Analysis

While Israel Detains U.S. Student, It Also Targets Academia

Denying entry to Lara Alqasem has extinguished the light that shone over Israel as a free country and one committed to freedom of expression

Lara Alqasem, center, sitting in a courtroom prior to a hearing in Tel Aviv District Court, October 11, 2018.
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

A look at the decisions made in the case of Lara Alqasem – the American student held at Ben-Gurion Airport for over a week after Israel denied her entry despite her being in possession of a study visa – shows the lack of wisdom with which the state is handling those who want to enter.

When there is no real reason to prevent someone’s entry, the authorities cover this up by citing grounds like preventing illegal immigration, public safety and maintaining public order, when it is clear these are irrelevant. Alqasem visited Israel for two weeks at the end of 2017 and left lawfully. Her entry this time, if allowed, would be on a temporary visa, and the risk that she will try to stay illegally is imaginary. No less imaginary is the threat she poses to public safety.

>> Let me tell you about Lara Alqasem

Particularly interesting is the supposed concern of her disturbing public order. This is based entirely on what was documented in her questioning – and which she denied – that she wants to volunteer in the occupied territories and advocate for the trampled-upon and violated human rights of the Palestinians.

This sheds light on the government’s policy: Anyone who seeks to protect the Palestinians and their violated rights is suspected of threatening public order, and should therefore be turned away.

So it’s one of two things – either those responsible for this policy believe the Palestinians live in a human rights paradise. Or they believe it is forbidden to advocate for them even if their rights are violated.

I assume that even government ministers are aware that it cannot be argued that the territories are an internal Israeli issue when they are under its control but not under its sovereignty.

Anyone being refused entry to Israel is supposed to hold a senior or significant position in a boycott, divestment and sanctions organization. But we are talking here about a woman who served as vice president and chairman of a branch of a BDS organization at the University of Florida. The university has 50,000 students, but the number of members in the actual branch was – get this – between five and eight.

Israel focused, among other things, on a call by her branch to boycott the hummus products of an Israeli company. But the inquisitive eyes of those who pursue and judge boycotters did not notice that the reason for this was the company’s financial support for the Israeli army’s Golani Brigade – which, according to the branch, violates human rights. In other words, this was not a boycott of an economic entity based solely on its connection to the State of Israel – which means this does not actually fall within the scope of the so-called boycott law.

The degree to which we’re talking about a key BDS activist can be gauged by the fact that she chose to come to Israel to study at the Hebrew University. And if that’s not enough, for some reason no weight was given to her declaration to the tribunal that she’d left the organization in question a year ago; that she does not support the BDS movement; that she doesn’t plan to visit the territories; and that she would not call for a boycott of Israel or participate in any boycott activities.

What else is expected of her so she can stay in Israel? If she got down on her knees, would that satisfy Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan?

Based on the information, there was no reason to refuse her visa request in the United States – and even less not to let her into Israel after she had been given a visa, made all the necessary preparations and came here to study.

That she remains in detention because the level of risk posed by letting her go has not been calculated is particularly hard to understand. That’s not how a country that is meant to care about freedom is meant to act.

This kind of behavior is not exactly helpful to universities trying to encourage foreign students to study in Israel, either. This is the second time in recent months that university heads have had to come out against decisions by ministers. The other case was the refusal by Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis to approve the appointment of Prof. Yael Amitai to serve on the scientific leadership of the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research because of a petition she signed 13 years ago.

This is nothing but the state harassing Israeli academia, undermining its international reputation, and harming its ability to fulfill its roles and meet its objectives.

The government is working tirelessly to extinguish the prestigious light that shone over the country as a free country, one committed to freedom of expression and other individual liberties that welcomed those who sought entry.

This light is gradually going out. Israel’s enemies and boycotters ought to be grateful to the Israeli government for these actions.