Israel's Supreme Court Grants Lara Alqasem's Appeal; She Will Be Allowed to Enter the Country

Court slams detention as an 'extreme and dangerous step, which could lead to the crumbling of the pillars upon which democracy stands' ■ Minister at heart of controversy: Supreme Court just rendered anti-boycott law meaningless

Lara Alqasem after Israel's Supreme Court overturned her deportation at Ben-Gurion International Airport, October 18, 2018.
Dudu Bachar

U.S. student Lara Alqasem will be allowed to enter Israel after the Supreme Court accepted on Thursday her appeal against the decision to prevent her entry. Alqasem, whom the state claimed was a BDS activist, was held over two weeks in a detainment center at Ben-Gurion International Airport despite receiving a student visa from an Israeli consulate prior to her arrival.

Alqasem, 22, was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport upon her arrival on October 2 after she was flagged as a BDS activist. Alqasem, who has a student visa and is enrolled in a master’s program in human rights at the Hebrew University, has been detained ever since.

"I'm relieved at the court’s decision and incredibly grateful for the work of my amazing and tireless lawyers Yotam Ben Hillel and Leora Bechor as well as the support of my family and friends. I will be happy to say more when I've had a chance to rest and process," Alqasem told Haaretz following her release.

"Since the appellant's actions do not raise satisfactory cause to bar her to entry to Israel, the inevitable impression is that invalidating the visa given to her was due to the political opinions she holds," read the verdict. "If this is truly the case, then we are talking about an extreme and dangerous step, which could lead to the crumbling of the pillars upon which democracy in Israel stands," the verdict continued.

Strategic Affairs Minister Erdan.
\ Moti Milrod

"The Law of Entry to Israel is intended to protect the state's sovereignty, and the public's safety and security. It does not have a component of penalty, or revenge for previous bad behavior," Justice Neal Hendel said.

"Despite the obstacles in her way the appellant insists on her right to study at the Hebrew University. This conduct is not in keeping, in an understatement, with the thesis that the she's an undercover boycott activist," he continued.

"The Interior Ministry has openly admitted that it does not have any evidence of the appellant's engaging in boycott activity since April 2017, except for mysterious 'indications' whose essence hasn't been clarified and regarding which no evidence has been submitted," Neal noted.

"The material submitted regarding the appellant's activity in the SJP organization shows that even at that stage the boycott activity was minor and limited in character," Neal added. "There's no doubt the SJP cell indeed supported boycotting Israel – and this position must be roundly condemned. It is also presumable that the appellant, who played a role in the cell and for three years was one of its few members, was partner to this unworthy activity. However, it is impossible to ignore the cell's sporadic and relatively minor character. In itself, it certainly was not one of the prominent boycott organizations and it is doubtful whether the appellant could be seen as filling the criteria [required in the law?] even when she had a position in it."

U.S. student Lara Alqasem attends a hearing at Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 17, 2018.
AFP

Neal continued, saying that "alongside the random indications of the appellant's involvement in BDS activity during her studies, it is impossible to ignore the testimonies of her lecturers about her complex approach, the curiosity she displayed toward Israel and Judaism and her readiness to conduct an open, respectful dialogue – which is in stark contrast to the boycott idea."

"The struggle against the BDS movement and others like it is a worthy cause. The state is permitted, not to say obliged, to protect itself from discrimination and the violent silencing of the political discourse. It may take steps against the boycott organizations and their activists. In this case, preventing the appellant's entry does not advance the law's purpose and clearly deviates from the bounds of reasonability," Neal concluded.

Justice Anat Baron said that "there was no place to deny the appellant the entry visa she had been granted, because clearly she doesn't now and hasn't for a long time engaged in boycotting Israel, not to mention engaging in 'active, continuing and substantial' work in this matter. The decision to deny the appellant's entry visa is unreasonable to the extent that it requires intervention."

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"Since the appellant's deeds do not constitute sufficient cause to ban her entry to Israel, the inevitable impression is that her visa was denied due to her political views. If this is indeed the case, then this is an extreme, dangerous step, which could lead to the crumbling of the supporting pillars on which Israeli democracy is built," Baron said.

"The appellant's very desire to be part of the academic studies in Israel is contrary to the idea of imposing a boycott on Israel, not to mention an academic boycott. This decision itself could even cause damage to Israel's image, thus attaining the opposite goal of the one intended by the legislator," Baron continued.

"We don't know what's in anyone's heart in general and what's in the appellant's heart in particular and how she'd act in the future, and after she returns to her country. But these considerations are irrelevant to our case, because according to the law we must focus on the appellant's acts in the present – and not on her opinions, thoughts or speculations about her future," Baron concluded.

Justice Uzi Vogelman said that "a call to boycott Israel was published by the SJP organization, of which the appellant was a member, and not by the appellant herself."

"The law was intended to ban the entry of people expected to spread the boycott doctrine during their stay in Israel…the appellant's case does not qualify for this clause, since there's no argument that she has ceased her activity in the SJP," he continued.

"It appears that in the concrete circumstances of this case the appellant's studies in the Hebrew University will help to bolster Israeli academia's struggle against the boycott," Vogelman concluded.

Alqasem's attorney, Yotam Ben-Hillel, told Haaretz that the "The Supreme Court’s decision is a victory for free speech, academic freedom, and the rule of law. Israel has the right to control its borders, but that right does not give the [sic] Ministry of Interior unchecked power to turn away anyone it deems unwanted."

Ben-Hillel said that by taking a stand, "Lara has ensured that no one else should be denied the right to enter Israel based on sloppy Google searches and dossiers by shadowy smear groups. We argued that the state’s decision is a gross misapplication of the law, and the Court agreed. Lara’s case proves that thought-policing has no place in a democracy."

Erdan lamented the ruling, calling it "a great victory for BDS,' and added it nullified the law forbidding boycott activists from entering Israel. 

The strategic affairs minister said the court's decision "attests to a lack of understanding of the modus operandi of the BDS organizations, and has harmed the State of Israel's ability to fight boycott activists who harm all of us."

According to the verdict and the logic of the judges, Erdan said, "Omar Barghouti, the founder of the international boycott movement who studied at Tel Aviv University and today spreads hate all over the world against Israel, was supposed to have become our passionate supporter simply by studying at an Israeli academic institute."

"Once again, the Supreme Court castrates the substance of Knesset legislation and the intention of the legislator and takes authorities which are in the hands of the executive authority," Erdan said, claiming that the court underestimated the extreme and anti-Semitic nature of the organization in which Alqasem had a senior role.

"It ignored that she erased and hid her activity on social media before coming to Israel and opened a hatch for all boycott activists worldwide to come to Israel and plead they 'currently' do not support a boycott so they may enter," he said.

Erdan asserted the ruling will "not loosen our grip and we will examine the necessary changes in the law and the criteria to close the aperture opened by the Supreme Court. The principle that must be maintained is that whoever acted to harm the State of Israel and its citizens should not enter its gates."

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Tourism Minister Yariv Levin called the court's decision "shameful" and said it continued to "act against democracy and against the clear legislation of the Knesset, when they create a 'green route' for boycott activists to enter the country and continue to harm the state."

Levin called on the Hebrew University to retract their support of Alqasem, and cancel her enrollment.

The Hebrew University welcomed the verdict, releasing a statement saying it is "Happy Lara Alqasem will join thousands of students and begin her studies in the in the Master's Program in Human Rights and Transitional Justice in the Faculty of Law."

Interior Minister Arye Dery called the "decision to keep in Israel the student who openly acts against Israel is a disgrace. Where is our national dignity? Would she have dared to act against the state and demand to stay and study there in the United States as well? I will look into ways of preventing such an incident from happening again."

Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg said that "this is an important victory in the struggle for Israel as a liberal democracy, free of the thought police. Sanity has triumphed today over those who tried to run with their heads into the wall without looking sideways. This is an important ruling that strengthens Israel and Israeli academia, proving to the whole world that Israel isn't being run by Erdan's hysterical craziness."

"I've been following Alqasem from her first day in Israel, and it was clear that this entire legal and public saga could have been avoided had Erdan chosen the good of Israel instead of his own political gain," Meretz MK Mossi Raz said. "Israel's government is wasting resources on legal procedures that damage our good name. Regrettably it appears we are in store for many of them. I commend the Supreme Court's decision. There are judges in Jerusalem."

Erdan said Alqasem can enter Israel on the condition that she renounce her support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Erdan has also claimed that Alqasem is not being detained because she is free to return to the United States.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the request to hear Alqasem's appeal. Alqasem's lawyer Yotam Ben Hillel asked Justices Neal Hendel, Anat Baron and Uzi Vogelman to consider the student visa originally issued to her by the Israeli consulate in Miami. 

The justices asked Ben Hillel if his client currently supports a boycott of Israel and whether she is committed to refrain from calling for a boycott. Ben Hillel said that his client had explicitly stated at earlier proceedings in the case that she is not a BDS activist, and would not call for an anti-Israel boycott.

Last week, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected Alqasem's appeal, saying it could not justify intervening in the case and that the government's decision to detain her was reasonable, echoing a similar decision previously made by an administrative appeals court.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where Alqasem was accepted as a graduate student, asked to join the appeal in an unusual step taken by the university.

A representative for the university told the court Wednesday that the university "chose to join the appeal because of the importance we place on taking in foreign students and researchers,” and raised the possibility that barring Alqasem from Israel “would play into the hands of those who claim that we are an unenlightened country.”

The university senate had called on Erdan and Dery to allow her into Israel. Erdan said the senate's support of Alqasem was "another politicization of the Israeli academia for the sake of someone who actively works to harm the State of Israel and its citizens."

Also on Thursday, the university's senior faculty met to discuss possible moves to protest if the Supreme Court rejects her appeal. “Let’s not delude ourselves. They’ve declared war against us – against us as an institution and what we represent,” said Prof. Tallay Ornan of the university’s archeology and art history departments. “This is not a personal issue. This is a declaration of war on what we are working for: to broaden knowledge, freedom of information, recognizing the other, and enlightenment.”