If you’re gonna boycott, don’t change the definition

Lara Alqasem’s plight is not a case of human rights or civil liberties being violated. Civil liberties are a core value of a healthy and free society, and history has shown us that typically abridging the freedom of speech and expression of an individual leads to short term gratification of those that complained but in the long term will lead to far milder offenders getting netted by the same constraints. There are innumerable examples of such, but my favourite one is the list of books banned in American schools and libraries. This was an example I remember well from elementary and middle school, in a time when liberal educators were at least to my understanding against censorship.

For example, this list from the 1994-95 school year features Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Bram Stoker’s Dracula as well as Maurice Sendak’s children’s book In the Night Kitchen. Both of Mark Twain’s classic novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the related Adventures of Tom Sawyer are also on the list due to “racially charged language”. Unfortunately, the social climate across the western world, while embracing the nominal values of tolerance and diversity, has embraced the perspective that there is a need to screen all information for wrong think and hate speech.

When it comes to the issue of BDS boycotts of Israel, it is difficult to present a principled stance without attracting the ire of supporters of the Israeli and activist Palestinian sides. Up until now I’ve tried to maintain such an approach notwithstanding my own personal ties to Israel, including military service:

  • I’ve opposed anti-BDS laws such as the one signed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016 that would require state agencies to divest funds from any firm, group, or institution publicly supporting the boycott campaign.
  • Whereas others have called for Facebook to remove accounts engaged in disparaging and defamatory propaganda against Israel and the USA, I have maintained in many conversations that this would not only fail to accomplish anything, but would actually add ammunition to the arguments of some of the most inflammatory anti-Israel or anti-Jewish commentators. Needless to say, but this has come true.
  • On the American political front I have been a steadfast and consistent opponent of the Anti-Defamation League (or as I call them the Aiding and Abetting Defamation League) and its idiotic efforts to police comments from faceless racist trolls on social media. The organization has never listened to any of its critics, and appropriately created a much larger problem due to the backlash of the #CNNBlackmail scandal that it was deeply involved with in July 2017.
  • I’ve voiced several objections to the doxxing tactics used by pro-Israel watchdog group Canary Mission that I believe constitute a form of unwarranted harassment.

Alqasem fails on anyone’s criteria – except those of mental gymnasts.

At no point in the above examples have I stated agreement with the purveyors of any of the materials that are being censored. The idea behind supporting civil liberties for as many people as possible in as wide a range of action as can be maintained relies on the experience that the same weapon used against one’s opponent by a state or authority may be used against anyone else. Governments and platforms like Facebook do not care about justice or freedom; they would rather ban more people than necessary in order to maintain quiet than have to actually deal with a divisive issue on a nuanced level and make a correct decision. So my reflex reaction, even at the risk of losing friends, is to oppose such censorship.

The case of Lara Alqasem and some similar ones are different. Ms. Alqasem is a  former University of Florida student and leader of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a campus activities organization known as the primary college-aged pro-Palestine group in the United States. As a matter of principle, SJP chapters all commit to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). In 2014 the Florida SJP branch published this post sharing Remi Kanazi’s video sustaining the group’s support for a campus divestment bill.

Kenazi’s video discusses the need to boycott US corporations like Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and more due to their role in sustaining what he calls war crimes an apartheid system. While a student at UF and SJP member, Ms. Alqasem presumably knew that she was committing to the platform outlined by activists like Kenazi, Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada, and the Palestinian Campaign for the Acadameic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). These are not organizations that dance around what BDS is, and what is expected of its adherents. As Abunimah himself writes in an article from four days ago reacting to the Alqasem case:

Any international student, regardless of her/his identity, enrolling in a complicit Israeli university, like the Hebrew University, is violating the relevant BDS guidelines. We strongly advise against such enrollment and against any other connection to these complicit institutions.

In reacting to some queries about an exception in Alqasem’s case, with her being the granddaughter of Palestinians, Abunima flatly objects:

PACBI’s academic boycott guidelines do permit some Palestinians – those with Israeli citizenship – to attend Israeli universities, but this is not merely because of their ethnic identity as Palestinians. . . But it is difficult to see how it could apply to someone like Alqasem, an international student who with her US citizenship is not dependent on Israeli institutions for an education.

This does not leave much room for interpretation. Alqasem in enrolling at Hebrew University has by her very deed violated the principles that she has previously vowed to not only advocate for, but enforce as an SJP member. Abunimah claims in his piece that Lara Alqasem is actually undermining the campaign through her actions.

I use the word enforce on purpose for a very specific reason: While I do not support a blanket banning of SJP chapters across the board, their behaviour at several US campuses violates the very principles of freedom of speech that many of us enjoy and seek to preserve. I’ll list just a few examples:

  • In 2015 it was reported that an SJP cadre slapped “Occupation Facts” labels on supposedly Israeli food products at a Publix grocery store in North Miami. One of them, Kedem, is a well-known kosher food company based in the US and not Israel. This action represents vandalism and harassment of a private business. It is not freedom of speech.
  • In 2017 Jewish businesses in the Wynwood business district of Miami were also targeted by BDS activists spray painting graffiti on sidewalks. This goes beyond freedom of speech, because it is defacing public property as a means to harass a private business.
  • SJP‘s connections to the radical left have made them a convenient magnet for control freak elements of that movement that seek power over other activists whatever the merits of their causes. Just this year a former New York area SJP activist leaked a number of internal documents and claimed that a Stalinist element known as SJP Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee was seeking to seize control of the national movement in order to use it as a vehicle for their own goals.

Not all choices are entitlements

Alqasem is not being compelled to enroll at an Israeli university, and as a non-citizen she is not endowed with an innate right to visit a country that she has taken a personal stance against. Ironically, the pro-Palestine activists never objected to the barring of Canadian activist/journalist Lauren Southern from the United Kingdom, even though as a subject of the Queen she has far more standing to demand entry than Alqasem has. However, the most obvious reason that this controversy does not rise to the occasion of a civil liberties violation is the track record of SJP and similar groups to their opponents’ freedom of speech:

  • In response to San Franscisco State University President Leslie Wong claiming that Zionist speakers would be welcome on campus, the local activists objected claiming that this was a “declaration of war” against Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians. They also put up signs and graffiti claiming “Zionists Not Welcome Here”.
  • In April 2014 it was revealed that at New York University the campus SJP had posted “Eviction Notices” on the doors of around two thousand undergrad students claiming their domiciles would be demolished. Although this can be shrugged off by some as satire, it effectively is hate mail for the receiver.

Wrong in both letter and spirit

In response to the Alqasem case, New York Times opinion columnists Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss wrote a very nice and congenial piece calling on the Israeli government to rescind this decision. The legality of the denial of entry and detention of Alqasem when she refused to leave are not at issue. They appropriately consider Interior Minister Gilad Erdan’s offer to revoke the ban if Alqasem renounces BDS, and cite a couple of similar cases that I would consider unjust or overreactions. Yet there are a couple ones that they list, Katherine Franke and Simone Zimmerman, that are absolutely in the same category as Alqasem’s. I would say that Weiss and Stephens are right on that count but for the wrong reasons: The government should simply deport Alqasem and similar cases regardless of any supposed new statements on anything. These are people that are entitled to their own opinions, but not to pernicious lies in pursuit of evading port of entry restrictions.

Regardless of religious beliefs and faith, I do not think Israel has greater rights as a sovereign state than any other nation around the world, and therefore I don’t see Israel as having any lesser rights than any other nation. Would it be that other nations like Egypt and Turkey had the freedoms we have in the United States I would only salute my friends from those countries. For that matter, even though Israel is relatively free compared to most of its neighbours and permits publishing of some of the most ridiculous slanders by its own citizens, I would still rather it had more freedom and less censorship than the opposite. Sorry if people feel endangered by that, but at a certain point feelings cannot be fought anymore as REO Speedwagon say.

People that dedicate their lives to a cause, right or wrong, and advertise their own personal righteousness cannot then complain when the party that they are acting against declines an attempt to enter their realm. While Alqasem’s fake ordeal is being trumpeted by the well meaning and the soft headed, Pakistan stands to execute an imprisoned Christian woman named Asia Bibi for blasphemy and Saudi internet writer Raif Badawi has been imprisoned since 2012 and suffered a flogging in 2015 as a result of his liberal blogging. These people did not choose their country, and yet their country chose to screw them. Alqasem, by contrast, is free to leave Israel anytime she wants and proceed to take interest in any fake cause that suits her upon returning home.

About the Author
Ramón Epstein writes analysis of political and social issues from a libertarian perspective. He also writes for the Hard News Network.
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