The Hebrew University of Jerusalem's senate called on Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Interior Minister Arye Dery to allow an American student, 22-year-old Lara Alqasem, into Israel.
Alqasem, who was accepted as a graduate student at the Hebrew University, was barred from entering the country and detained at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday because the Israeli authorities claim she supports a boycott of Israel.
In an unusual step, the university also asked to join Alqasem’s appeal to the district court against the decision to deport her. The appeal is expected to be heard in the coming days.
Erdan lamented the senate's support of Alqasem, claiming it was "another politicization of the Israeli academia for the sake of someone who actively works to harm the State of Israel and its citizens."
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The Tel Aviv District Court ruled on Monday that Alqasem will remain in detention until a final ruling is made on her appeal. Judge Kobi Vardi noted in his ruling that he did not see a reason to order Alqasem’s release from detention at the airport “until the claims against her regarding the risk and possible harm to the State of Israel are clarified.”
The senate’s statement says that the university is “a place for the exchange of ideas and the acquisition and creation of knowledge. It is a place that does not shrink from disagreement and is pleased with a multiplicity of opinions. [Erdan’s] decision not to allow the student into the country merely because of her opinions constitutes a threat against what the university represents.”
The statement also said that an “extreme step” like banning Alqasem from entering the country “could deter foreign scholars and students from coming to Israel,” and “should be taken only for the strongest and clearest reasons – preventing violence and lawbreaking. In Alqasem’s case no such claims were presented.”
The statement also mentions the claim that Alqasem was denied entry because of her support of an academic boycott against Israel. “The student’s decision to come to Israel and study at the Hebrew University attests more than anything else to her objection to the boycott,” the statement reads, adding that scholars who know Alqasem also testified in her favor.
The senate said that keeping Alqasem out of the country contradicts claims that the academic world in Israel is not independent from government policies. The minister’s step strengthens the boycott of Israel, “much more than do the studies of Lara Alqasem. We call on the authorities to immediately change their decision and avoid this serious damage to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and all research institutions in Israel.”
In a letter published on its website on Monday, Hebrew University Provost Prof. Barak Medina challenged the government policy of banning BDS supporters from Israel.
“The Hebrew University supports a position of tolerance toward those who call for a boycott – we don’t prevent anyone from participating in university activities, in studying, teaching and research, even if he calls for a boycott against us,” he wrote. “We think it is better to maintain an open discourse and to respond to claims that we should be boycotted in a pointed manner rather than through force.״
Israel’s travel ban on pro-boycott activists was counterproductive, he charged, since not only did it do little, if anything, to make BDS supporters more sympathetic to Israel, but by drumming up sympathy for them among their peers, it increased the number of BDS supporters around the world.
The government’s reliance on superficial Google searches and quick airport procedures to identify BDS supporters, warned Medina, “creates a real danger of mistakes being made.” The fear of being detained at the airport, he added, was also likely to deter many academics from making the journey in the first place.
Prof. Medina notes that besides the case of Alqasem (who received a visa as required from the Israeli Consulate in Miami), there have been a number of additional cases in which scholars and students sought to do academic work in Israel were barred from doing so after “support of a boycott of Israel or action in this area was attributed to them.” Medina also noted in his letter what unit in the university should be contacted if students from abroad encounter any difficulties in entering the country.
Meanwhile, more than 100 American academics and Jewish professionals signed a petition demanding Alqasem's release, including J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami.
The Committee of University Heads met with Erdan a few months ago and spoke of the difficulties and dangers of the sweeping wording of the law.
“We said at the meeting that the damage to Israel’s image, which is only increasing, must be weighed,” a person at the meeting said. According to this person, it was decided at the meeting to “establish an apparatus of dialogue,” in which the Strategic Affairs Ministry will approach the Committee of University Heads or the university that has invited the foreign scholar or student suspected of supporting the boycott. This would be done “in order to discover as many details as possible to minimize the damage that has already been done. Despite this decision, no such approaches were made,” he said. “It is difficult to understand what the great fear is of Alqasem,” and “the time has come for someone in the ministry fighting BDS to make an Excel table and realize that the damage [in barring entry to Israel] is greater than the benefit,” he said.
Erdan confirmed the meeting in his statement Monday, saying he suggested forming an apparatus for dialogue between his office and the committee. However, he refuted a commitment to such an appartus, saying his office is not obligated to consult with the committee.
He insisted the committee requested a liaision in the Strategic Affairs office which they could contact to make sure a group of researchers or academics who were allowed entry into Israel. In the case of Alqasem, Erdan said, no such inquiry was made.
"The State of Israel does not prohibit the entry of people based on their opinions, but the fact a person is part of the academic community does not excuse him from the letter of the law, and thus foreign academics who act to boycott Israel and harm it - their entry into Israel may be prevented," Erdan's statement said.
Alqasem is not the first overseas student to be detained at Ben-Gurion Airport for political reasons. Last year, a German woman who had obtained a short study visa for the Hebrew University was detained when she landed after it emerged that she had visited the West Bank on a previous trip. However, rather than take the matter further, the student returned to Germany and abandoned her Israel study plans.
Following this incident, representatives of the Hebrew University had met with Erdan and tried to persuade him to amend the law – so that the travel ban would apply only to individuals who were clearly determined to exploit their trip to Israel to promote boycott activities. Erdan rejected the proposal.
Officials at Israeli universities say they are concerned that the recent crackdown could also prove a major setback to their globalization efforts. Over the past decade, Israeli universities have greatly enhanced their international programs, and most now run special English-language bachelor’s and master’s degree programs designed specifically for foreign students. These international programs are an important source of income for the institutions.
Some 8,000 foreign students were enrolled in “semester abroad,” full degree or postdoctoral programs run by Israeli universities last year.
The universities also fear that the government will start detaining international scholars suspected of supporting BDS when they arrive to participate in conferences they have organized.