How will Israel's anti-BDS entry law work?

Low-level Interior Ministry officials may determine how the law really functions, likely with some embarrassing consequences that ministers or the courts will later need to resolve.

Israel Apartheid Week at Columbia University. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel Apartheid Week at Columbia University.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Monday’s new law blocking foreign BDS activists from gaining entry to Israel leaves far more questions than answers about how it will work.
Ostensibly, the law blocks any foreign activists who call for or try to influence others to boycott Israel from being able to enter the country.
But does this include a left-wing Jewish college student who calls for a boycott of Israel on his Facebook page? Does it include an individual who made a small one-time donation to a BDS organization? Are foreigners who only wish to boycott the settlements, but not the rest of Israel, included in the ban?
Bill banning boycotters , anti-Israel activists from visiting Israel becomes a law after Knesset approval on March 6, 2017 (credit: REUTERS/KNESSET CHANNEL)
Mostly, the different sides of the debate can agree on one thing: that agreement on such questions will be hard to find.
Representing many on the Left, former justice minister and Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni called the law “a foolish law which harms Israel and strengthens the boycotters.”
She noted that anyone deemed dangerous to Israel is already prohibited from entering the country. Furthermore, whoever wants to boycott Israel will continue to do so from outside of the country, regardless of the law.
Livni said that Israel has nothing to hide, so she is happy to let groups in who might try to criticize Israel’s ethics. She added that the law only passed as part of the coalition’s competition regarding who can portray themselves to right-wing voters as the most extreme.
Essentially, she seemed less worried about who the law might block from coming in than that it may damage Israel’s image as a free-thinking society.
Israel Democracy Institute researcher Dr. Amir Fuchs views the law analytically.
He said that its wording only appears to impact a foreign BDS campaigner “with standing... who can really impact the situation and cause others to boycott Israel.”
On the other hand, he said the law is vague enough that it could include an undefined and wide range of smaller activities, including limited attempts to interfere with academic or economic cooperation with Israel.
He said the law more emphatically targets anyone who only boycotts settlements, which could include many who are not anti-Israel and support a two-state solution.
Fuchs said the biggest source of unpredictability is that the law shifted the state’s stance from initial acceptance, with exceptions to reject some people, to initial rejection.
He said this means that lower- level functionaries might initially reject some foreigners using vaguely defined criteria and going beyond the letter-of-the law – forcing foreigners to appeal to ensure the law is enforced fairly.
Fuchs added that regardless of his views in favor of free speech versus the law’s goals, “I personally am against boycotts in place of carrying on a debate about the settlements or Israel.”
While multiple spokespeople for Interior Minister Arye Deri did not comment, one of the law’s main sponsors, MK Roy Folkman (Kulanu), criticized speculation that the law would apply to more than just the major BDS activists.
“Whoever said that didn’t read the law; that is simple demagoguery. If you read the law: How does the state know who is against it? It doesn’t happen on its own. Someone who just posts a comment on Facebook against Israel is not included in the law,” he said.
He said the law only applies to activists in organizations which have a goal of delegitimizing Israel, mentioning Human Rights Watch, which recently had an American employee banned from coming to Israel, as an example.
Folkman added that there would be exceptions and that even someone who is denied a request to visit Israel for an undefined period might be granted entry to come to a specific conference for a limited period of time.
He agreed with Fuchs that the key component of the law is shifting the burden from the state having to explain why someone should be rejected and placing it on the foreign BDS activists to persuade the state why he or she should be accepted.
Folkman was a bit more defensive about whether the law banned only those who boycotted the settlements, but when pressed, he eventually said that the law does include organizations whose purpose is to delegitimize the settlements. In contrast, he said criticizing the settlements without calling for a boycott is still legitimate.
After all of that, it seems that low-level Interior Ministry officials may determine how the law really functions, likely with some embarrassing consequences that ministers or the courts will later need to resolve.
It also seems that the state may try to use the law to negotiate with some groups about their proposed activities while in Israel, both to learn more about them and to limit them. How those groups respond remains to be seen.