Leading Conservative NYT Columnists Slam Israel Over Detention of U.S. Student

Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss ask 'why is Israel scared of this young American?' and challenge Israel to invite BDS supporters to visit ■ The Union for Reform Judaism calls for Lara Alqasem's 'immediate release'

Bret Stephens / Bari Weiss
Jason Smith/JTA, Josefin Dolsten / JTA

Two leading Jewish conservative New York Times columnists criticized Israel for the detention of 22-year-old Palestinian-American student Lara Alqasem, in a joint opinion piece published Wednesday. Alqasem, who has been held at Ben-Gurion International Airport for over a week over alleged Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment activism, is set to have a hearing Thursday at 10 A.M.

In the piece "Why Is Israel Scared of This Young American?"  Bret Stephens, an opinion columnist and former editor of The Jerusalem Post, and Bari Weiss, a staff editor for the opinion section, slam Israel, saying "Societies that shun or expel their critics aren’t protecting themselves. They are advertising their weakness."

>> Read more: University chiefs stand by U.S. student held in Israel: Her arrest causes country damage ■ Free Lara Alqasem, the U.S. student detained at Ben-Gurion Airport | Editorial

Lara Alqasem.
,AP

In the piece, Stephens and Weiss ask "Does the Jewish state, which prides itself on ingenuity, innovation and adaptability, really have so much to fear from a 22-year-old graduate student from Florida?"

"Here’s a better way for Israel to confront its young detractors, including those who support B.D.S.: Invite them to visit. No restrictions; no minders; no lectures. Perhaps they’ll find their prejudices confirmed. But we suspect that more than a few of them — those capable of keeping an open mind and appreciating the complexity of life and politics in the region — might find their views changed," they write.

Stephens, 43, is an assertive defender of Israel and its current government policies. He has also been called out for positions he's taken on anti-Semitism in the Arab world.

Weiss, 33, is a former pro-Israel activist at Columbia University where she made a name for herself as an advocate for Israel. She was one of four Jewish students who founded the group Columbians for Academic Freedom. Her loud Israel advocacy earned her plenty of criticism, including from the Jewish left.

Meanwhile, the Union for Reform Judaism called for Alqasem's 'immediate release.'

"We are deeply troubled by Ms. Alqasem’s detention and ordeal," Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, URJ Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism, said. "The Reform Movement categorically opposes BDS. But at the same time, we believe this type of blunt and short-sighted approach toward activists who pose no security threat is inconsistent with Israel’s commitment to an open and free democracy."

Deputy Minister Michael Oren responded Wednesday to the critical NYT piece, saying that while Stephens and Weiss are "close friends of Israel," they made a complex criticism of the situation. "As in any sovereign state, Israel has the right and even the duty to prevent the entry of those who want to destroy it," he said. 

Oren said it's important to remember that BDS and other similar movements don't want to achieve peace, but rather seek to destroy Israel using sanctions and boycotts. He also mentioned Israeli journalist Itamar Eichner and the investigation that took place as proof that Israel's policy should be reexamined. 

"I have said this in the past and I will repeat it again: The policy that is being implemented now is clearly causing us political damage, so the officials responsible for its enforcement must carefully examine whether Lara Alqasem really does support BDS," Oren said in a statement.

Alqasem, who received a student visa for her master's degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, appealed last week, though it was rejected by the Tel Aviv administrative appeals court.

The U.S. State Department said Tuesday that they were aware of her case, but "ultimately it is up to the government of Israel to decide who it wants to let into the country."

At the same time, professors from the University of Florida urged Israel to release alumnus Alqasem

In a rare move, Hebrew University asked to join the appeal of Alqasem against her deportation.