American Jewish Organizations Slam Israel Over Detention of Peter Beinart

The Anti-Defamation League said that 'questioning those who may hold divergent views when entering or exiting Israel does the opposite of strengthening a commitment to a democratic Jewish state'

Peter Beinart speaking during an interview in Jerusalem.
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

The questioning of journalist Peter Beinart at Ben-Gurion Airport Monday was met with criticism from some Jewish-American groups, while others were satisfied by the response of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who claimed that the incident was a mistake and that it will be investigated internally within Israel's security agencies. 

Beinart, a regular columnist for The Forward who also writes for The Atlantic and appears often on CNN, came to Israel to participate in the bat mitzvah of one of his nieces, and says that he went through a politically-centered interrogation upon landing in the country. 

>> UPDATE: Israel's attorney general to examine Shin Bet detentions of left-wing activists

Beinart has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years. He has publicly expressed support for boycotting products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. His questioning this weekend, he reported, didn't focus on that issue, but included a broad list of questions about his political affiliations and his ties to groups in Israel that oppose the settlements and the policies of the current right-wing government in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response that "he was told it was an administrative mistake. Israel is an open society which welcomes all--critics and supporters alike."

On the left-wing side of the political map, reactions were mostly negative. J Street called the incident "yet another example in an undemocratic pattern of Israeli officials detaining and questioning activists." The group's director in Israel, Yael Patir, added that "a slippery slope has turned into a dark and dangerous abyss when every citizen who dares criticize the Netanyahu government can find himself interrogated over his opinions."

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The New Israel Fund's CEO,Daniel Soktach, said in a statement that "the government is demonstrating that the test for entering the country is a political one -- either you agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ultra-right wing coalition or you're subject to questioning, intimidation, or refusal. This may be legal, but it's morally unacceptable and anti-democratic." 

He added that "the Israeli government has mobilized every ministry to mark its political enemies, including its own citizens and legal residents, its lifelong supporters, and visitors from many backgrounds. This is the next escalation of a longstanding practice that has targeted visitors of Palestinian or Arab descent, and those who are not Jewish, with extra scrutiny at the border." 

The Anti-Defamation League, while denouncing Beinart's political questioning, also approved of Netanyahu's reaction to the incident. "Accepting wide-ranging views and advocacy strengthens commitment to a democratic Jewish state," said the organization's CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt. "Questioning those who may hold divergent views when entering or exiting Israel does the opposite." Greenblatt added, however, that Netanyahu's reaction was "an important start." 

A senior official in one prominent Jewish group, who asked not to be named, told Haaretz that Netanyahu's quick reaction seemed to calm down some of the rage over the incident. "Once the Prime Minister admits it was a mistake and promises to fix it, you want to at least give him a chance to prove he is sincere," the official explained. "I think if this phenomenon continues, you will see a much more unified reaction from the community."

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, a think-tank considered supportive of Israel, said that he was "glad" to see Netanyahu apologize for the incident. "Israel needs to be welcoming to Jews of all stripes - regardless of political persuasion. Hope this incident is a wakeup call." Beinart, it should be noted, described Netanyahu's reaction as a "half apology" and added that his own personal case is part of a broader policy which needs to change. 

Max Boot, a columnist who is also considered supportive of Israel, wrote that "Peter Beinart is more critical of Israel than I am, but this is crazy. He is not a national security threat to Israel even if the Israeli government doesn't like what he writes." 

Last month, a Jewish American philanthropist who donated millions to Israeli hospitals and schools was interrogated because security at Ben Gurion found a booklet about Palestine in his suitcase.

Last week, two left-wing Jewish American activists were detained for three hours at the border crossing between Israel and Egypt. One of the activists, Simone Zimmerma- who is one of the founding members of the Jewish anti-occupation IfNotNow- claimed she was interrogated about her political opinions.

Israel's security service, the Shin Bet, stated in response to Zimmerman's allegations that it did not recommend that she be questioned about her political leanings, but simply advised that she and activist Abigail Kirschbaum be questioned.

In May, the Shin Bet held Israeli peace activist Tanya Rubinstein at Ben-Gurion International Airport for half an hour in early May, Rubinstein told Haaretz. She is general coordinator of the Coalition of Women for Peace and was returning from a conference sponsored by the Swedish foreign ministry. Left-wing activist Yehudit Ilani was detained two weeks later on her way back from Europe after visiting a flotilla headed to Gaza in the coming weeks in her capacity as a journalist.