The imaginary threat of BDS

All that the public will remember of Alqasem’s trip to Israel is that the country’s authorities tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent her from entering Israel.

American student Lara Alqasem (center) appears in Israel’s Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 17 (photo credit: REUTERS)
American student Lara Alqasem (center) appears in Israel’s Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 17
(photo credit: REUTERS)
LARA ALQASEM is an American student who came to Israel in the beginning of October 2018 to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Because of her previous political activity, Israeli authorities claimed to be “concerned” about her support of BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) and calling for a boycott of Israel while in the country. As a result, Alqasem spent two weeks detained at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport. While right-wing Israeli politicians called for her deportation, and a District Court upheld their demand, two weeks later the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that “concern” was not enough to prevent Alqasem from entering the country. She is now a student at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she plans to study for a year as part of her master’s degree in human rights.
All that the public will remember of Alqasem’s trip to Israel is that the country’s authorities tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent her from entering Israel. This is the media’s legacy: senior politicians, including the ministers of Public Security and the Interior, tried (and failed) to prevent a 22-year-old Florida student from entering the country, and worldwide protests against the way she was treated here promptly followed.
Now, consider an alternative scenario. In this scenario, Alqasem, who received an entry visa to Israel, enters the country without any obstacle. She starts her studies, makes friends at the university, meets lecturers, many of whom are Jews from around the world, and many of whom are Israelis, who have served in the army. She might connect with a nice West Bank settler who studies with her and might visit him or her at home.
Instead of creating an international scandal, instead of trying (and failing) to prevent the entry of a young student, who at no stage was proven to present a threat to public peace or to the well-being of any individual, this could have been the scenario.
There was a chance that Alqasem would enjoy her time in Israel and share with the world via Facebook or some other digital platform that Israel is generally a nice place.
But even if during her stay Alqasem would have criticized Israel, even if she would have called for a boycott of the state, what is the real damage? This is a young woman who chose to study in Israel, along with Israelis, and live in Jerusalem with all its complexities.
No one would have cared about her opinions against a state that allows her to express them.
The obvious damage is the presentation of Israel as a country that is intolerant of differing opinions – a position that official Israel itself seems to be trying to reinforce. For example, in anticipation of the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, a standard letter was sent by those responsible for producing the Eurovision in Israel, which demanded free entry for all – regardless of opinions held or sexual orientation. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan sharply criticized this letter and claimed that Israel can decide who will enter or not – and what kind of opinions are allowed here. What Israel as a state gains from such a claim – is unclear.
We are shooting ourselves in the foot. The message to potential tourists, businessmen or foreign students is clear – your entry into Israel is not guaranteed, even if you have a valid entry visa.
This is a problematic message for a country whose economy is dependent on tourism and that invests a great deal of effort to attract tourists. Moreover, this does tremendous damage to a country that wants to have globally competitive academia. Finally, this is a destructive move for a country that wants to be part of the global business world.
Alqasem was not the first to be detained or prevented from entering Israel. Her case was preceded by a few others, among them that of the Lord Mayor of Dublin. His entry was intended to be stopped, but due to bureaucratic negligence he entered Israel without intervention – an event that was more embarrassing for Israel due to the negligence than anything else. These entry restrictions do not stem from fear of criminal activity or the perpetration of a terrorist attack. They are – and this is the formal declaration – an attempt to stop unwanted opinions.
This concern about the opinions of those entering Israel is backed by legislative processes in recent years. Israeli MKs and ministers have worked hard to pass various laws that erode freedom of expression in Israel. They utilize the tools of Israel’s democracy to reduce freedom of expression in the public sphere.
Preventing the entry of Alqasem is just part of a larger effort that purports to “defend” Israel.
Throughout its existence, Israel’s founding ethos has been not only that of a national home for the Jewish people, but also that of the Jewish people and the very state constantly being under threat. In the past, this concept had much to rely on, but today there is no significant threat to Israel’s existence. While this is not a mainstream opinion, it deserves to be said again: life in Israel is, in fact, quite safe. Even at the height of the “knife intifada” three years ago, Jerusalem was safer than New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris or Portland.
The transition from constant fear of a concrete threat, that is, a threat to people, to an attempt to stop uncomfortable opinions is highly problematic. Opinions are part of a vibrant democracy, exactly the kind we want in Israel.
In fact, if Israel prevents the entry of its critics, will the next step be the expulsion of Israelis holding opposing views, or, perhaps, of those who believe that a boycott of the state is reasonable or that settlements should be evacuated? To date, every Israeli has the right to hold and freely express these positions. Yet this is not a baseless matter to worry about. In March 2017, Erdan’s plan to create a database of Israeli citizens who support BDS was uncovered by the press. In plain language, this was to be a blacklist of Israeli citizens to be categorized according to their opinions. As far as I know, the list has never been created, but the normalization of the very idea is a highly disturbing step.
The situation in Israel is a result of the combination of anxiety about antisemitism (and the horrific massacre in Pittsburgh proves that antisemitism exists even today, even in the United States) and institutional unwillingness to deal with criticism of the continued occupation and its consequences. This has led to the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget in attempts to explain Israel’s policies – everything that can be broadly defined as hasbara (public diplomacy).
Of course, if “defending the country” means not only going into battle but also touring college campuses in the US, then those who criticize the country become its enemies. This is evident, for example, in the concept of “the propaganda terror attack” that has already been adopted by Israeli politicians.
This concept makes anyone who criticizes Israeli policies an enemy, a traitor, a person to be followed as if he or she were a member of a criminal family, a terrorist organization or a representative of an enemy state.
Even someone who disagrees with all that I have written so far should agree that the damage to Israel caused by its critics, including the BDS movement, is negligible compared to the damage created by the attempt to prevent Lara Alqasem from entering the country.
Recent steps taken by the Netanyahu government and its coalition members are a McCarthyist continuation of the imaginary threat of BDS that might lead to the actual existence of a thought police and to labeling Israeli citizens and foreigners as “traitors” because of political opinions that don’t jibe with government policies.
The current government employs the tool it calls hasbara to promote the suppression of left-wing or critical views. The coercion that it seeks should make us all ask whether we are willing to continue cooperating with a government that seeks to silence opinions, disguised as defending the state. To answer “No!” is to be a friend of Israel as a vibrant democracy, as well as a Jewish, liberal, open, free and prosperous country.
The writer is a doctoral student in sociology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem