Open Letter to Gilad Erdan: Let her in. Let them all in.

Dear Minister Erdan,

I wish to commend you on the fine job you’ve been doing as Public Security Minister. With all the external threats we face on a daily basis, Israel has continued to remain an incredibly safe place internally, a fact which I consistently promote to anyone who will listen. Your service to this country is second to none, and I salute you for all that you’ve done for the state of Israel to make us even safer.

But no one is perfect, and when it comes to your role as Strategic Affairs Minister – a position created with the sole intention of fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement otherwise known as BDS – you are fighting with the wrong weapons and doing us major harm.

You and I share something in common in that we both studied political science in the MA program at Tel Aviv University. Therefore, I have no doubt that you are well-versed in democratic theory and the power of ideas. Communism was a very powerful idea that was defeated by an even more powerful one: Capitalism. But it was a long struggle, and it was made unnecessarily longer by idiotic approaches such as the Joe McCarthy Senate hearings in the 1950s, which tried to ban the idea of communism from reaching US shores. America is still suffering from this shameful period in its history, a stain which can never be fully washed away.

The defeat of communism was not done with bullets or boycotts or anything other than the truth. America eventually realized that the best weapon it had at its disposal was to let the communists come and visit, so they can see for themselves the miracle of capitalism that has allowed so many in this world to not only survive, but to thrive, and realize their true potential. There’s a reason so many Soviets defected once they reached American shores.

This is how we need to fight BDS, which is all bark and no bite, because you can’t boycott a country that has invented so much of the technological infrastructure on which the world runs. As I wrote a couple years back, BDS is a load of BS, but you’re giving it tons of ammunition by treating it no differently than the real threats we face from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Lara Alqasem is an American of Palestinian descent who obtained a student visa from the Israeli consulate in Miami – the same consulate which granted me an Israeli passport almost a decade ago. My parents are Israeli so it wasn’t very hard. Although in typical Israeli style, the bureaucracy made it harder than it needed to be, so I can’t imagine what she had to go through in order to get that visa.

Lara has Palestinian grandparents, but she didn’t choose to study in Ramallah. She chose to study at Hebrew University for a year, and they chose to accept her. Yet she has been sitting in a detention center at Ben-Gurion Airport for over a week because of her previous involvement with Students for Justice in Palestine, which is an aggressive, divisive and problematic proponent of BDS. But there’s a reason they’re called students, and anyone who has ever been one knows that students of that age are naively idealistic, with little knowledge or experience about anything connected to reality.

Lara is not under arrest and free to return home at any time, unless, according to you, she renounces her views. But she’s not stupid. She knows that going back is to admit defeat, and to renounce her views is to admit she doesn’t have the courage to stand behind them. She refuses to be used as propaganda, and while I could not disagree with her more on her political positions and past actions, I can’t help but admire the gumption with which she is willing to stand up for them.

Lara is from Southwest Ranches, Florida, an area close to my hometown of Coral Springs. It’s where I spent years rehearsing with my band at the drummer’s house, who is also one of my best friends. It’s a beautiful and peaceful area. We even shot a music video there.

Lara is also a gator. I know you don’t understand what that means, but there is something called the Gator Nation, and it includes everyone who ever went to the University of Florida, of which I am also an alumnus. Not unlike Diaspora Jewry before the state of Israel was created, the Gator Nation is a borderless tribe of people spread all over the world who believe that the greatest privilege one can have as a college student is to spend four (or more) years in Gainesville at the University of Florida.

The Gator Nation is proud of its accomplishments, whether it’s being a top 10 public university with one of America’s leading cancer research hospitals, or being the only university in history to hold both the football and basketball national championships at the same time (followed by a repeat in hoops in case anyone forgot). It’s quite trivial when compared to the accomplishments of the Jewish Nation, but we’re a people nonetheless, and while Lara and I belong to very different political nations, we are part of the same collegiate nation. We probably don’t agree on much, but I know we wear the same colors on Saturdays in the fall.

I would like to meet Lara. I’m sure many Israelis would like to meet Lara and show her the beauty of our country. Not the country that gets sold in pamphlets to tour groups. And certainly not the country that gets vilified by groups like SJP, whose majority of members know very little about Israel except what they see on the news they choose.

I want Lara to see the real Israel, warts and all, so she can understand that there are real people here living a difficult reality on both sides. I want her to see that most Israelis don’t hate Palestinians, they just hate being attacked by them. I want her to see that many Israelis do hate the occupation and want to get out, but to put it in lame social media terms, “it’s complicated”, and not nearly as easy to solve as it may seem during Israel “Apartheid” week.

What I learned growing up in America, and during my studies at Tel Aviv University, is that there’s only one way to defeat a person armed with ideas – disarm them with better ones.

Anyone who has read my previous articles knows I’m a staunch defender of Israel and its right to protect its citizens militarily anywhere, anytime, anyhow. I believe in the miracle of the Zionist movement which gave my grandparents a place to call home after one was forced to flee Egypt, two fled the Nazis in time, and one survived Auschwitz after 3 years in the belly of hell.

But this isn’t about Zionism. This is about idiocy. Since when did the world’s toughest people – who are also the people of the book – get scared of ideas?

Israel has nothing to be ashamed of. We do whatever we need to do in order to survive in the only sliver of land that we have in this world to protect ourselves from the madness that has devoured us for over 2,000 years, and continues to surround us with every intention of finishing the job. No, we’re not America or Canada or Switzerland or any other country that has the benefit of pondering democratic theory while sipping on Starbucks (which by the way, tastes like crap – at least here we have great coffee). We believe in democracy and we want it to succeed, but we believe in survival even more, and when the day comes that we can stop worrying about surviving, we’ll worry more about the other stuff.

But this? This isn’t about democracy or terrorism or anything else but cowardice. What, have we run out of things to bomb?

I’m not scared of this girl, or anyone else who wants to come here to see the situation for themselves. Why are you? Do you not believe in the validity and strength of our state? Do you have so little faith in our ability to endure hardships, that you believe a 22-year old college graduate from boring South Florida has the power to bring it down?

So what if she takes pictures of soldiers at checkpoints? Journalists do it every day. It’s not exactly a secret that we’re occupying the West Bank. If our mission is just then we should bring her to the checkpoints, introduce her to soldiers, and explain why we’re there. She’s of Palestinian descent, but she didn’t choose to study in Ramallah. She chose to study at Hebrew University, in our capital, Jerusalem. She also studied Hebrew at the University of Florida, which gained her a glowing recommendation from her Israeli professor. She wants to learn the other side. Whether she plans to use her knowledge for good or for evil is out of our hands.

If we believe in our mission then we shouldn’t need to hide it. We shouldn’t ban people from photographing it. I’m well aware it can be used for propaganda, it’s the only class I got a 100 in. If that’s her true goal, don’t worry, it will be dealt with. But that’s a chance we have to take, because we have to find common ground with whoever we can if we ever hope to end the madness and let the people who actually live here, live a normal life – on both sides.

Mr. Erdan, you studied at Tel Aviv University. You know as well as I do that there are plenty of Israeli Jews with very far-left views about this country that most Americans would not dare approach. You know as well as I do that Tel Aviv University is flooded with Arabs speaking Arabic, wearing hijabs, and working as esteemed professors, one of which was my program head who was an honor to study with. Don’t you think it would be a positive experience if Lara Alqasem visited Israeli universities to see this reality for herself – Jews studying together with Arabs in the country’s highest institutions of learning?

I wasn’t comfortable with everything I heard or was taught at TAU. But I left my personal beliefs at the door when I walked into the classroom. I listened, I learned, and my core beliefs haven’t changed one bit. They’re stronger and more informed, but they’re also more nuanced. I understand the other side in ways that I didn’t before, because I was never exposed to it in the bubble of American society. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop acting for the betterment of my people, but it does mean that I now act with more awareness of how my own people’s actions affect a people besides my own.

It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. We may not all come out even, but we can all come out ahead if we stop trying to win, and start trying to end the game.

I have no doubt that if Lara Alqasem spends a year in Israel she will leave feeling exactly the same. She will not lose one ounce of her Palestinian pride and heritage, and she shouldn’t have to. But she will gain a perspective of what life in Israel is really like for both Arabs and Jews, and when she goes back to the US she will at least know that there are real human beings living here who suffer the consequences on both sides. And maybe, just maybe, instead of working for the benefit of only her own people, she’ll work for the benefit of everyone, and try to promote solutions that both sides can live with.

Mr. Erdan, I’ve watched you on the news for years. You seem like a very tough guy, and I have no doubt you’ve earned it. But Americans don’t watch Israeli news and they don’t understand Hebrew. All they see right now is a cowardly minister with an accent who’s scared of a 22-year old girl armed with nothing more than her ideas. Please, let us sit down with her so we can disarm her with some of ours.

Maybe we’ll succeed, maybe we won’t. But if you’re as proud of this country as I am, then you need to let her in. We don’t have to win every fight with a bullet or a ban. Sometimes the best weapon is to simply pull back the curtains and let them see the beauty of this country for themselves. No, they will not go back singing Hatikva just because they ate falafel with some high-tech geeks. But they will go back different than how they came, because nothing is more powerful than seeing your prejudices destroyed before your very eyes, and all you’re doing right now is exactly the opposite. This whole policy of not letting people in because they dare to think different, exposes all our weaknesses that we’ve spent decades trying to strengthen.

Enough with this ridiculous fear of ideas. Let her in. Let them all in.

I’m not denying that we have every right to ban her from entering this country, or anyone else we deem is a threat in any way whatsoever. But we have a very powerful army that deals with actual physical threats.

As Strategic Affairs Minister, I implore you to change your strategy and let the citizens deal with ideological threats. With all due respect, as you yourself recently noted in commending the valiant heroism of Ari Fuld ז”ל – we’re much better at it than you, or almost anyone else in government.

In addition to his actions in the battlefield, Ari also fought for the State of Israel in the international arena and was part of a network of information activists we established to show the world the truth about Israel and to expose the lies of those who boycott Israel. Ari is an example and a model to us all and we should commend him for it.
– Gilad Erdan

So please, let her in. It’s the best way to disarm her.

Yoni Leviatan
American-Israeli Citizen
Florida Gator and TAU Alumnus

About the Author
Yoni Leviatan is a British-born, American-raised, Israeli-blooded musician, marketer and political commentator who returned to Israel in 2009 to continue the roots his grandparents laid down in 1948.
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