The Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Ministry is using simple Google searches, mainly the controversial American right-wing website Canary Mission, to bar political activists from entering Israel, according to documents obtained by Haaretz.
The internal documents, some of which were submitted to the appeals tribunal in the appeal against the deportation of American student Lara Alqasem, show that officials briefly interviewed Alqasem, 22, at Ben-Gurion International Airport on her arrival Tuesday night, then passed her name on for “continued handling” by the ministry because of “suspicion of boycott activity.” Israel recently passed a law banning the entry of foreign nationals who engage in such activity.
The ministry then sent the officials at the airport an official report classified “sensitive” about Alqasem’s supposed political activities, which included information from five links – four from Facebook and one, the main source, from the Canary Mission site, which follows pro-Palestinian activists on U.S. campuses.
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A decision on Alqasem’s appeal against her deportation was expected Thursday afternoon.
Canary Mission, now the subject of major controversy in the American Jewish community, has been collecting information since 2015 about BDS activists at universities, and sends the information to potential employers. Pro-Israel students have also criticized their activities.
This week, the American Jewish news site The Forward reported that at least $100,000 of Canary Mission’s budget had been contributed through the San Francisco Jewish Federation and the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which donates to Jewish education. The donation was handed to a group registered in Beit Shemesh called Megamot Shalom, specifically stating that it was for Canary Mission. A few hours after the report was published, the federation announced that it would no longer fund the group.
Over the past few months some of the Americans who have been detained for questioning upon arrival in Israel have reported that they were questioned about their political activity based on “profiles” about them published on Canary Mission. The documents obtained by Haaretz now show clearly that the site is indeed the No. 1 source of information for the decision to bar entry to Alqasem.
According to the links that were the basis for the decision to suspend the student visa that Alqasem had been granted by the Israeli Consulate in Miami, she was president of the Florida chapter of a group called Students for Justice in Palestine, information quoted directly from the Canary Mission. The national arm of that organization, National Students for Justice in Palestine, is indeed on the list of 20 groups that the Strategic Affairs Ministry compiled as criteria to invoke the anti-boycott law. However, Alqasem was not a member at the national level, but rather a local activist. She told the appeals tribunal that the local chapter had only a few members.
The ministry also cited as a reason for barring Alqasem’s entry to Israel a Facebook post showing that “In April 2016 [her] chapter conducted an ongoing campaign calling for the boycott of Sabra hummus, the American version of Hummus Tzabar, because Strauss, which owns Tzabar, funds the Golani Brigade.” Alqasem told the tribunal that she had not taken an active part in this campaign. Another link was about a writers’ petition calling on a cultural center to refuse sponsorship by Israel for its activities. Yet another post, by the local Students for Justice in Palestine, praised the fact that an international security company had stopped operations in Israel. None of these links quoted Alqasem.
She told the tribunal that she is not currently a member of any pro-boycott group and would not come to study for her M.A. in Israel if she were.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry report on Alqasem is so meager that its writers mentioned it themselves: “It should be noted that in this case we rely on a relatively small number of sources found on the Internet.” Over the past few months Haaretz has been following up reports of this nature that have been the basis for denying entry to activists, and found that in many other cases the material consisted of superficial Google searches and that the ministry, by admission of its own senior officials, does not collect information from non-public sources.
The ministry’s criteria for invoking the anti-boycott law state clearly that in order to bar entry to political activists, they must “hold senior or significant positions in the organizations,” including “official senior roles in prominent groups (such as board members).”
But the report on Alqasem does not indicate that she met the criterion of “senior” official in the national movement, nor was this the case for other young people questioned recently at the airport. In some cases it was the Shin Bet security service that questioned people due to past participation in activities such as demonstrations in the territories, and not BDS activities.
“Key activists,” according to the ministry’s criteria, also means people who “consistently take part in promoting BDS in the framework of prominent delegitimization groups or independently, and not, for example, an activist who comes as part of a delegation.” In Alqasem’s case, however, her visa was issued after she was accepted for study at Hebrew University.