Opinion

The Ban on Lara Alqasem Is a Gift for BDS, and a Disaster for Israel

What exactly is the threat posed by allowing a 22 year-old American student to study at Hebrew University? How will she harm the economy? Damage the Mideast's strongest military? What's so frightening about someone who wants to learn more about Israelis and Palestinians?

American student Lara Alqasem appears at the district court in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 11, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Dear Minister Erdan:

I am aware that, as Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs and Public Security, your portfolio includes managing Israel’s response to BDS. Over the years, you and other officials of the Israeli government have met with J Street and with other liberal Jewish leaders to ask for advice on countering the global boycott divestment and sanctions movement.

Allow me to say to you today, in no uncertain terms: What you are doing in the case of Lara Alqasem is not only morally wrong, it is the most un-strategic and damaging move that the state could make if it hopes to minimize support for BDS and promote Israel’s interests and standing around the world.

>> Israel's Ministry of Silly Affairs 

J Street is a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that supports a two-state solution and opposes occupation. We oppose the BDS movement because it doesn’t recognize the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, it doesn’t support a two-state solution and it makes no distinction in its fight between occupation and the existence of Israel itself.

As progressives who fight for democratic values, diplomacy and peace, we are well-positioned on campuses and in our communities to make the case against boycotts – even as we oppose many of the policies that your government is implementing.

We firmly believe that the only way for Israel to effectively counter BDS, on campus and beyond, is to pursue and reach a two-state peace agreement that resolves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and brings an end to the occupation. 

Targeting BDS supporters - or those who merely have critical political views - and banning them from entering Israel does not counter their arguments or stem the global tide of concern for the Palestinian people. Like other anti-democratic actions by your government, it empowers Israel’s fiercest critics and undermines pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a Knesset session in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

What exactly is the threat posed by allowing a 22 year-old American student to study for a year at Hebrew University? How will she harm the economy?  How will she damage the strongest military in the Middle East? What is so frightening about someone who seeks to learn more about Israelis and Palestinians? 

The only harm being done to Israel right now is the terrible damage to its reputation as a democracy that results from detaining a young student in a holding cell at the airport, for days and weeks on end, because of her political beliefs.

Subjecting those who wish to visit and study in your country to ideological litmus tests cuts at the very heart of the values on which the U.S.-Israel relationship is based and threatens to further shred the ties between us. This is the kind of action we have come to expect from authoritarian regimes - not from fellow democracies and allies. 

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Let me give you my clearest and simplest advice on how to counter BDS and advance the long-term interests of your country: Drop the case against Lara Alqasem.  

Let her study at Hebrew University. Invite her to share her views with you. Encourage her to see the many things in Israel of which we are so rightly proud. Respect her right to tell you and your colleagues what she believes that you are doing wrong. Recognize that the right way to deal with speech you don’t like is to counter it, not silence it.  

Let me be equally clear that the surest way to damage support for Israel and build up the BDS movement is to continue to interrogate people about their political beliefs at the border, to penalize young students and to promote laws - both in the Knesset and in the U.S. Congress - designed to criminalize boycotts and non-violent political protests. 

Students at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University demonstrate in support of Lara Alqasem. 14 Oct 2018
Emil Salman

Perhaps that is your strategy: instead of treating the BDS movement as the pesky but largely toothless challenge it is, your government treats it as a strategic threat to distract Israelis and Israel’s supporters from the real threat posed to the country’s future by the ever-deepening and never-ending occupation.

I hope that is not the case. But if that is the goal, it is doomed to fail. 

In the meantime, know this: the majority of Israel’s supporters in the U.S. will not give up on our efforts to promote a two-state solution, to end the occupation and help secure Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people. 

And we will not keep quiet while the misguided policies of your government do such serious damage to the interests of the State of Israel and to the values of the Jewish people. 

Jeremy Ben-Ami is president and founder of J Street, the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. Twitter: @JeremyBenAmi