Israel's Shin Bet Detains Peter Beinart at Ben-Gurion Airport Over Political Activity

The Jewish-American journalist wrote that he was pulled aside for questioning upon entering Israel ■ Netanyahu says he was told detention was 'administrative mistake' and 'Israel welcomes all'

Peter Beinart at the Haaretz Peace Conference in Tel Aviv, November 2015.
David Bachar

Peter Beinart, a leading Jewish-American journalist, was detained for questioning at the Ben-Gurion International Airport while entering Israel, according to an article he published on Monday in The Forward.

Beinart, a regular columnist for the publication 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. 

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.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to news of Beinart's detention. A statement released by his office said that he "heard of Mr. Beinart's questioning at Ben Gurion airport and immediately spoke with Israel's security forces to inquire how this happened. He was told it was an administrative mistake. Israel is an open society which welcomes all--critics and supporters alike. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where people voice their opinions freely and robustly."

Meanwhile, Israeli opposition head Tzipi Livni made a request that lawmakers urgently convene to discuss the plethora of detentions of left-wing activists in Israel. Other lawmakers asked to meet with the Shin Bet chief to talk about the issue. 

According to Beinart's account of the events, he and his family came to Israel to attend the bat mitzvah, and when their passports were scanned at the airport immigration point, he was asked to step aside and was taken to a separate room. There, he wrote, he was interrogated for about an hour by an unnamed Israeli security official, who asked questions that mostly related to his political writing and activities.

>> Analysis: Beinart’s airport interrogation proves something is rotting in the State of Bibi

"The session ended when my interrogator asked me, point blank, if I was planning to attend another protest," Beinart wrote. "I answered truthfully: No. With that I was sent back to the holding room."

He then called Gaby Lasky, an Israeli human rights attorney, and made her aware of his situation. A few minutes later, he was released and allowed to enter the country together with the rest of his family.

Beinart described the ordeal as a "Jewish experience" for his children to remember. He added that he did not feel "scared or victimized," but that the conversation was "depressing." He further noted that his interrogator "established no consistent or objective standard for my detention. His standard was whether I planned to cause trouble—trouble meaning whatever he and his superiors wanted it to mean."

Beinart's interrogation is the latest in a series of incidents at Israel's border entry and exit points that involved political questioning of Jewish Americans.

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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.

Beinart mentioned Zimmerman's detention and questioning in his article. He described Zimmerman's questioning as part of an overall trend in Israel, noting that "the day before, Netanyahu all but incited violence against the New Israel Fund's director in Israel."

The journalist also referenced the Israeli government's passage of the contentious nation-state law as part of a process in which, in his view, "Israel is getting uglier."

>> Editorial: The Shin Bet state is here

Yael Patir, the Israel Director at J Street, responded to the Beinart's detention on Monday, saying that "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."

"The clerks of the Immigration Authority and Shin Bet interrogators become, against their will, the obeyers of a regime that uses them as a tool for political persecutions," she continued.

"If the government of Israel wants some sort of connection to the vast majority of  U.S. Jewry, as well as to preserve the Israeli democracy, the political interrogations ought to stop entirely," Patir concluded.

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.

The Shin Bet responded to the report on Beinart's arrest as well, saying that it operates only according to law and for the state's security. "Mr. Beinart's detention was carried out as a result of an error of judgment by the professional official at the scene."

The Shin Bet also told Haaretz it was "sorry for the unpleasantness Mr. Beinart experienced. The Shin Bet chief has instructed that the case be looked into."