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Canary warp

A country proud of itself and its achievements should open its doors wide to all -- advocates and critics alike
A general view of the entrance to the passport control area at Ben Gurion International Airport, November 2, 2006. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
A general view of the entrance to the passport control area at Ben Gurion International Airport, November 2, 2006. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The incarceration of American student Lara Alqasem (who arrived in Israel to begin her graduate work at the Hebrew University with a student visa issued by the Israeli Consulate in Miami), pending her appeal on the decision to deport her raises multiple questions about the prudence of the rash of border interrogations and detentions of persons critical of Israeli policies. What tangible interests do these policies serve? Are they far more counterproductive than any benefit they yield? And if so, why do they continue? Given the questionable wisdom and utility — let alone morality — of these actions, it is high time to reconsider the use of boycotts to combat this very threat.

Every country — democratic and otherwise — not only has the right, but also the obligation, to question those whose arrive at its frontiers in order to ensure its safety. Israel is no exception. But the passage of an amendment to the “Boycott Law” last year, which bans the entry of advocates of BDS (broadly construed to encompass anyone who calls for the boycott of either Israel or the territories under its control), often confuses disagreement with current Israeli policies with visible threats to its security. Under the guise of enforcing the law, too many foreign and Israeli writers, academics, students and civil society activists have been stopped at airports and entry points and questioned about their political positions in recent months.

The line between security and political opinion is a murky one. Only a few weeks ago the Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber explained that the purpose of the General Security Services’ (Shin Bet) interrogations at the border crossings was “to prevent violent and illegal actions carried out for nationalistic motives or in relation to terrorist groups,” and was emphatically not “intended to interfere with [political] protest activities.” Even Gilad Erdan, the Strategic Affairs Minister in charge of the anti-BDS campaign, while defending the “legitimate security concerns” of these interrogations, admitted that asking about attitudes towards the present government is “inappropriate.” The problem is that he — and the border police that he controls as Minister of Internal Security — believe that it is perfectly fine to interrogate activists “as to what their intentions are.”

The means employed to do so are all too often dubious indeed. These include (as in the case of Lara Alqasem and others) Canary Mission, a blacklist that for the past three years has compiled dossiers on students and academics — some pro-Israel — who support Palestinian rights and disseminates them to the press and potential employers; superficial Google searches and sporadic Facebook checks. The Canary Mission website (like several other monitors of its ilk) relies on spotty sources, contains visible inaccuracies, regularly recycles its own information and, while glorifying transparency, refuses to name its own donors (although The Forward just revealed that the Diller Foundation, associated with the San Francisco Jewish Federation, contributed over $100,000 to its efforts). It, along with its cohorts in Israel and abroad, distorts as much as it informs, preferring guilt by association to reasoned debate.

Given the unreliability of the basis for many border detentions, the distinction between political and security considerations is in practice obfuscated. Instructions to refrain from political questioning of arrivals have not filtered down to border controllers — otherwise it is impossible to explain the detention of journalist Peter Beinart earlier this summer, or more recently of activists Simone Zimmerman and Abigail Kirschbaum and novelist Moriel Rothman-Zecher. When employed as the basis for vetting those seeking entry into Israel, these open and decidedly politically-slanted sources therefore make a mockery of the security objective they are meant to serve. As Ami Ayalon, the former chief of the Shin Bet, stated bluntly a couple of days ago: “The interrogations make the General Security Services part of the problem of democracy” as they cross a red line marking “not a slippery slope, but a steep downhill descent.” In fact, they neither protect Israel nor enhance its security; to the contrary, they may turn out to be totally counterproductive.

Political interrogations at airports and detentions of possible critics, however brief, are distinctly harmful to Israel’s image. No vibrant democracy can engage so systematically in ethnic and political profiling without evoking broadening criticism. Nor can it defend itself against such accusations when it employs McCarthy-like methods on a regular basis. The infringement on freedom of speech and association undermines civil liberties and smacks of efforts — real or imagined — at thought control. The questionable morality of these techniques further undercuts Israel’s claim to tolerance and openness to diversity. The end result cannot but taint its already fragile democratic trappings and hence standing among free societies.

Since even Israeli officials are often hard put to justify extensive political questioning under the guise of security precautions, the practicality of these actions is also increasingly debatable. There is very little evidence that these interrogations have any value in protecting the country and its citizens; they may actually leave Israel more exposed to criticism from key communities and allies and hence more isolated than in the past. In many respects, therefore, given that no specific interest is promoted nor any palpable benefit accrues, it may very well be that this line of operation is not only superfluous, it reeks of sheer futility and stupidity.

This conclusion surely does not escape policy-makers. The question, then, is why do they persist in pursuing such procedures at Israel’s borders? What do they hope to achieve? One possible answer is deterrence. The discomfort attendant upon multiple interrogations may actually keep activists away. The problem is that they distance many committed Jews and Israel-lovers from the country as well (among them major donors to Israeli health and welfare institutions such as Dame Vivien Duffield, head of the Clore Israel Foundation). Is that was the Israeli government really wants?

Another, related, explanation centers on intimidation. By hounding critics of Israeli policies, delegitimizing their activities and denigrating their motives, some may believe that they may be either induced into inaction or their funders frightened away. There is, however, no evidence for such a presumption: scare tactics of this sort, especially in an era of instant messaging, prove to be more of an incentive than an obstacle. They fuel outrage and condemnation and are as likely to act as an instrument of mobilization than of paralysis.

Perhaps, then, these moves are instigated by a desire to strengthen like-minded positions and silence alternative voices. Attempts to stymie diversity within Israel could be, some contend, well served by filtering out pluralistic voices hailing from abroad. But to suggest that interrogations can achieve this aim when multiple sources of information are available at the push of a button is surely beyond foolhardy.

Thus, it seems that there is no good answer to why the government persists in hounding possible skeptics from outside (much as those residing at home) other than political expediency. The debate around this topic seems to provide officials with an opportunity to denigrate critics and to disseminate ill-will. By nurturing a climate of fear and paranoia, they contribute to that uncertainty which perpetuates them in office.

At the same time, however, they sacrifice essential building blocks of Israeli society. These interrogations act as a powerful boomerang: they alienate friends of Israel (Jews and non-Jews alike), rendering the country increasingly removed from its liberal roots and allies. They challenge academic freedom in the country and, as the rector of the Hebrew University and hundreds of its faculty stated in recent days, expose its researchers to greater threats of academic boycott than ever before. And they erode Israel’s democratic and human fabric, adversely affecting all of its inhabitants.

No policy has backfired so resoundingly as the attempt to counter the boycott of Israel by boycotting those who want to defy the BDS by coming to Israel. A country proud of itself and its achievements — warts and all — would do better to open its doors wide to all — advocates and critics alike — who want to experience its wonders and delve into its complexities. That is the democratic answer to exclusion and isolation.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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