'This Was the Last Straw': Why a Pro-boycott Activist Dared Israel to Arrest Her at the Airport

'I got to the point where I say, "if you want to arrest me, arrest me,"' Judy Bamberger said after Israel issued its travel ban targeting those who call for boycotts of Israel or the settlements.

Judy Bamberger. 'It’s the story that’s important, not me.'
Ilan Assayag

Laden down with three bulging suitcases, a rolled-up foam mattress and multiple plastic bags carrying gifts for Palestinian and Israeli friends, Judy Bamberger emerged triumphantly into the arrivals terminal of Ben-Gurion International Airport Tuesday night.

The 64-year-old Milwaukee native who makes her home in Australia was jubilant that she hadn’t been delayed, detained or sent back after arriving on her flight from San Francisco.

Angered by Israel’s new legislation imposing a travel ban on foreign citizens who are proponents of boycotts against Israeli institutions, Bamberger had issued a challenge to Israeli authorities, publishing letters to the editors both in Haaretz and her local newspaper in Australia, the Canberra Times, and informing all 120 members of Knesset by mail of her imminent arrival.

Her message: “I Arrive in Israel on March 21. Arrest Me.” 

In her letters, Bamberger wrote of her twice-yearly volunteer work in the West Bank.

“I work with moms, dads, kids helping them survive wars, incursions, rockets, occupation,” her letter said. “Now “sister” and “auntie” to many on the West Bank, I know they want the same things you and I want: security, safety, stability ... hope ... a decent life ... a future for their next generations.

"Settlements and the occupation deny these things to Palestinians and Israelis both. Financial, social, economic, cultural and psychological damage devastate both the occupier and the occupied.

"I don’t support the BDS movement; their objectives are too ambiguous for me. I advocate and act in boycotting all-things-settlement. I implore all self-respecting people: Boycott products from Israeli settlements. Buy products from Palestinians.”

Bamberger then helpfully provided the date and time of her incoming flight and dared the authorities to detain her.

Judy Bamberger. 'You can’t even get arrested properly, can you?'
Ilan Assayag

In the end, she said on Tuesday, brushing back her long gray hair after she shifted the luggage on her airport cart, her trip turned out to be one of the smoothest of her frequent flights to Israel.

When an Israeli friend she is staying with greeted her, he joked, “You can’t even get arrested properly, can you?"

The wiry 64-year-old is cheerfully aware that she fits the stereotype of a left-wing foreign activist. Raised in a traditional but not observant Jewish home, she loved learning Hebrew and, in her 20s, spent nine months volunteering on Kibbutz Grofit in southern Israel before returning to the U.S. and pursuing a business career. Late in life, she fell in love with an Australian man and now makes her home in Canberra – and also had a renewed political awakening when it came to Israel and the Palestinians.

She says it was triggered by reading a 2003 article in Haaretz describing the razing of 62 shops in the Palestinian village of Nazlat Issa in preparation for the separation fence, leading her to decide that she needed to travel there and see it for herself because “I couldn’t believe that we Jews would do that.”

That same year, Bamberger was interviewed by NPR as part of a group that signed up with the International Solidarity Movement to live in the West Bank and Gaza to support Palestinians at checkpoints, whose members the IDF viewed as “provocateurs and riot inciters who deliberately interfere with the army's work.”

It was that visit, when she was appalled by what she saw, that sparked what has evolved into a twice-yearly pilgrimage for Bamberger. She comes in the fall to volunteer with the Rabbis for Human Rights' West Bank olive harvest. And for the past five years, she has also visited every spring to help farmers in the village of Marda – which she also sought out after reading a Haaretz story describing the challenges its farmers face as they compete for resources with the settlement of Ariel.

The Marda farmer profiled in the article, Murad Alkhufash, she says, has become like a brother to her and his children are surrogate grandchildren. She proudly displays blanket she is knitting for his youngest child with the green, white and red colors of the Palestinian flag, which she will deliver when she comes to assist with spring planting.

Her experiences flying in and out of Israel have been varied, she says. “Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes I get interrogated.” In the interrogations, “I tell them I am coming to visit friends in Israel. I am cautious about telling them about my friends in the Palestinian West Bank because I fear for their safety and security.”

Back in Australia and when she visits the U.S., Bamberger speaks to anyone who will listen about the occupation and the Palestinians' plight in hopes it will promote change. Israel’s actions, she says, “violate everything I hold dear about Judaism and its traditions.” She says she feels the need “to be a positive role model of a Jewish person” to the Palestinian children she has gotten to know during her volunteer stints. “I’m not a soldier or settler but someone who’s loving and caring.”

She says she believes in a two-state solution “for now, because it’s what the Palestinians want” and doesn’t support full-on BDS because the official movement’s stated objectives “can be interpreted” as opposing Israel’s existence, which she supports, despite the fact that her strong objections to its policies continue to grow.

The travel ban, she says, was “the last straw, the culmination of nasty things. I got to the point where I say, ‘if you want to arrest me, arrest me.’"

If she had been detained or even deported, she says, it would have been worth it – another part of the price of her activism, which has included facing anger and alienation from family members, friends and acquaintances who dislike her pro-Palestinian activism.

“I’m hoping more people will push against this law. I’m hoping more people will have the courage and capacity to do civil disobedience, to bring to light discriminatory laws I figure if I shine enough of a light on myself when I do this, hopefully I won’t get harassed. And if I do get harassed even with the light shining, well, then I get the opportunity to tell a story. And it’s the story that’s important, not me.”