Reality Check: A deserved defeat for the Thought Police

The judges’ verdict casts an important light on the darkness that the Netanyahu government has thrown over Israeli democracy.

US student Lara Alqasem appears at the district court in Tel Aviv, 2018 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
US student Lara Alqasem appears at the district court in Tel Aviv, 2018
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
All the Strategic Affairs Ministry achieved in the Alqasem case was to further reinforce the image of Israel as a police state.
Thankfully, the Thought Police suffered a decisive defeat last week with the Supreme Court’s ruling that American student Lara Alqasem does not pose a danger to the Israeli public’s safety and security.
It’s still worrying, though, that in today’s Israel, it needs three Supreme Court justices to state what should be blindingly obvious: taking part in minor and sporadic campus activity as a student in support of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement does not merit immediate and permanent McCarthyite blacklisting and refusal of entry into the country.
The judges’ verdict casts an important light on the darkness that the Netanyahu government has thrown over Israeli democracy, in which opponents of the government’s policies are immediately branded as enemies of the people. The verdict is worth reading and carefully digesting for it valiantly defends one of the essential elements of democracy – which is being lost in modern-day Israel – the validity of holding viewpoints in variance to those of the government of the day.
Pointing out that Alqaesem’s “crimes,” according to the allegations provided by the Strategic Affairs Ministry, only amounted to past membership of the Students for Justice in Palestine (Alqasem was an official of its University of Florida chapter, which had fewer than 10 members), the judges wrote:
“Since the appellant’s actions do not raise satisfactory cause to bar her to entry to Israel, the inevitable impression is that invalidating the visa given to her was due to the political opinions she holds. If this is truly the case, then we are talking about an extreme and dangerous step, which could lead to the crumbling of the pillars upon which democracy in Israel stands.”
Justice Neal Hendel also introduced a further element of common sense into the proceedings, elegantly noting with Anglo-Saxon understatement that Alqasem’s fierce determination to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is hardly in keeping with the actions of die-hard Israel boycotter. Somehow, this consideration had amazingly evaded the blinkered witch hunters inside the corridors of the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
No doubt these ministry researchers were too busy trawling through the pernicious Canary Mission website, searching for the next American student who had brazenly dared to attend an anti-Israel event on campus, to seriously evaluate whether they had a real case against Alqasem.
It’s actually staggering how little strategic consideration the Strategic Affairs Ministry gives to its actions. Indeed, until the Supreme Court ruling, all that was achieved in the attempt to deport Alqasem was to further reinforce the image of Israel as a police state in the eyes of the country’s critics. In fact, although it is tasked to combat anti-Israel activity, it often seems as if [Strategic Affairs Minister] Gilad Erdan’s fiefdom exists to give ground to critics of Israel, with its crusade against Lara Alqasem being a classic case in point.
The purpose of a university is to promote the free flow of knowledge and ideas through a culture of debate and argument. At a time when Israel, rightfully, is fighting pro-Palestinian attempts to boycott Israeli academic institutions, striking back with a counter-boycott aimed at harmless individuals is more than petty, it is potentially harmful to Israel’s standing in the international academic community.
As the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s senate wrote when it joined the appeal to block Alqasem’s proposed deportation, such an “extreme step could deter foreign scholars and students from coming to Israel,” and “should be taken only for the strongest and clearest reasons – preventing violence and lawbreaking,” which in Alqasem’s case were not presented.
The pathetic attempt of a country armed (according to foreign reports) with nuclear weapons and squadrons of the most advanced fighter planes to deport a 22-year-old American master’s degree student on the grounds of endangering the country’s security, should raise serious questions about the Strategic Affairs Ministry judgment, and its huge NIS 130 million budget, spread over three years, to fight the BDS movement.
Little is known as to how the ministry spends this money. According to a Times of Israel report, ministry documents that list its spending contain line after line of budgetary allocations in which the recipients are not specified, and where many of the payments are marked “secret.” At a special session last year of a Knesset committee on the transparency of the ministry’s operations, Sima Vaknin-Gil, its director-general, even refused to disclose the names of ministry employees, so sensitive, she said, was the field in which they act.
Such secrecy might provide the ministry with an aura of importance but judging by its results, as evidenced in court, it seems much of this money is wasted on superficial Google searches against targets undeserving the attentions of a state-funded apparatus. The sooner this ministry is dismantled, and tasks like combating anti-Israel boycott activities are restored to the Foreign Ministry, the better.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.