Think About It: The case of Lara Alqasem

The detention and denial of entry to Alqasem was an unwise and miserable decision, for which the Strategic Affairs Ministry and the Interior Ministry were responsible.

US student Lara Alqasem appears at the district court in Tel Aviv, Israel October 11, 2018 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN)
US student Lara Alqasem appears at the district court in Tel Aviv, Israel October 11, 2018
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN)
It is very rarely that I agree with something that Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely says. However, last Friday Hotovely stated to Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet, in connection with the detention of Lara Alqasem – the 22-year-old American student of Palestinian origin, who has been detained at Ben-Gurion Airport for close to two weeks and denied entry into Israel, despite the fact that she held a valid visa issued by the Israeli Consulate in Miami so that she could attend an MA program in human rights at the Hebrew University – that it was “justified but unwise.”
Whether the detention and denial of entry, on the grounds that Alqasem allegedly supports the boycott of Israel, was justified is still an open legal question, which the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, will decide upon, unless Alqasem decides to give up and go home. However, under the circumstances it was certainly an unwise and miserable decision, for which the Strategic Affairs Ministry, jointly with the Interior Ministry, were responsible.
It was unwise because of the damage it causes Israel’s eroding image abroad as a liberal, democratic state, and especially to Israeli universities, which are struggling with academic boycotts, against the background of Israel’s controversial policy regarding the Palestinians and the occupied/held/liberated territories.
Personally, I believe that Israel’s fight against the boycott of the Jewish settlements in the territories and/or Israel as a whole, though legitimate, is rather hysterical and perhaps even counterproductive.
The legal basis for this fight is two laws passed by the Knesset. The first is the Law for the Prevention of Harm to the State of Israel by Means of Boycott, of 2011, which lays down that a public call for a cultural, academic or economic boycott of a person or any factor just because of his/its affinity to the State of Israel, of any of its institutions or an area under its control, is a “civil wrong” which constitutes a valid cause for a civil claim for damages.
The second legal provision is amendment No. 28 to the Entry into Israel Law, approved by the Knesset in 2017, which stipulates that “a permit or license of any sort to stay in Israel shall not be granted to a person who is not a citizen of Israel or the possessor of a license to reside permanently in Israel, if he, [or] the organization or body for which he operates, knowingly published a public call to impose a boycott on the State of Israel... or if he undertook to participate in such a boycott.” Nevertheless, the amendment leaves it to the discretion of the interior minister to decide to provide a permit or license to such a person.
It was under this second law that Alqasem was denied entry and – at the time of writing – was still being held in detention at Ben-Gurion Airport, even though she stated that while in the past she headed a small group of students that supported the boycott, she no longer supports it. She also promised not to visit the West Bank (supposedly the areas of the Palestinian Authority) during her sojourn in Israel.
I do not know whether Alqasem is honest in her statement, or why she decided to come to study about human rights in Israel – a state whose current government is at best ambivalent on the issue of human rights and human rights organizations, and quite frequently openly hostile toward them. However, since the consulate in Miami did grant her a visa to come to Israel in order to study for an MA at the Hebrew University, common sense says that the interior minister should have used his discretion to let her enter and commence her studies, without foregoing the option of banishing her in the future, should she act contrary to Israeli law or any promises she might agree to make.
This seems particularly logical, given the fact that Alqasem isn’t likely to participate in any act of violence while studying at the Hebrew University, and at this stage is certainly more likely to become a virulent critic of Israel and its conduct, rather than a Lover of Zion, should she find herself on a plane flying back to the US with her plans for the coming academic year dashed.
But common sense doesn’t seem to be a commodity in abundance in our government these days, certainly not in the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
ABOVE, I stated that I think that we are a little hysterical when it comes to the threats of boycotts against Israel. First of all, boycotts are a legitimate means in international relations. Secondly, criticism of Israel’s policies and conduct is also legitimate, as is an attempt to exert economic pressure on Israel in order to try to get it to change its policies and conduct. Of course, it is also legitimate for Israel to reject this criticism and resist boycotts.
However, in all honesty, as unpleasant as the current boycotts implemented against Israel and/or the Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line are, they do not really cause much financial damage. I dare say that should the government be successful in its current efforts to stifle the sources of financing of Israeli human rights organizations, the financial loss to these organizations will be greater than the financial loss to the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria from the boycott of them.
It is also worth recalling that from 1945 until the early 1990s, the state-in-the-making and the State of Israel suffered from a massive Arab boycott, which included secondary and tertiary boycotts (boycotts by the Arab states against companies with direct economic relations with Israel, and against companies that maintain contacts with other companies that trade with or invest in Israel). Until the 1990s there was an Economic Warfare Authority in the Finance Ministry that was in charge of trying to contend with this boycott – especially its secondary manifestations.
In the days that the Arab boycott was rampant, all the Japanese car manufacturers, except for Subaru, boycotted Israel, as did Coca-Cola, Pepsi and many other much more strategic international corporations. There was little we could do about all of this, except find ways to bypass the boycott, and compute the scope of the secondary boycott.
When did the Arab boycott start to evaporate? After the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accords, when Israel seemed to be heading for some sort of peace settlement. Nothing to do with the Economic Warfare Authority.
Of course, Israel can continue to resist giving in to the demands of those actually implementing a boycott against the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria today (e.g., the European Union) or demanding a boycott against Israel itself (e.g., the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement). There is a price to such resistance, but it is tolerable, if one believes that the Israeli policies and activities vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are justified.
But why on earth has the issue of dealing with the boycott been placed in the incompetent hands of our public security minister, who was given the superfluous Strategic Affairs Ministry as compensation for broken promises by Netanyahu? Shouldn’t he be dealing with the unresolved problems of economic terrorism against our Jewish farming community, and of violence within the Israeli-Arab community, rather than badgering the hapless 22-year-old Lara Alqasem?