Professors from the University of Florida on Tuesday urged Israel to release alumnus Lara Alqasem, who has been held at Ben-Gurion Airport for a week due to her alleged ties to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
The lecturers described Alqasem as a deeply curious, open-minded young person who was eager to learn more about Israel as a graduate student. They also questioned Israel’s accusations of her alleged activities.
“Her predicament is nothing short of the Kafkaesque. Although she has come to Israel to study justice, she now finds herself in limbo and held in custody, accused by faceless individuals by virtue of her presumed associations with the BDS movement,” wrote Eric Kligerman, a professor of Jewish and German Studies at the university. He taught Alqasem in two Jewish studies seminars, one of them about the Holocaust.
She graduated from the university last spring.
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Alqasem has been held at the airport in Tel Aviv since last Tuesday, after claims that she supported and took part in campaigns boycotting Israel. She is being detained as she appeals the decision to deport her.
She had received a study visa for Israel and is enrolled in a master’s program in human rights and transitional justice at the Hebrew University.
Kligerman described Alqasem as “one of the most gifted and promising undergraduate students I have had the pleasure of working with at the University of Florida since I arrived here in 2001. In both seminars, Lara exhibited her passion for questions regarding the interplay between law, justice and the work of memory in relation to Jewish history.
“Far from being an advocate of BDS or a proponent of suppressing dialogue and the intellectual exchange between peoples,” he wrote, “Lara is one of the most engaging and thoughtful students I have had in my seminars on Jewish culture and thought. If anything, her presence in Israel would lead to fruitful paths of communication among its distinct and vibrant cultures.”
Kligerman wrote that it was Alqasem’s passion regarding justice and Jewish intellectual thought that prompted her to apply to the transitional justice program at the Jerusalem university – and that he encouraged her to do so.
The Hebrew University’s senate on Monday called on Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Interior Minister Arye Dery to allow Alqasem into Israel. It then took the unusual step of asking to join Alqasem’s appeal against the decision to deport her. The appeal is expected to be heard in the coming days.
The ministry’s profile of Alqasem featured several Facebook posts and a profile compiled by the controversial BDS-monitoring website Canary Mission.
Tamir Sorek, a sociology professor who taught Alqasem a course entitled “Israelis and Palestinians,” wrote that “she showed sincere curiosity and human empathy for all parties involved.
“Lara developed a desire to learn about Israel directly, through graduate studies at an Israeli university. As a young woman whose grandparents were Palestinian refugees, she had to cross considerable emotional barriers to reach this decision. It was [a decision] also criticized by BDS activists who saw the decision as a violation of the boycott they preach,” he wrote.
In her court testimony last week, Alqasem said, “I don’t support BDS. If I supported it, I wouldn’t be able to come to Israel as a student.”
Dr. Jack Kugelmass, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida, wrote: “It’s truly unfortunate that Arab visitors and Arab Israelis are repeatedly facing detention when they come to visit or try to return to Israel. Aside from the human rights concern, I face a more practical issue. I want our students to spend time in Israel. I want them to learn Hebrew. And I want them to get to know the richness and complexity of Israeli society and culture. But I cannot promote pursuing study abroad in Israel if a component of our students are excluded.
“I certainly can understand barring entry where there is a security concern,” he continued. “But this case is anything but that. Ms. Alqasem is exactly the kind of person who should be studying in Israel, learning Hebrew and meeting Israelis.”
The three professors, who wrote their own separate letters protesting her detention, noted that as someone with Palestinian roots, Alqasem could serve as a bridge between two deeply divided communities.
Erdan has questioned Alqasem’s credibility, saying that she erased her social media accounts before coming to Israel. He also criticized those supporting her in Israel, including the Hebrew University and the left-wing political party Meretz, for what he said was cooperating with “the campaign of lies of the boycott activist.”
Erdan told Army Radio on Tuesday that he would reconsider Alqasem’s entry if she publicly condemned the idea of boycotting Israel.