Beinart’s gift to Israel

The detention of the American Jewish journalist at Ben-Gurion Airport exposes the fragility of Israeli democracy.

Peter Beinart (right) interviews Council of Economic Advisers Chair Jason Furman at The Atlantic Economy Summit in Washington (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
Peter Beinart (right) interviews Council of Economic Advisers Chair Jason Furman at The Atlantic Economy Summit in Washington
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
Unwittingly, Peter Beinart did a great service to Israel. By publishing his detention and questioning by Shin Bet interrogators at Ben-Gurion Airport on August 12, the American Jewish journalist helped to shed new light on Israel’s fragile democracy.
Beinart, a harsh critic of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians, has visited Israel a few times before and never faced any problems. His entries all went smoothly. But on his last visit, for a family event, he was stopped by an immigration official and sent to a side room.
There, an interrogator from the domestic security service began questioning him about his previous visits to the occupied West Bank, his views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other questions regarding his political views. After a while, he was released and allowed to reunite with his family and enter the country.
Beinart described his experience in The Forward, a liberal New York-based weekly. His article shocked many American Jews and Israeli left-wingers and forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to react by describing the incident as an “administrative error.” The Shin Bet was more forthcoming. The agency apologized, saying that the interrogator had erred and that it was an “isolated incident.”
But was it really?
Since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, Palestinians have been discriminated against and maltreated at border crossings and at road blocks. For the last 15 years, they have also been barred from flying via Ben-Gurion Airport and have had to wait in long lines at crossing points leading from the West Bank to Jordan if they wished to travel abroad.
While the Palestinians who live under occupation are not Israeli citizens, Israeli Arabs – who comprise more than 20 percent of the Israeli populace – are considered equal in the eyes of the law and in theory enjoy full citizenship rights, exactly the same as Israeli Jews. But in reality, they are discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens in the workplace, in terms of budgetary allocation, as well as their share in industry, education, health, housing and more.
But above all, the way they are treated is manifested at Israel’s airports on international and domestic flights. They have to go through harsher security checks than Israeli Jews, including frequent body searches, which in some cases border on humiliation. Their luggage is singled out with special numbered tags to distinguish it from Jewish-owned luggage.
In both cases – that of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs – their treatment is explained and justified by Israel’s “security needs.” Numerous times Israel has been at war with the Palestinians, who waged years of terrorist attacks against Israel, and against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad.
As for Israeli Arabs, although most of them are loyal and law-abiding citizens, very few of them have been involved in terrorism in the last 50 years. So the reason given for being forced to undergo more thorough checks at the airports is that “when it comes to aviation security, no chances should be taken,” a former chief of Shin Bet told me. “We try to treat Israeli Arabs with dignity and fairness, but sometimes mistakes occur. Nevertheless, it’s better that a few will feel humiliated rather than the security checks will miss detecting a bomb.”
The former Shin Bet chief, who asked not to be named, said the truth is that the Israeli security measures and doctrines introduced over the last 50 years in response to plane hijacking and other terrorist attacks have proved to be the best in the world and prevented many casualties among Israelis and foreigners. No wonder that dozens of nations have adopted similar measures and have dispatched delegations, which are coming to the country to learn from the Israeli experience.
However, the Beinart incident showed that it had nothing to do with Israel’s war on terror or aviation security. Furthermore, contrary to the Shin Bet claim, it wasn’t an “isolated” case, even if the treatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs is put aside.
In the last three months, eight additional cases were revealed involving Israeli left-wingers, American Jewish liberals and foreigners who were detained and questioned about their political leanings at various border crossings or at airports.
It can be assumed that there were more cases, which for some reason didn’t hit the headlines. I know of at least another 10 similar incidents, which I was asked by the persons involved not to report. And sometimes the questions are not just political. They turn intimate. A young, mixed Israeli and foreign couple, who visited the West Bank, was asked at Ben-Gurion Airport before flying back home if they had slept together the night before their visit to the Palestinian territories.
The Israel of the last decade, which has been ruled by right-wing governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu, especially in the last four years has increasingly shown a paranoid tendency. The government, in a classic divide-and-rule tactic to polarize society in order to solidify its electoral base, incites against opposition parties, left-wing and liberal voices and minorities – not only Muslim, but also Druze and Christians.
As part of this policy, the government also portrays Israel as a nation which the entire world is against. In the eyes of the government, everyone who opposes the occupation and the harsh treatment of Palestinians is accused of being either antisemitic or anti-Israel, or described as exhibiting self-hating Jewish or self-hating Israeli behavior.
Well, actually, Israel is not only becoming increasingly paranoid but also lives in a state of hypocrisy and schizophrenia. On the one hand, the government prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East, but, on the other hand, it introduces more and more draconian laws to restrict basic human rights, to curb the authority of the Supreme Court and to bar the activities of NGOs such as the New Israel Fund, which supports human rights and minority causes. Netanyahu’s cabinet seeks to outlaw the funding of these NGOs by foreign governments, mainly the European Union, but encourages rightist and sometimes even proto-fascist groups to benefit from right-wing wealthy American-Jewish donors.
The government describes Tel Aviv as one of the most friendly capitals toward the LGBT community, but just recently passed a law forbidding members of the LGBT community from having children by surrogate mothers, while straight couples can.
Another example is foreign policy. Israel considers itself to be a member of cultured Western countries, but under Netanyahu it has distanced itself from basic Western and universal values, and feels more at home in the company of right-wing governments, such as Hungary, Poland and Austria or even dictatorial regimes in the style of Putin’s Russia or Duarte’s Philippines.
The self-victimization process only further strengthens the paranoia and justifies its efforts to build real or imaginary walls around the nation. The bureaucratic manifestation of these policies, or rather the current state of mind, is the mushrooming of multiple bodies to deal with questions of immigration, tourism and border control. Israel has at least six such agencies:
• The Population Emigration Authority, in charge of granting entry into the country
• The Israel Airports Authority, which is responsible for aviation and maritime security
• Nativ, which is in charge of Jewish immigration to Israel from the former republics of the Soviet Union
• The Chief Rabbinate, which determines who is a Jew and thus prevents family reunification immigration of 9,000 Ethiopian Jews who have been stuck in Ethiopia for years
• The Ministry of Strategic Affairs, a new player, which deals with fighting BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) and other groups, which, in the government’s eyes, try to delegitimize the right of Israel to exist.
Without admitting it, all these agencies have their own policies, regulations and blacklists about who is eligible to enter Israel as a tourist, visitor or immigrant.
Above all of them hovers the physical presence and spirit of the Shin Bet, which is the professional guide to all the agencies.
In the first six years after Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, the Shin Bet was involved in political espionage of left- and right-wing parties and groups, which opposed the policy of the ruling Labor Party and its leader, David Ben-Gurion.
In 1955, the then head of the Shin Bet, Amos Manor, ordered the burning of the political archives of the agency and stopped the practice of political espionage, explaining that it was a task characteristic of tyrannical regimes and not democratic ones. Since then, the Shin Bet has become a much more professional service, focusing mainly on preventing terrorist attacks and identifying real threats to the existence of the state. Yet, the Shin Bet Law also grants the agency the authority to combat “political subversion,” without clearly defining what that is.
It seems that in recent years, the zeitgeist, which has become more right-wing and more nationalistic, may well penetrate the Shin Bet itself.
A spokesperson for the agency denies it and assures me that “the Shin Bet remains an impartial tool of the state and not the government to exercise its mandate as stated by the law.”
But even if the government adopts a more coherent, collaborative and integral approach to avoid “incidents” such as the Beinart one, the basic problem remains. If Israel wishes to be a true democratic state, it must review the road it has taken.