Opinion

This Is the Real Game Israel Is Playing With the BDS Movement. It’s Terrifying

You thought Israel’s increasingly populist, repressive government and the far-left Israel boycotter extremists were opposite extremes? They’ve never agreed more: Neither want Lara Alqasem to study at Hebrew University

Lara Alqasem

Lara Alqasem, the American student seeking to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, currently detained by Israeli authorities who refused to honor her visa, is the subject of a file on the highly controversial right-wing Canary Mission website.

It is quite lengthy - extending over 1,500 words across four pages. But the verbosity of the file masks a paucity of evidence. Because here are (quoted verbatim) the only elements of that file specifically attributable to Ms. Alqasem:

Lara Alqasem [Lara Lee Alqasem] is the 2016-2017 president and primary contact of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Florida (UF).

Alqasem has been a member of SJP UF since 2014 and has previously served as the group’s vice president.

On April 18, 2016, Alqasem was involved in an event promoting the boycott of Sabra Hummus as part of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement.

She was President of Students for Justice in Palestine. She "was involved in an event" targeting Sabra Hummus. That’s it. Less than 70 words.

The remainder of the file, the other 1,430 words of it, is a smorgasbord of sprawling guilt-by-association. 

University of Florida SJP posted a video which featured a speaker who said a thing which bit the cat that ate the goat…it’s chad gadya, but for Palestinian advocacy. Who couldn’t be ensnared under these standards? Some of the actions Canary flags occurred before Ms. Alqasem even arrived on campus. 

None of them come close to suggesting she was in any way a "leader" of the BDS cause. One would think that the fact that she is seeking to enroll in an Israeli academic program would be proof enough of that

There are, to be sure, BDS leaders who seek the destruction of Israel. We know this because they’ve said as much. But that’s exactly it: we know this because they’ve said as much. There’s specific evidence, relating to what they’ve said and what they’ve done. 

There’s no evidence that Ms. Alqasem holds views remotely similar to the one’s which putatively justify labeling some BDS leaders security risks, and simply intoning "security threat" as a rote reflex justification for deporting a scholar is the hallmark of a police state.

The credulity with which the assertion of "threat" has been greeted, when juxtaposed against the dearth of the evidence backing it up, is terrifying in its own right.

Yet this is where we are. Ms. Alqasem remains in detention because the presiding judge in her case thinks we need more time to assess what "threat" she poses to Israel’s security. Who knew that a single case of "involvement" in an anti-hummus protest was all it would take to bring Israel to its knees? If only Arafat had realized. Nasser must be spinning in his grave.

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Ms. Alqasem’s case is broadly symbolic of a fight "against" BDS that has mutated past the point of recognition. I put "against" in quotations quite deliberately - most obviously, because stopping someone who wants to study in Israel from doing so (on the grounds that she once objected to Sabra Hummus) can’t be characterized as opposing BDS in any meaningful sense. 

But it’s worse than that: What we’re seeing in this case more clearly than perhaps any other is the tacit alliance between far-left BDS activists and Israel’s increasingly illiberal right-wing government. 

In the present case, after all, the Israeli government has lined up decisively against one of its own universities (Hebrew University has vociferously backed its admitted student) and against the principle of free academic exchange. Which is another way of saying it has, in effect, joined the BDS cause.

Who needs to deny a letter of recommendation to a student seeking a study-abroad experience in Israel when one can just rely on Israeli Ministry of Public Security to send wayward students home?

Protestors wave Palestinian flags as they demonstrate in Paris against the U.S. embassy opening and Gaza killings. May 15, 2018
THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

The fact is, for some time now the Israeli government and BDS movement have been operating out of the same playbook in pursuit of similar ends. As we’ve been told in innumerable crowing press releases, the economic impact of BDS on Israeli society has been miniscule; as a means of putting tangible hurt on day-to-day Israeli life, or endangering Israel’s concrete security needs, BDS has been a catastrophic failure.

What BDS has done, at least in part, is weaken and undermine the standing of Israeli cultural institutions - academia, theater, the arts – which, not coincidentally are the locus of its liberal heart.

People see this and their immediate instinct is to say, "How counterproductive!" To the Israeli government, they say: "Don’t you see how blocking open academic exchange helps the BDS cause?" To the BDS activists, they say, "Don’t you see how targeting Israeli universities means undermining the most liberal and pro-Palestinian segments of Israeli society?"

And to both, they say: "Now, more than ever, Israeli universities need our backing and support - and the decision to block an American student from enrolling targets those Israeli institutions as much as anyone else."

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But this objection misses the actual game being played. 

Yes, if the Israel’s government objective is to undermine BDS, then blocking someone like Ms. Alqasem from entering the country until she issues a patently coerced show-confession is obviously counterproductive. 

But if the goal is to put the squeeze on liberal social, political, and cultural institutions - academia foremost among them - then the government’s behavior is quite productive.

BDS may not tangibly threaten the current Israeli political order, but Israeli liberals actually compete in elections. Using BDS as a means of undermining them, as a rallying point for right-wing populism and as an excuse for illiberal repression, is too tempting a tool to give up.

Miri Regev at a press conference following the Argentinian football team’s cancelled participation in a match in Israel. 6 June 2018.
Meged Gozani

Likewise, if the BDS movement was seeking to bolster progressive elements in Israel who might chart a new political direction, then targeting Israeli universities for isolation and sanction is a foolish choice (again, Hebrew University is - along with Ms. Alqasem - the victim of Israeli governmental illiberalism in this case. It deserves solidarity against government predation, not further isolation.) 

But just as these institutions represent potential challengers to Likud-dominance, so too are they the primary competitors against the extreme, maximalist, and uncompromising BDS core. And again, if the goal is to dispose of those competitors - to wither liberal Zionism away and make the choice a stark one between which "River to the Sea" ideology you prefer - then there are few directions more productive than squeezing the life from Israeli academia and other sites from where a liberal Israeli alternative might emerge.

So a misbegotten alliance emerges: the Israeli government and the BDS core may not agree on much, but they certainly agree that Lara Alqasem shouldn’t go to Hebrew University to study. But this connection is more than just an idiosyncratic odd-coupling. It is reflective of a broader, and more dangerous, decay in the basic liberal ideals that animate free societies.

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In all my time opposing BDS, it has been an article of faith among fellow activists that BDS first and foremost reflects a lack of knowledge. BDS is, these activists maintained, the product of simply not knowing Israel in its full complexity; if only those attracted to BDS could go and see and talk and debate, many (not all) would have their views changed. 

It is the nefarious genius of the BDS movement that it insulates itself from its own undoing: by boycotting Israel, the movement preserves the ignorance necessary to make boycotting Israel seem like a valid proposition.

This is the liberal heart of a principled opposition to BDS. It stems from a committed faith in the power of free exchange and open debate; that bad ideas are combated through better ideas - "more speech, not enforced silence." BDS stifles that exchange, and we oppose BDS as we oppose all "enforced silences."

Demonstration at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport in support of Lara Alqasem. 8 October 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

But this basic liberal hope is less and less popular these days. Now, BDS and anti-BDS join under the same banner: fear of open debate, terror at what might be said or heard if the "wrong" sorts are allowed to talk. A terrible alliance, joined in twinned illiberalism. No wonder they fit together so nicely.

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Lara Alqasem is caught: caught between those who fear what she’d hear if she went to Israel, and those who fear what she’d say if she arrived in Israel. 

I have no fear. Even if I believed the worst about Lara Alqasem - far worse than what is actually supported by the evidence - I still have faith that when ideas are freely exchanged, bad ideas are beaten by better ideas.

True opponents of BDS welcome, indeed cheer, the prospect that people like Lara Alqasem want to study in Israel, for we have every confidence that the free encounter with Israeli society - with its people, with its ideas, with its arguments - will change people for the better.

The BDS movement never believed in that ideal. And now, it seems, the Israeli government has joined them.

David Schraub is a lecturer in law and senior research fellow at the California Constitution Center, UC Berkeley School of Law. He blogs regularly at The Debate Link. Twitter: @schraubd