Stop the Orwellian detentions

Walling off the country by detaining critics would have surprised the early Zionist movement.

US student Lara Alqasem (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
US student Lara Alqasem
The government has painted itself into a corner over the detention of an American student who has been held at Ben-Gurion International Airport for a week. On Tuesday, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said that student Lara Alqasem should repudiate past actions and views that may have supported the boycott of Israel. Only then could she come to study at the Hebrew University in Israel’s capital.
Alqasem should be released from detention and the government should reconsider this policy of telling visitors that they must pass a kind of Orwellian test of loyalty to enter Israel. She has been told that only if she makes an “unambiguous statement that boycotting Israel is ‘illegitimate’ and that she regrets her BDS work, then the ministry would consider allowing her to enter.” This policy is counterproductive – and the deeper the government digs in its heals, the worse Israel’s image gets.
It is no surprise that Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens, passionate Israel supporters at The New York Times, have excoriated Jerusalem for its conduct. Israel says it is a proud democracy and that the BDS movement’s arguments are wrong, but these kinds of actions are merely fueling those who see Israel as increasingly undemocratic in its behavior.
The detained student wanted to study at The Hebrew University, one of Israel’s top institutions of higher learning. The university’s cornerstone was laid in 1918, as the land, then under British administration, was emerging from the yoke of Ottoman rule. It was envisioned in the 19th century by the Zionist movement as a place to organize a university of the Jewish people. When the cornerstone was laid, local Arabs, Jews and non-Jews from all over attended. Albert Einstein was a supporter of the institution; Chaim Weizmann, Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, Lord Balfour and Haim Nahman Bialik spoke at the opening ceremony in 1925.
These speakers and supporters did not agree. In fact, Einstein was critical of the Zionist movement and the state that emerged in 1948. The Jerusalemite Arabs who attended likely did not support the creation of a Jewish state. Yet the university welcomed them all, its leaders believing that ideas could influence people.
Today, the state’s leaders increasingly forget about the need for ideas and the need to influence people through discussion and to welcome critics from abroad. Walling off the country by detaining critics would have surprised the early Zionist movement. The movement faced an uphill battle from its inception and it worked to build facts on the ground in the Land of Israel, hand-in-hand with an ideological battle in the Diaspora to encourage people to support the concept of a Jewish state. Many skeptics were won over; critics came to embrace Zionism. That is how Israel was constructed and it is how Israel has succeeded.
Whenever Israel has sought to ignore critics or ban ideas it has never succeeded. Israel banned the Beatles in 1965, for the nonsensical notion that they might corrupt the youth. The state sought to ban the Palestinian flag and not negotiate with Palestinians under the false impression that ignoring them would make their national aspirations evaporate. But those aspirations grew ever stronger in the 1970s and 80s.
That does not mean that Israel should not confront threats. Parties that oppose the democratic nature of the state or support terrorism have been banned. There is a balance between confronting incitement, and blanket bans on ideas. The current policy appears to have gone too far, catching in the net of detentions numerous voices who are merely critical of Israel, not supporters of violence.
The state has produced no evidence of the student’s threat. It has not published clear guidelines for what grounds constitute a reason to ban and deport someone. Government agencies appear to have arbitrary and inconsistent guidelines for deporting people for thought crimes. The Population, Immigration and Border Authority said it stopped the student for boycott activity, while the Strategic Affairs Ministry said it was due to her work with Students for Justice in Palestine. Then, that ministry worked in coordination with the interior minister to give Alqasem a chance to recant. However, she had a visa from the Israeli consulate in Miami.
It’s time for Israeli ministries to use the resources of the Start-Up Nation to talk to each other and not have one part of the government granting a visa while the other detains the same person. It is time to reconsider the banning of individuals for supporting boycotts.
Israel has nothing to hide. The government should let its critics in and show them why they are wrong.