today’s political atmosphere in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party regularly brand political adversaries as “leftists.” This was demonstrated recently in the way he tried to deflect criticism of the controversial Nation-State Law, claiming that the leftists who spoke against it were simply not real Zionists.
This is in line with a general Netanyahu theme, one which believes in sowing division and stigmatizing, categorizing and criticizing for the purposes of political gain and success. Stopping someone like Beinart or Kopolow doesn’t make Israel safer. It does the opposite. It undermines our state’s democratic character and potentially makes it more dangerous.
But what it does do is demarcate between how the Likud views the good and the bad. By pointing out who the adversary is, you are showing also who the patriots are. That is what this policy seeks to achieve.
To his credit, Netanyahu was quick in putting out a statement after Beinart’s detention claiming that it was an administrative mistake.
The problem is that it didn’t seem like one. A simple Internet search by the security guard would have identified Beinart as a prominent American journalist, commentator, speaker and CNN pundit. The only reason Netanyahu issued his statement was because of the recognition that Beinart can cause Israel – and him – genuine damage. He often writes the opening column in The Atlantic
magazine. A new one about his detention in Israel would, to say the least, be damaging for Israel.
I AM NOT writing this because I agree with Beinart or in some way support Zimmerman. On the contrary. I think both are wrong when it comes to Israel. IfNotNow is one of the more virulent anti-Israel organizations around today and was reportedly behind the recent campaign against Birthright. Beinart’s call to boycott products made in West Bank settlements is misguided, as is much of his one-sided criticism of Israel.
But Israel is a place that has no problem confronting this criticism. Just look at the Knesset, where its members openly criticize Israel, its institutions and its leadership almost daily. There are some members of Knesset who are ardent Zionists but are convinced that Israel’s continued control over the West Bank undermines its future as a Jewish and democratic state. Should they be banned from Israel as well?
Do we have to open our arms to every critic? Of course not. But should we ban them from the country because of their political views? Also no.
It was for this reason that The Jerusalem Post
editorial board opposed the legislation passed in the Knesset last year that gave the Interior Ministry the authority to prevent BDS activists from entering the country.
The best way to combat people who support BDS or criticize Israel is not by entrusting low-level security guards and government functionaries with the authority to detain, question and deport them at Israel’s borders. This gives Israel’s critics more ammunition and makes it seem like the country fears free discourse, shies away from rigorous debate and has something to hide.
Let these critics come to Israel and see this country’s success and vibrancy for themselves. The best answer to criticism is the truth – and to show that we have nothing to hide.
UNFORTUNATELY, hiding the truth seems to be a common theme these days in Israel’s corridors of power. The latest example from this week has to do with the cease-fire deal reached with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
As of Thursday evening, for example, Netanyahu had not said a word publicly about the deal and how his government is negotiating, via mediators, with a terrorist organization that in 2009 he promised to topple. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who once upon a time threatened to assassinate a Hamas leader within 48 hours, sat in a TV studio on Wednesday and declared that Israel has not reached any understandings with Hamas even though just hours earlier, the deal was voted on in the security cabinet.
The government’s refusal to admit that there were negotiations and understandings – which can be pretty much summed up by a policy of “quiet meets quiet” – seems to be due to a fear of political retribution.
Netanyahu and Liberman know that after more than four months of protests and burning fields, their political constituents want to see Hamas punished, not rewarded. To admit that there is a ceasefire with far-reaching economic benefits for Gaza and without securing the immediate release of the IDF soldiers’ bodies and Israeli captives, gives Netanyahu and Liberman’s political adversaries on the Right potential ammunition against them.
The problem is that this is not the way policy should be set. The government should not be hiding what it is doing with Hamas and the Gaza Strip – on the contrary. Netanyahu and Liberman should hold a press conference and explain to the public how they are trying to avoid a war that would end with Israel and Gaza in the same position as they were before it, except with more casualties and destruction on both sides.
Delaying a deadly conflict and trying to improve the terrible living conditions in Gaza – itself a tool for avoiding war – is not something that needs to be hidden. This is what responsible leaders do – they go to war only when there is no alternative. They make tough decisions. This is something to be proud of, not afraid.
But in Israel 2018, politics dominates; a sincere debate over policy and Israel’s relationship with Hamas and Gaza is a political minefield.
Transparency is needed for Israeli citizens to properly oversee their government and political leaders. Israelis have a right to know what deals their leaders are making. That is how a democracy is meant to work.
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