With regard to a young American Jew named Harald Fuller-Bennett, the Taglit-Birthright project to some extent achieved its goal. The project brings young Jews from around the world for a trip in Israel "in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people," to quote its own words. And indeed, about two years after coming on a Taglit-Birthright tour, Fuller-Bennett intended to visit Israel again.
But this time, the people working to diminish the distance between him and Israel were two Tel Aviv lawyers, Omer Shatz and Iftach Cohen, and Jerusalem District Court Judge Yoram Noam. Together, they overturned a bizarre attempt by the Shin Bet security service to accuse him of having connections with terrorists and intending to convert to Islam - for which reasons it barred him from entering Israel for 10 years.
Fuller-Bennett is now 30 years old. On his Taglit-Birthright tour in January 2008, he said, "I gained a lot of sympathy for Israelis and for the multitude of challenges they face (and the many mistakes the government is currently making in facing them ). We had a number of engaging Israeli military members on our bus. I am still Facebook friends with some of them. My conversations with them taught me much about the complexity of modern Israel, and the difficulty of being born into a state with a siege mentality."
Fuller-Bennett joined a group within the Taglit program called "Peace, Pluralism and Social Justice." He is not certain that this subgroup of Taglit is still active, but the fact of its existence shows the organizers recognized that there are young Jews whose interest in Israel has not eliminated their capacity for criticism. "We had questions about Israel but wanted to see for ourselves," Fuller-Bennett said.
But it was not his participation in Taglit's "most lefty, peacenik" group, as Fuller-Bennett defines it, that made the Shin Bet decide this employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was dangerous.
That happened on May 2, 2010, when he and his girlfriend (now his fiancee ) landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport for a week-long visit to Israel. This would have been his third visit to the country. But to their astonishment, after his passport was stamped for entry, he was taken aside, interrogated and put on a plane back to the United States. The fresh stamp was crossed out with two diagonal lines and the additional stamp: "Denied Entry."
"About a week after I was denied entry, Noam Chomsky and a Spanish clown were denied," he recalled.
The Shin Bet investigator asked him where they intended to go. "To Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and perhaps Bethlehem," where a friend of his girlfriend lives, he answered. Afterward the state would claim, in response to the suit filed by Shatz and Cohen, that Fuller-Bennett had been "briefed to conceal his intention to enter Judea and Samaria," and that "his conduct during the questioning at Ben-Gurion Airport aroused the questioners' suspicion."
Indeed, as Fuller-Bennet wrote me by email from his home in the U.S., "I was quite nervous during the investigation, especially when the investigator became accusatory and suspicious because of my travel to Syria and Sudan. I had never been interrogated in such a manner before, and I am a naturally easygoing person not accustomed to, nor expecting, such treatment. I'm sure I acted oddly as a result."
When he realized he was being denied entry, he wrote, "I felt like shit. I felt like an idiot for being naive and not getting a 'clean' passport, and for being nervous during my interrogation despite the fact that I had absolutely zero intention of doing anything remotely activist-like in Israel other than possibly going to Bethlehem (which I hear many foreign Christians do every year )."
A few months after he was sent back to the U.S., he contacted attorneys Shatz and Cohen. In October 2010, they asked the Interior Ministry to explain the deportation and inform them whether a denial of entry order had been issued, and if so, for how long, so that they could request its cancelation.
Having received no reply, the lawyers wrote again in January 2011, this time warning they would go to court if they did not receive an answer. The answer was: "Your client's entry into Israel was denied by the security authorities because he is suspected of links to hostile terrorist elements."
The petition to the Jerusalem District Court, in its capacity as a court of administrative affairs, was filed in March 2011. The state's response, filed on June 29, 2011 by Deputy Jerusalem District Attorney Moran Braun, asked the court to reject the petition. To defend the Shin Bet's decision to deny Fuller-Bennett entry, Braun wrote: "Information was received about anti-Israel protest activity in which the plaintiff took part; moreover, the possibility arose that the plaintiff had converted to Islam."
But at the hearing on June 3, Braun said the claim that Fuller-Bennett had ties to terrorists was "mistaken." And while there had been concern that he might have converted to Islam, "Today we have presented our position and we are not insisting on this." In short, he added, the ban on Fuller-Bennett entering Israel had been canceled.
The lawyers therefore agreed to withdraw the petition. Judge Noam ordered the state to pay Fuller-Bennett's court costs, because the Interior Ministry rescinded its entry ban only after the petition. And Fuller-Bennett would like to make it clear he is in fact an atheist.
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