Welcome to Israel! Please Leave Your Dissent at the Door

Nothing screams “only democracy in the Middle East” like giving a full-on political pap smear to visitors who wish to enter your country and yet, that’s exactly what Israel has been doing since passing its controversial anti-BDS law, which essentially told boycotters that Israel would be boycotting them by barring them from entering the country.

The logic behind the root of the law is simple: if you boycott Israel, why are you entering Israel in the first place? In other words, Israel is simply holding boycotters to the standard that they’re holding themselves. It’s tough to argue with that.

But when enacting legislation, the question shouldn’t be “why shouldn’t we do this” but “why SHOULD we do this” and the truth is, it’s a lot more difficult to answer that question.

“If someone who boycotts Canadian goods wanted to enter Canada and they planned on taking part in ‘anti-Canada’ demonstrations with Aboriginal groups while they were there, would you just let them in?”

This was the question posed to me by a right-wing Israeli colleague. He was dumbfounded when I told him that not only would the Canadian government let them in, but they’d wish them well on their trip too, because freedom of expression is a fundamental aspect of liberal democracy.

The notion of boycotting the boycotters may imbue us with a sense of poetic justice, but what are we trading in exchange for that petty feeling of vengeance? Well, as already stated, we’re throwing away the very principles of democracy, but on a more cynical level, we’re proving the boycotters right. Those who engage in BDS proclaim Israel to be an apartheid state, an authoritarian dictatorship worthy of boycotting that only extends democratic principles to a privileged few. By barring people from entering a country based solely on their ideology, this plays right into their hands.

Do you hear that? That’s the sound of a BDS activist furiously typing up a thread on Twitter or an article on Electronic Intifada about how poorly they were treated at the Israeli airport simply based on their political beliefs. What other self-described democracy would base entrance to a country on political ideology? These articles will spread like wildfire and public perception of Israel will continue to decline. This has already been happening (but we’ll get to that shortly)…

It becomes especially concerning (and transparent) when you realize that the anti-BDS law treats those who solely boycott the settlements the same as those who boycott the entirety of Israel – in that both categories of people can be denied entry. In other words, the Israeli government is making it clear that in their eyes, there’s no difference between Tel Aviv and Ariel or Haifa and Hebron – they’re all Israel. This is a dangerous precedent to set for several reasons – but that’s a subject for a future article. What’s important to understand, however, is that Netanyahu has effectively lumped together those who boycott the settlements out of a love for Israel with those who boycott Israel in its entirety out of disdain and loathing.

For the record, those who boycott the settlements (myself included), do so out of the belief that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination, that the settlement enterprise in its current form erodes Israel’s democratic character and that a continuation of the status quo will eventually lead to the destruction of the Zionist dream (of a Jewish AND democratic state). Thus a boycott of solely the settlements is a principled, non-violent form of action that Zionists can use to support Israel Proper without financing the very aspect of Israeli society that will destroy the country as we know it.

Regardless of your thoughts on boycotting the settlements, it would take some serious mental acrobatics to proclaim that those who do so are threats to the state or are even deserving of being compared to those who engage in a full boycott. And yet, that’s exactly what the anti-BDS bill erroneously declares.

Indeed, Netanyahu has basically proclaimed that if you’re a foreigner who opposes the settlement enterprise, you can enter, just as long as you don’t oppose settlements so much that you’re actually doing anything to slow their proliferation. Essentially, all political activity that goes against this government’s goal of creeping annexation – full BDS or not – is grounds for barring entry into Israel or at the very least, detention and harassment at the airport.

This brings us to the case of Lara Alqasem. Lara is a Palestinian-American student who was issued a visa to study for a year at Hebrew University but has since been detained at the airport for over ten days as a result of her alleged involvement in the BDS Movement. To be specific, the Israeli courts have cited her two-year tenure as president of the anti-Israel campus group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), as grounds to prevent her entry.

According to The Times of Israel, Lara has argued that she’s never actively participated in boycott campaigns, currently opposes BDS and isn’t even involved with SJP anymore.

Lara’s lawyer asked for evidence from the state that she was still involved in boycott activities of any kind in order to even moderately justify this circus and all the state could point to were two events hosted by SJP where Lara had clicked “attending” on Facebook. While Lara’s lawyer pointed out that clicking “attending” on a Facebook event page is by no means definitive proof that one supports the politics of the event, much less even attended the event in the first place, the state was having none of it.

Hebrew University has come out against the court’s ruling, stating that Lara’s decision to study and live in Israel clearly repudiates the goals of the BDS Movement and that she hasn’t been involved with SJP since 2017. Moreover, Hebrew University said that with such precedents being set, they fear for how Israel will be perceived on the global stage and that such efforts would harm academic efforts to attract students and researchers from overseas.

However, such common sense was lost on Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who rejected their pleas and stated that he wants boycott activists to “understand that their actions come with a price.”

This has got to be a joke.

PUBLIC SECURITY MINISTER Gilad Erdan! We have the person whose portfolio encompasses reacting to rocket attacks and suicide bombings overseeing this issue? Are you kidding me?

This is becoming a McCarthyist charade! At this point, the only thing left is for the ghost of Joseph Welch to exasperatingly shout: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?!”

Ask yourself, what public security threat does a twenty-something American girl who wants to study human rights in an Israeli university pose? Are Israeli civilians truly in any danger when Lara Alqasem steps out of Ben-Gurion Airport?

“Grab your children and run for cover! We’ve just been informed that someone with na├»ve and unhelpful views on the Israel-Palestine conflict has just entered Israeli airspace! Find the nearest bomb shelter and don’t emerge until you’ve counted backwards from 1948! This is not a drill! I repeat, this is NOT a drill!”

You get the point.

But this anti-BDS policy isn’t just astonishingly authoritarian and patently ridiculous, it’s also incredibly counterproductive.

First of all, by living in Israel for a year, Lara would be engaging in the exact opposite of a boycott. Every Shekel she spends would be going to Israeli society (and then the Israeli government through taxation). She’d be paying the Israeli bus fare to go to the Israeli grocery store where she’d be buying Israeli food to sustain herself to study at her Israeli university, where at the end of the day she’d return home to her Israeli apartment that she pays rent on to an Israeli landlord! The Israeli government shouldn’t be turning her away because she boycotts Israel, they should be welcoming her because she boycotts Israel! Turning a true boycotter of Israel away isn’t a real punishment, making them support the Israeli economy and tourism industry is. How do the petty right-wing legislators behind this ridiculous bill not see that?

But more importantly, by letting anti-Israel activists into Israel, you’re giving them a unique chance to see Israel on the ground. They’ll have the chance to explore Israeli society and interact with real Israelis, which means that they’ll start to view them as genuine people worthy of compassion, rather than just “oppressors” clad in military garb engaged in a night raid on a shakey cell phone camera – which has likely been their only real exposure to Israelis if we’re being honest with ourselves.

Will they go on some tours in the West Bank and see some things that make their skin crawl? Probably. Will they also see inspiring levels of coexistence and democracy in places like Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem though? Also probably. So the final question is: will they get a more balanced and nuanced view of Israel and the conflict by being granted the opportunity to see it all firsthand? Undoubtedly.

Seeing as the BDS Movement is the very definition of “unbalanced and devoid of nuance,” by allowing an anti-Israel activist to see Israel as a whole, you actually may change their opinion and get them to scale back their extremism.

If you think that this is unrealistic, stop and consider that the Israeli Foreign Ministry and assorted donors spend millions of dollars a year on funding campus hasbara initiatives with the specific goal of changing people’s opinions on Israel. If you actually believe that people can be persuaded through looking at corny brochures full of pictures of women in hijabs ordering falafel next to Hassidic men in Jerusalem, then surely they can be persuaded by actually living in Israel.

Ergo, perhaps it’s time for a paradigm shift. It’s time to really act like “the one true democracy in the Middle East” and welcome dissent. By losing the battle, we’re actually winning the war. While it may sting to take the high ground and be the bigger person in the face of such hideousness, it’s undoubtedly the right decision for all of the reasons mentioned above. In the same way that the Israeli government wants to hold the boycotters to the standard that they hold themselves, perhaps it’s time for Israelis to hold Israel, a democracy, to the standard that they hold themselves. It’s never too late for a course correction.

Therefore, rather than being met by the minister of public security, maybe anti-Israel activists should be met by the minister of tourism. “Shalom Vi’Bruchim HaBai’im!”

About the Author
Michael Aarenau lives in Montreal, Quebec. He has a Bachelor's of Public Affairs and Policy Management from Carleton University and is currently pursuing a law degree at McGill University. Michael is passionate about human rights, international affairs and justice. For cheeky insights in 280 characters or less, follow him on twitter @MAarenau
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