At first glance, Israel’s sweeping travel ban passed by the Knesset on Monday night essentially changes nothing. The authorities at Israel’s borders and airports already have complete discretion to keep anyone out, and numerous prospective visitors have been blacklisted and turned away because they are believed to be hostile to Israel.
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They don’t need this law, which spells out support of boycotting of any Israeli institution or any area under its control as grounds to block their entrance as visitor.
But, actually, it changes everything. The statement it makes and the message it sends - that those who so deeply object to the occupation that they choose not to buy settlement products - are no longer welcome to visit, see and experience their country is a drastic shift in Israel’s relationship with the outside world.
Historically, those who believe in Israel’s value to the world, despite the conflicts and problems, have always preached that seeing is believing.
I include myself in that group. When I’ve encountered anyone abroad who want to argue about Israel’s policies, even those who object to the state’s very existence as a result of the occupation, my response is always the same: Challenge and an invitation.
“Well, have you been to Israel?” I ask them at an opportune moment in our conversation, whether my counterpart is on the left or the right, passionately pro-settlement or anti-occupation.
More often than not, the answer is no and the person in question has never been to either Israel or Palestine and they are basing their political positions on what they’ve been seen or told. Then, I tell them, “well, come and see for yourself. Then decide”
My bias is that until someone has been here, seen, and experienced what happens in this agonizingly complex nation and reach their conclusions based on what they’ve observed with their eyes and heard from actual Israelis and Palestinians in their home environment, the value of their opinions is limited.
As an added bonus, the very fact that they took the time and expense to make the trip convinces me that they truly care.The opposite of love, after all, is not hatred - but distance and detachment.
Until now, the government of Israel and those who support it have shared that approach. The Israeli government and non-governmental advocacy organizations have invested millions - probably billions - on the assumption that the country and its citizens tell their own story best and those they want to convince need to be brought here.
It is the belief that underlies Birthright Israel, and it is the reason the government funds trips for opinion-makers, show business celebrities and sports stars on visits.
It is why American Jewish organizations from AIPAC, Jewish federations and J Street bring power brokers from Washington to tour the country and speak with the people, inviting them to witness and participate in the free, open and dynamic debates in Israeli society.
All these programs are predicated on the assumption what is happening on the ground is far more nuanced than the slogans shouted at rallies on American campuses or at organizational meetings.
While the new law impacts everyone - Jewish and non-Jewish - its effect on the new generation on the Israel-Diaspora relationship will be surely particularly profound.
Recognizing that many in their community have disputes with Israeli government policies, many mainstream American Jewish organizations have shifted their rhetoric from “Israel advocacy” to “Israel engagement” in an effort to bring those from across the ideological spectrum closer to the country.
A few years ago, at a session on “Israel Engagement” at a Jewish organization conference, I spoke about it with Akiva Tor, head of the bureau of world Jewish affairs at the Foreign Ministry.
He said that even when “engaging” isn’t always a harmonious and pleasant experience, he believed most Israelis preferred it over distance and alienation.
“It’s completely clear to us that that’s the meaning of the word ‘relationship.’ It’s not always easy.”
Now, for the first time, Israel is rejecting Diaspora Jews who are engaged, who have a relationship with Israel, who care about her fate so deeply they are trying to do something about it in the form of actively choosing not to support the settlements.
With this new law, the message to young Jews, and the rest of the world is no longer: “Come, see for yourself, let’s have a discussion - even an argument in which I try to change your views. We know it’s complicated, but let’s not end our relationship.”
Instead, it is: “Stay away. If you don’t agree with us, there is no place for you here.”