'How Would Israelis Feel if Another Country Decided Not to Let Them in Because They Advocate for Settlements?'

As Israeli lawmakers propose to bar settlement-boycott supporters from entering the country, rights groups and others move between outrage and dismay.

FILE PHOTO: Passport control at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport.
FILE PHOTO: Passport control at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. Dan Keinan

UPDATE: The Knesset passed the bill into law on March 6, 2017

Joining an organization that supports BDS, boycotting settlement goods or a Facebook post supporting a ban on West Bank-produced products at a Brooklyn food co-op - any of these could be grounds for barring a prospective visitor to Israel - Jewish or not - if a new bill becomes law.

The bill, which received a preliminary approval by the Knesset Interior Committee on Wednesday, would deny entry visas to foreign citizens who “knowingly and publicly” call for a boycott of Israel or represent an organization that calls for a boycott. The term “boycott” is defined under the broad terms set in a 2011 law, as “deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or another actor only because of his ties with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control.”  

At least one American Jewish organization plans an immediate challenge if the bill makes its way through the three Knesset readings and becomes law.

“I can assure you that we will be putting the ball in the court of Israeli authorities," Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, says. Sokatch asks, wonders how Israel would react if an airplane full of American Jews, "Zionists who love Israel" but say they support the right of Israelis to oppose the settlements or boycott settlement goods, lands at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport.

By denying entry, Sokatch says, the lawmakers behind the bill "are taking the same position of the BDS movement that they profess to oppose - banning people’s entry to Israel just because they don’t like their opinion."

"What is particularly odious is the conflation of the international BDS movement, which we oppose with those Israelis and others, who, out of their patriotism and love of Israel refuse to purchase products from the settlements," he says. "The bill's sponsors are just like the BDS movement in that they want to erase the Green Line.”

In Israel, “we are watching this legislation with worry,” says Oded Feller, head of the legal department at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. If passed, Feller fears, the legislation could be viewed as a “green light” to grill visitors at Israel's gates over their political views. Such a law, he said, would signal the further deterioration of freedom of speech and opinion in Israel. 

“Immigration law isn’t supposed to deal with ideology or politics," he notes. "How would Israelis feel if another country decided not to let Israelis in as tourists because they advocate for settlements which are against international law and people started getting turned away? It’s absurd to start policing borders based on what people think.”

Attorneys who deal with cases involving foreigners who are barred or expelled from Israel describe the law as redundant, noting that the existing legislation already gives officials considerable leeway to deny entry to Israel without explanation. 

“Except for declarative value of this bill, I really don’t see its benefit other than that it serves as another law to strengthen the status of the settlements,” said Yadin Elam, a Tel Aviv attorney who specializes in immigration law.   

Elam said that currently, any known BDS activist applying for a visa abroad or trying to enter the country, runs the risk of being turned back. This practice, which was originally applied to the banning of tourists who support terror organizations, has gradually been expanded to include anti-occupation activists who, for example, enter the country after participating in a flotilla to Gaza, and now applies to an even wider group of activists who are considered anti-Israel.

“We have already seen the number of people who are denied entry increasing," he says wryly. "More and more names are added to this list of people who aren’t allowed to enter Israel just because they wrote something that includes a discussion of BDS. Sometimes I think that they must sit and Google BDS every day.”

If the bill is passed and enforced, Elam believes, it would not only be used against political activists, but also against "people who hold opinions that are too left-wing, as far as the current government sees it.”

Nicole Maor, director of the Israel Reform Movement Legal Aid for New Immigrants, agreed with Elam, adding that such a law would be “almost impossible to implement and enforce.”

The creation of international blacklists based on the social media accounts of prospective tourists or membership in anti-occupation organizations, she says, is unlikely. If people started to be turned back in mass numbers upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport, she predicts, civil rights organizations would soon get involved and appeal the government criteria.  

Moreover, Maor doesn’t believe that such a law could override the Law of Return allowing Jews to freely immigrate to Israel. There is legal precedent, she says, for interpreting the stated reasons for preventing a Jew to come to Israel narrowly. One would have to be denied immigration because of a criminal record or because the person posed a danger for physical or mental health reasons.

 “I don’t think any court will say that someone who has given a political opinion about the territories or BDS” can be refused the right of return, she says.

Still, as Elam points out, banning those who are public in their anti-settlement views and behavior from coming as tourists, students, or for a stay of a few years, would prevent them from a route that many Jews considering immigration to Israel take. They first spend a few months or years in the country, and then, later, change their status to citizens.

Just the prospect of such a law pushes away some young Jews. Lex Rofes, a Jewish educator and rabbinical student who belongs to the anti-occupation group IfNotNow, calls the proposed legislation “a recipe for isolation that is practically designed to push people away from Israel” and weaken the connection that progressive Jews - and non-Jews feel towards the state.  

“People shouldn’t be welcome or unwelcome based on their views regarding the occupation. Settlement boycott has broad and growing support in the U.S. - it is a mainstream idea.”

As a Jew, he says, it increases his sense of alienation from the country under its current leadership. “All the time, I am in conversation with folks who expect me to express love from Israel. And I don’t know how I can conceivably do that when the state wants to bar me based on my political viewpoints," he says. "I’m already in a non-Orthodox rabbinical seminary and in an interfaith relationship and wouldn’t be allowed to marry my partner in Israel. There seems to be a consistent and unfortunate growth in the number of ways that I am being told by the State of Israel that my full self isn’t welcome there."

Potentially, young people like Rofes who publicly declare their support for a settlement boycott, could be prevented from taking part in Jewish Agency programs like Masa. When asked about the possible effect of the bill on their programs, an Agency spokesman said “we are not in the habit of commenting on pending legislation.”

Palestinians would even be more affected by such a law aimed at stifling criticism of Israel, both within the Green Line and in the territories it occupies. Feller points out that the Knesset panel's refusal to exempt from the proposed legislation Palestinians who reside in Israel for purposes of family reunification means families could be torn apart because a spouse expressed support for a boycott.  

Feller also notes that, since visitors to the West Bank travel through Israeli border crossings, Palestinians living outside Israel could be prevented from visiting their family members in the West Bank simply because of their support of BDS or membership in an organization that advocates it.