Opinion

Israel's Message to the Liberal Diaspora Jews Who Support It: Shape Up or Stay Out

I've advocated for Israel my whole life. But because I also care about human rights and equality, I am now getting the message that I'm not welcome in the country

A kippah that combines the Israeli and American flags (illustrative).
Emil Salman

I’m a proud Jew with a deep love for Israel. I’ve got a lifelong résumé of engaged Jewish activism to prove it. But in today’s Israel, that may not be enough to let me in the country.

My support for Israel and Jewish causes began at an early age. I was born and raised in an AIPAC-loving, liberal American Jewish Zionist family. At 19, I was arrested at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., while protesting for the Soviet Union to free its Jewish citizens. After college, I was the second woman to be elected head of the World Union of Jewish Students. I sat on the board of the World Jewish Congress and attended Jewish Agency meetings. I advocated for Ethiopian Jews to be returned to Israel. I walked with East German Jewish students through the Brandenburg Gate to meet their West German Jewish counterparts as the Berlin Wall was literally being torn down. I led a delegation of South African Jewish Students to a formal meeting with the African National Congress in Johannesburg after it was unbanned.

Later, I made aliyah. I took Israeli citizenship. I learned fluent Hebrew. I was adopted by wonderful people who became my family. I made Israel my home. I lived through wars and terror attacks and intifadas, just like other Israelis.

Now back in the U.S., I keep a kosher home. My children attend Jewish day school. We attend synagogue regularly. We celebrate Shabbat every week.

And yet, I’m not sure what would happen if I were to visit Israel today.

Actually, I think I do know: I’m pretty sure I would fail the government’s new rapidly evolving – or devolving – litmus test. I’m afraid that I, too, would receive a special “welcome” into the country from the Shin Bet security service and would, at minimum, be interrogated at the border.

You see, while I love and feel connected to Israel, I disagree with many of the Israeli government’s political stances. I am an international human rights attorney. I believe that Israel must end the occupation, reject the growing theocracy undermining democracy, and embrace all of its citizens in a welcoming pluralistic society. I do not support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, although I understand why some people do.

This, too, is my résumé: I spent several years working for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, working for women’s rights, equality for Arab citizens of Israel, LGBT adoption rights, freedom of expression and human rights education. For 13 years I co-directed a fellowship program with the New Israel Fund that enabled Jewish and Palestinian Israeli lawyers to study human rights law at American University’s law school, helping to shape a large cadre of lawyers who advocate for a more just Israeli society. I serve on the board of directors of B’Tselem USA.

I celebrate Israel’s achievements, but I am also vocal in condemning unjust actions by the Israeli government and calling for social change. I do so from a place of deep concern, shame, fear and love. I also do so because it is not only my right to criticize the government, it is my responsibility to do so as a citizen and as a member of the Jewish people.

But now, as commentators (like Peter Beinart) or activists (like Simone Zimmerman) or philanthropists (like Meyer Koplow), all far more well-known than myself, are detained at the border, I feel compelled to speak out for those of us who are not as famous and who may also be subject to questioning; those of us whose loving critiques are now viewed by the government as some kind of enemy propaganda.

There are many people like me – with similar résumés – who have spent years working to support and build the State of Israel. We believe deeply in democracy and the power of dissent. We are engaged in Jewish organizations in the Diaspora, in human rights movements and social justice organizations both in Israel and abroad, and now we are fearful about what would happen if we were to come to visit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Beinart’s interrogation was “an administrative error.” But what about the others – those we know about and those we don’t?

What about Netanyahu’s Trump-like personal attacks on liberal activists like New Israel Fund’s Israel director Mickey Gitzin? Was that an “error,” too?

Was the supremacy and exclusion legislated through the Nation-State Law an “error”? How about excluding gay men from surrogacy? Or the pre-dawn interrogation of a Conservative rabbi by the police because he conducted weddings not sanctioned by the rabbinate?

Nobody seems to be calling any of these an “error.” Mostly because they are not.

The politics of fear are a powerful motivator, and they serve to manipulate people on many levels. These actions have been taken to send a clear message to liberal activists and Diaspora Jews – people like me: Shape up or don’t come. These new policies – while not exactly new for Palestinian Israelis or non-Jewish visitors or residents – are clearly aimed at quashing dissent, at home and abroad. Even if you’re an Israeli citizen, or Jewish, or rich, or famous, if you disagree with the current government’s policies, you no longer have the government’s protection. And you are no longer welcome.

This cannot stand.

As these increasingly autocratic policies continue to take hold, Israel will, in fact, be alienating her staunchest supporters – not only allied governments, but maybe even more importantly, people like me. And that will create a crisis not only for Israel, but for the entire Jewish people.

Due to my views, I suppose I must be on an Israeli government list somewhere (or I will be now).

I am grateful I brought my children to Israel last summer to visit our family and friends. I hadn’t realized then that only a year later, that instead of the Kotel, my next visit might take place within the four walls of an interrogation room.

Hadar Harris is an international human rights attorney who focuses on civil and political rights issues, freedom of expression and gender equality. She lives in Washington, D.C.