University Chiefs Stand by U.S. Student Held in Israel: Her Arrest Causes Country Damage

With letter to strategic affairs minister, Association of University Heads of Israel joins opposition to deny entry to Lara Alqasem over alleged support for boycott

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg and MKS Esawi Freige and Mossi Raz visit detained American student Lara Alqasem, October 7, 2018.

The Association of University Heads of Israel sent on Monday a strongly-worded letter to Srategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan warning of damage caused to Israel by the decision to prevent American student Lara Alqasem from entering the country.

The association's letter came a day after the Hebrew University of Jerusalem asked to join Alqasem’s appeal to the district court against the decision to deport her.

Members of faculty at several universities have in the past few days joined in protesting her detention at Ben-Burion Airport. The hearing on her appeal is scheduled for October 14 – the date she was set to begin her studies at Hebrew University – but her lawyers have asked for it to be held earlier.

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The Association of University Heads of Israel is a voluntary body founded by the presidents of Israel's eight research universities aimed at promoting issues shared by all the universities and presenting them to various government ministries. It is currently headed by Tel Aviv Unviersity President Joseph Klafter, who sent the letter on behalf of all the association's universities.

In the letter, Professor Klafter says that in a meeting with Minister Erdan in mid-June, it was agreed that there would “preliminary consultation” with the committee or with the host academic institution in the event that the Ministry for Strategic Affairs “felt that the invitee is involved in the call for a boycott of Israel and for its delegimitization.”  Klafter went on to say that he  was “not going to get into the reasons that led to the young woman’s detention,” but stressed that “no consultation occurred between officials from your ministry and the Hebrew University concerning her. Even after she was detained, the academic institution was not contacted about it.”

Canary Mission's profile of Lara Alqasem.

>> University of Florida professors call on Israel to release detained alumnus Alqasem

According to Klafter: “The damage caused to Israel and Israeli academia as a whole, to the Israeli universities and particularly to Israeli scientists and researchers abroad by decisions of this kind could well exceed the potential damage, if any, of permitting her to enter Israel.” Klafter added that the working teams of the Strategic Affairs Ministry should be instructed “to make prior contact with the host academic institution or researcher inviting international students or foreign scientists to Israel – before an order to detain them at the airport is issued. The same kind of procedure should be used by officials of the Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry and the Shin Bet at your instruction – in order to minimize the damage to Israel’s reputation and its image in the world of academia.” 

The committee chairman’s letter makes it clear that the opposition to Erdan and his ministry’s decision regarding Alqasem goes beyond Hebrew University. On Monday, the university senate passed a resolution saying that university is “a place for the exchange of ideas, and for acquiring and creating knowledge. It is a place that does not shy from disagreements and is pleased to hear multiple voices. The minister’s decision not to permit the student’s entry solely because of her views constitutes a threat to what the institution of the university represents.” It further said that Alqasem’s decision to study in Israel “attests foremost to her reservations about the boycott. As does the testimony of researchers who know her. The minister’s move – which raises questions about the independence that Israeli academia is given by government policy – actually has the effect of bolstering any such boycott.”

Sources say that the Hebrew University recently asked the Council on Higher Education to voice support for Alqasem’s right to study at the university – since she was accepted to a master’s program there and obtained the necessary visa from the Israeli consulate in Miami. The council has yet to respond, sources say. The council is headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and has gradually been losing its independent standing over the past few years.

The Ministry for Strategic Affairs said that at the meeting with the university heads, “Minister Erdan proposed having a mechanism for consultation and cooperation between the ministry and the Committee of University Heads, and at the conclusion of the discussion, it was decided that ‘a consultation mechanism with members of academia would be considered in instances when it is possible.’ The ministry did not commit to any preliminary consultation, contrary to what the committee’s letter says.”

The Committee of University Heads responded: “We do not comment on internal correspondence between us and the minister’s office.” The Council on Higher Education has yet to comment. 

Earlier Tuesday, Erdan said that would reconsider his office's stance on denying Alqasem entrance if she publicly condemned boycott of Israel.

Last week, Lara Alqasem was barred from entering the country despite obtaining a student visa from the Israeli constulate in Miami, because Israeli authorities claim she supported and took part in campaigns boycotting Israel. 

The ministry's profile of Alqasem was composed of several Facebook posts and a profile compiled by the controversial right-wing website Canary Mission.

Alqasem appealed the decision and has since been detained at Ben-Gurion Airport pending a final ruling on her case. Her first appeal was denied. The second appeal is expected to be heard in the coming days.

Speaking on Israeli army radio, Erdan said that if "Alqasem comes forward tomorrow morning with her own voice, not with all sorts of lawyers' wisecracking and statements that could be construed this way or another – and declares that supporting BDS, she thinks today is illegitimate and she regrets what she did on this matter, we will consider our stance."

In her testimony to the appeals court 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.”

Erdan questioned Alqasem's credibility, saying she erased her social network accounts before coming to Israel. He also criticized the "far-left, Meretz members," as well as the Hebrew University, for cooperating with "the campaign of lies of the boycott activist."