Lara Elqasem is an American, 22-year old woman of Palestinian descent who intends to study for a master’s degree in transitional justice at Hebrew University. She has been accepted to the University’s program and received a visa from the Israeli embassy. But her plans were truncated when she was apprehended at Ben Gurion airport and detained on the charge of supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel (BDS). This may or may not be true. Elqasem was the president of a pro-Palestinian campus organization at the University of Florida that has some very critical things to say about Israel and which apparently supports BDS. She allegedly indicated in the past that she may attend a pro-boycott event. Although she recently told the Israeli court that she does not support BDS, the court ruled otherwise and upheld the state’s right, under the Boycott Law of 2011, to deny Elqasem entry to Israel.
Regardless of what happens now, the State of Israel, courtesy of a law brought to us by Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and Dalia Itzik (formerly of Labor and Kadima), and vigorously enforced by Minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs, Gilad Erdan, has exposed that we, Zionists and Israelis, are losing the battle of ideas to the BDS movement.
For many years, BDS was a rather small, albeit annoying, movement promoting an anti-Israel agenda under a seemingly innocuous cover of a “non-violent” boycott. The approach of the BDS movement is wrong – it disseminates half-truths about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wages pressure campaigns to prevent artists, academics and other public figures from appearing in Israel, and organizes to prevent Israelis from speaking and performing abroad. Its claimed goal “to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law” seems to be a cosmetic mask for their desire to bring an end to the State of Israel.
By preventing Israeli speakers from appearing on US college campuses, like Elqasem apparently did on her University of Florida campus, BDS advocates expose their own cowardice by refusing to engage in intellectual and political ideas in the public sphere. The State of Israel is doing the same by preventing Elqasem from starting her studies at Hebrew University. Elqasem’s detention appears as a vindictive act with no benefit to the state or its security. It gives the impression that a fringe anti-Israel movement, lionized by the government as a fundamental threat, has brought the State of Israel, with all its military, economic and intellectual might, to its knees.
A strong and confident democratic, Jewish country should behave otherwise.
Israel could have (and still can) allow Elqasem to come and complete her studies at one of Israel’s finest universities – one where, unlike US universities under pressure of BDS groups, a free and open exchange of ideas is encouraged. She would be intellectually challenged and allowed to confront preconceived notions of what Israel is or isn’t. Elqasem’s classmates, Israeli and otherwise, will have the opportunity to learn and understand contrary positions and to develop their own ideas and responses. Maybe Elqasem will return to the US emboldened to continue her alleged anti-Israel activities. Maybe not. Maybe her classmates will have learned about the Palestinian perspective from their interaction with her. Denying that experience is denying our future leaders the capacity to understand the intellectual arguments against the State of Israel.
In the bigger picture, Israel could meet BDS on its own turf – unions and universities, schools and think-tanks abroad. The battle with BDS is a battle of ideas, not the battle of armies. But our aim should not be trying to convince BDS activists of the illegitimacy of their objectives – my experience is that they are obstinate and single-mindedly anti-Israel. Rather, we must be engaged in the argument to bring our case to the vast middle ground of people who are watching the debate and form their own rational opinions regarding how best to resolve our conflict with the Palestinians.
By resorting to anti-boycott laws and preventing activists from entering the country we are admitting that we cannot compete in the realm of ideas.
In contrast, some pro-peace, pro-Israel organizations are meeting the BDS challenge head on. Organizations such as The Third Narrative and their affiliated Alliance for Academic Freedom, J-Street, and the Anti-Defamation League are all at the forefront of confronting the BDS movement in its own home court (universities, unions, civic organizations, political parties). Rather than embracing these movements, however, the current government actively vilifies them and undercuts their legitimacy as friends and supporters of Israel and Zionism. Thus, these same organizations that are on the front-lines of the BDS debate are undercut by Israel, through both its words and actions.
Elqasem is not the first individual to be detained at Ben Gurion Airport due to her political beliefs, though each questioning reflects badly on the state and legitimizes the arguments of the BDS movement itself. Before we shoot ourselves in the collective foot yet again, Erdan and the rest of our elected leaders should re-assess our approach to fighting BDS. We can do better for ourselves, for our future, and for all the citizens of the region.