Detained at Israel’s gates

We must not muzzle critical voices.

Airplane takeoff (photo credit: REUTERS)
Airplane takeoff
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Most Israelis are not familiar with the name Peter Beinart. True, he wrote in the past for Haaretz, but most of his activity is in the United States. He is a talented journalist who rose to become chief editor of The New Republic magazine at the age of 28. Beinart is a regular contributor to Time magazine and The New York Times, and appears as a commentator on CNN.
In Israeli parlance, Peter Beinart is a leftist who belongs to the liberal ranks of US Jewry; he is a strong critic of Israel’s settlement policy. In short, Beinart is a well-known and influential journalist. Any offense against him immediately makes waves in the media and in political circles.
All this, and perhaps more, does not in any way justify delaying his entry to Israel at the beginning of the week. According to the description he published, he was forced to undergo an hour-long interrogation by someone who introduced himself as “Geva.” Beinart was asked questions about the circumstances of his visit, the meetings he expected to attend, his political views and more, until he was finally allowed to enter the country.
We gained another “friend.”
Beinart joined a large number of people from various countries, and Americans in particular, who recently experienced a similarly aggressive interrogation before being permitted to enter Israel. For example, this happened several weeks ago to Meir Koplow, a leading Jewish-American philanthropist when an English-language Palestinian publication was found in his suitcase. In some cases, entry was denied.
Let’s be clear: We are not talking about fighting terrorism and preventing terrorists from entering Israel. No one disputes the need for that. The group of peopled recently detained at Israel’s gates includes “those who knowingly published a call to boycott the State of Israel... or vowed to participate in a boycott,” as stipulated in legislation the Knesset enacted in 2017.
The law has been interpreted broadly. People in Israel and overseas are entitled to call for imposing a boycott. Of course, I personally don’t like this and oppose the idea of imposing any sort of boycott. But this is a right accorded to people in the Israeli democracy, as in the American democracy, as in any democracy. In no way does it justify preventing those who express their views on this issue from entering Israel.
IT SEEMS to me that there is a quick finger on the trigger of delaying entry to Israel. Discretion is placed in the hands of young people who are unaware of the implications of what they are doing. Therefore, they are not the ones who bear responsibility for this mistake, though they apparently allow themselves wide latitude in their actions. The responsibility falls on those who prepared the blacklists and on those who approved them as authoritative guidelines for the Population and Immigration Authority. The responsibility falls on the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which manages the anti-BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign, and on the Interior Ministry, which receives the guidelines and the blacklists and does not raise doubts and reservations.
In his response-apology, the prime minister emphasized that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. That is very correct and is even a source a pride, but to be the only democracy in the Middle East is not only a privilege, but also a duty. The duty of the state, its institutions and authorities is to act accordingly. It is a duty to provide visitors in Israel, and the citizens of the state, an open public platform to express their opinions and views. As long as there is no call for terrorism, incitement or activity that denies the state’s right to exist and its legitimacy, we must not muzzle these voices.
Democracy has a price, and this is that price. I believe we can withstand this. We are a strong and functioning democracy. We are capable of fighting those who are hostile to us and who wage military, political, economic or other forms of warfare against us, while still preserving our democratic institutions.
This is what makes us special.
Many times when I’m asked about Israel, I emphasize the miracle that occurred here 70 years ago and is still unfolding. The Israeli democracy is under siege, but is still able to function under fire, during wartime and, of course, during times of calm and peace. The government overreached when it amended the Entry to Israel Law. Either someone did not foresee what it would do to us, or someone simply did not care. It was a mistake. Activity of this sort feeds and encourages the BDS movement and weakens democracy in Israel, as seen by Israel’s friends and supporters – and they are many.
The case of Peter Beinart should be a turning point. The state comptroller and attorney-general must examine the blacklists that are guiding the Interior Ministry and check each name to confirm that the entry of these people to Israel indeed poses a risk. If not, the names should be erased. Peter Beinart already underwent this experience. We now must spare others a similar experience.
The writer is a Zionist Union MK, deputy speaker of the Knesset and a member of Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. His latest book, Hearts and Minds: Israel and the Battle for Public Opinion, has recently been published.