Israel’s Tolerance Is Tested and Found Wanting

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Israel likes to see itself as a tolerant, brave and smart country. But in the case of the American student Lara Alqasem, these virtues have not been on display.

Alqasem is a 22-year-old student from Florida who has been locked up for a week in a detention facility at Ben-Gurion Airport. She is accused of being an activist in BDS, the Palestinian movement dedicated to fomenting international boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions against the Jewish state. Since 2017, it has been illegal for foreign BDS activists to enter Israel. There is a blacklist at the airport and Alqasem’s name was on it.

This is not a case of mistaken identity. As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Alqasem headed a chapter of National Students for Justice in Palestine, an affiliate of BDS. She now says the chapter was small — just four or five members — and ineffective. Her most radical activity was boycotting an Israeli brand of hummus (the company survived). 

Alqasem also claims that she no longer believes in boycotting Israel. As evidence, she offers the fact that she has enrolled in graduate studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She arrived in the country with a student visa issued by the Israeli Consulate in Miami. She is free to leave, but has decided to take the ban to court.

Israelis reading about Alqasem’s case may loathe BDS. They may be skeptical of Alqasem’s sudden conversion story and suspect that she has come to Israel to materially support her cause. None of this remotely justifies banning her from the country.

The Alqasem case is an example of what happens when cynicism meets moral panic. The panic began a decade or so ago, when BDS arrived on U.S. campuses and began forging alliances with student groups with various grievances: western capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, racism, sexism and whatever other ill was selling on the quad. Students are natural activists, so this was no hard sell; many were happy to add anti-Zionism to the litany.

These campus alliances have not amounted to much: a few toothless student council resolutions against Zionism, attempts to disrupt lectures by Israeli officials, some unsuccessful efforts to get universities to disinvest in Israeli companies. But they have succeeded in making pro-Israel Jewish students feel uncomfortable on some campuses and in influencing the anti-Israel tilt of area studies departments at many universities.  

The backlash, though, has been almost worse than the misguided activism itself. The BDS activity set off alarm bells in the American Jewish community, which led to fundraising letters and emergency meetings. New organizations, devoted to slaying the BDS dragon, sprang up. Many Jewish parents became convinced that their college-aged kids were in a hostile environment.

Israeli politicians were attuned to this concern and only too happy to help. A Ministry of Strategic Affairs was formed. Tens of millions of dollars were budgeted and intelligence networks, like the one that fingered Lara Alqasem, were constructed in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

This summer, anti-BDS fever reached a new level, when Israel convened an international conference in Jerusalem. In an impassioned speech, Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan, an ambitious young politician, denounced BDS as “perpetrators of the hate campaign who derive their ideology from the Palestinian Authority and Hamas." Their ultimate goal, he said, is “destroying the state of Israel.”

BDS does, indeed, hate Israel and the Jews who support it and shares the Palestinian dream of someday destroying the Zionist state. But the minister wildly exaggerated the danger, not surprisingly given it’s an election year in Israel. Leading a crusade against foreign anti-Semites is a noble and vote-getting cause. 

In reality, BDS poses no serious threat to American Jews, much less to Israel’s internal security. Lara Alqasem (or a battalion of Lara Alqasems) on Israeli campuses would make no impression. Israel already has an abundance of homegrown anti-Zionist activists, both Arab and Jewish.

The Hebrew University is standing by Alqasem. Its reasons are not entirely disinterested. It fears that an Israeli ban on BDS student activists will undercut its international academic standing. Upsetting a bunch of professors is almost as good for minister Erdan’s career as nabbing a BDS agent. He has said he’d consider letting her in only if she condemns BDS and expresses regret. He calls the university’s stand “another act of politicization of the Israeli academia for the sake of someone who actively works to harm the State of Israel and its citizens.”

And yet one Lara Alqasem, caught and deported by the intrepid Minister of Strategic Affairs, does more harm to Israel than all of these. The law that enabled the banning of Lara Alqasem, and the mechanism that implemented it, are dishonorable and self-defeating. They mock Israel’s claims to tolerance, bravery or simple common sense.

Hopefully the Tel Aviv District Court will uphold Alqasem’s appeal and allow her to study in Jerusalem. I think she will like the Hebrew University. She will certainly find more supporters of BDS there than at the University of Florida.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.