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Lara Alqasem: A pawn in the PR battle for and against BDS

Imagine a scenario in which a likable student is deployed as a deep-cover activist, and Israel takes the bait

What if the detainment of 22-year-old American student Lara Alqasem was planned in advance by the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as a publicity ploy? In this unlikely scenario, Alqasem, the deep-cover student is BDS bait, and the State of Israel reeled it in.

Continuing this thought experiment, could it not be that the would-be Hebrew University masters student — in Human Rights, no less — is nothing but a pawn (wittingly or not) in the echeloned tit-for-tat PR war between the anti-occupation, anti-Zionist global movement and the State of Israel?

Because either way — whether she (or some similar student) is stopped at the border and draws massive media attention, or whether she comes to study, learns facts on the ground in the State of Israel and the West Bank for future activism or mere personal edification — the goals of the pro-Palestinian movements are served.

In March 2017, the Israeli Knesset passed legislation by a vote of 46 to 28, which would deny visas and residence permits to foreigners seeking entry who have “knowingly issued a public call to boycott the State of Israel or pledged to take part in such a boycott.”

Also in 2017, the Strategic Affairs Ministry spearheaded efforts to shore up legislation to deny activists who support the “existential threat” of BDS entry. In January 2018, a list of 20 activist groups from around the world whose members can be denied entry upon arrival was leaked to the press. Among them, Jewish Voice for Peace and National Students for Justice in Palestine.

According to Erdan’s ministry, the state has enforced that bill by detaining and even denying entry to some 15 visitors. Each time, international media reacts with shock and dismay, as pictures of the usually young, amiable, often female activists are splashed across news outlets.

What better way to draw the world’s attention?

Take the current high-profile case of Alqasem, a fresh-faced student of Palestinian heritage who was detained this week at the airport — despite having been issued a student visa to begin her MA program at the most Zionistically named university in Israel, the Hebrew University.

In the past few years, Alqasem was president of the University of Florida chapter of the campus group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

There is no doubt that SJP promotes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Back in 2011, in its first national conference at New York’s Columbia University, the organization adopted the BDS movement’s platform as “points of unity,” according to an on-scene report by the Electronic Intifada, which is cross-posted on the BDS movement’s website.

Alqasem’s former Hebrew professor at the University of Florida described her as an exceptional and curious student, with an “open and positive attitude toward Judaism, Jews, and the State of Israel.”

It is truly not unlikely that her activism was a flash in her past and that she is set to study, with the best of intentions. It is on that premise that she has garnered the support of the head of Hebrew University, much of its faculty, and several Members of Knesset, who presumably did not vote for the ban on BDS activists.

Does Alqasem’s past SJP affiliation fit the law’s definition of participation in a boycott? Definitely.

According to its language, “boycott” is defined as “deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or body solely because of their affinity with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage.”

Alqasem, the would-be masters student set to study Human Rights at the Hebrew University, is being denied entry to Israel legally.

But Erdan has given the (former?) activist an out: “If Lara Alqasem will say tomorrow in her own voice, not through all kinds of lawyers or statements that can be misconstrued, that support for BDS is not legitimate and she regrets what she did, we will certainly reconsider our position,” he said.

She has not.

However — even if she is the duped messenger of the BDS movement or its “martyr” — is it prudent to detain her?

There is little question that the BDS movement is in many ways an insidious wolf in sheep’s clothing. Far beyond its grassroots activists’ liberal-leaning desire to put their money where their mouths are, the movement’s foundational ideology is predicated on the utter dissolution of the Jewish state.

As I wrote in an in-depth report in 2015, the BDS movement, largely decentralized and grassroots in nature, has a three-fold set of goals:

  • Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the security fence;
  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

It is in particular the “return” of millions of “refugees” — most of them second, third and fourth generation descendants of former Arab residents of what is today Israel — that negates of the essential nature of the Jewish state and would force its demise, according to BDS opponents.

And so this is what the anti-BDS efforts are all about: guarding the gate and shoring up the borders of the sole Jewish state, a lone refuge for the ever-besieged, eternally maligned Jew.

But what happens when the “enemy” is the ideal of universal human rights presented in the embodiment of a young masters student?

What should the State of Israel do when it is on the opposing side of a well-meaning (and even trendy) pursuit of social justice for the downtrodden, that has, for generations, captured the very liberal Americans who were once the country’s greatest supporters?

According to a disheartening survey that I reported on last year, the majority of American students, Jews and non-Jews, tend to be somewhat aggressively against Israel today.

According to Fern Oppenheim, co-founder of Brand Israel Group, mainstream Americans are not starting from a neutral perspective on Israel; rather, they begin with misperceptions and negative assumptions. This creates “fertile ground” for delegitimization — especially on campuses, where she has found a sharp decrease in knowledgeability about Israel.

In parallel to their ignorance about Israel, it is also quite likely that most US students who support BDS — Jews and non-Jews — have absolutely no idea of any of the founders’ ulterior, even sinister, motives to see an end to the Jewish state. And, if one takes the Oppenheim survey to its obvious conclusion, even if the students do have an inkling, it is an idea that often aligns with their view of Israel as an aggressive occupying force.

Dozens of publicity stunts are staged by far-left anti-occupation groups each year. This summer, the grassroots Jewish organization IfNotNow targeted mainstream “rite-of-passage” organization Birthright, staging pre-flight interventions and trip walk-outs that captured media attention.

Born into an era of social media, the young activists of today are well-versed in living out loud. Could it be that the organizations who indoctrinated Alqasem, and the other activists who went before her, see themselves as generals on a new, different playing field where sides no longer move their pieces by traditional rules?

Israel has a full-on, hi-tech PR battle on its hands. And, for all appearances, it is spinning its wheels in response, legislating “paranoid” laws and drawing up blacklists.

Is detaining extremely likable young students really Israel’s best play? Even “unhinged Zionists” and supporters of Israel, New York Times writers Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss are taking the country to task and asking what it is afraid of today.

But wait. Could it be that in detaining a litany of personable, mostly female American “activists,” Israel is actually responding directly to the hypothesized BDS campaign — calling its bluff — and saying regardless of the detrimental PR ripple effects, the only democracy in the Middle East is going to objectively apply this (in my view, ill-conceived) law, which bars BDS activists from entry?

What could be a better way to broadcast that intention than by denying entry to a woman such as Alqasem, who could easily be the daughter, sister, or friend of most average Americans.

If BDS is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, by denying entry to Alqasem — and what will likely be a further steady stream of equally sympathetic students in her wake — Israel is again reaffirming its ability to be a strong and stubborn lone wolf. Come what may.

About the Author
Amanda Borschel-Dan lives in Israel, where she and her husband are raising their six always hungry children. She is The Times of Israel's Jewish Times editor.
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