A disturbing thing happened on Isabel Apawo Phiri’s way to Ben-Gurion Airport last week. Israel refused entry to the Christian theologian and sent her back to Europe, influenced by a local priest with close links to the Israeli government, who declared that Phiri's organization supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Phiri had arrived with a delegation from the World Council of Churches and was the only one in her group refused entry.
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Even though the Shin Bet security service had interrogated her at the airport and concluded that she posed no security threat to the country, Interior Minister Arye Dery took the unprecedented step of invoking his Entry into Israel Law powers on suspicion that she and her organization back the boycott movement, after consulting with Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan. They never even asked her about BDS.
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Indeed, the World Council of Churches is not neutral on the conflict and sponsors a program known as the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Israel and Palestine, which has sent “ecumenical accompaniers” to the West Bank for 15 years to monitor human rights.
The World Council of Churches did endorse boycotting settlement products in 2001, and reaffirmed that support last June. That collective “guilt” was apparently sufficient to target an individual associated with the council. But it’s worth pointing out if the Israeli authorities want to be scrupulously consistent: The WCC is a movement encompassing 348 member churches worldwide with a combined membership of 500 million people. Imagine banning entry to nearly a quarter of the world’s Christians.
Phiri’s deportation is disturbing on several levels. It’s bad enough that officials act as the thought police when denying access to Israel; that they are acting on misinformation and not independently fact-checking is downright worrisome. Adding another egregious level to this “filtering” and demonizing process, the Israeli right-leaning newspapers sprinted to unquestioningly parrot the government line by labeling Phiri a “BDS activist” rather than state, as befits objective journalism, that the Israeli government alleges this association.
Search the internet and you’ll find no connection between Phiri and BDS before the reports of her deportation were published. The whole connection is a fiction. So how could Israel have gotten it so wrong?
The missing link is apparently Father Gabriel Naddaf, who this summer accused the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Israel and Palestine of spearheading a boycott Israel campaign. Naddaf is the spiritual leader of the small Aramean Christian community in Israel and is a vocal advocate of Christian Israelis joining the Israel Defense Forces. Erdan as interior minister in 2014 officially recognized the Aramean Christian community as a distinct nationality for population registry purposes, allowing church members to “opt out” of being classified as Arab, or identifying so.
Thus the refusal to admit Phiri is no more than a severe example of right-wing politicians responding in knee-jerk fashion without checking the facts. Why they picked on Phiri is a mystery, but the most logical explanation was they were using her to intimidate participants in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program from speaking out against the occupation.
As bad as the ministers’ actions were, at the end of the day the decision to deny her entry was couched in terms of the “prevention of illegal immigration.” The government did not announce: “Hey, we deported a BDS activist.” But Erdan betrayed his motives when he said: “We will continue to prevent BDS activists from entering.” Dery added: “Allowing activists like Phiri into Israel validates their activities, and I will not be a party to that.”
The mainstream Israeli media’s handling of the incident left much to be desired, firing off misleading headlines referring to Israel deporting a “BDS activist,” even though in the body of the story it was stated that Phiri was an alleged activist, or stated that she was deported for belonging to an organization that supports the boycott, and not for own personal affiliation to BDS.
But the right-wing press’ coverage was downright despicable. Unsurprisingly, it embraced the story without questioning the veracity of the allegations and even embellished it. The story built up like Hillary Clinton’s debunked “Pizzagate” pedophile ring. Within hours, Phiri graduated from being a simple “BDS activist” to a “known BDS activist” (Israel Hayom and Jewish News Service) to “Isabel Phiri, from Malawi, has had a long affiliation with the BDS movement.” (Breaking Israel News)
These irresponsible and potentially dangerous accusations constitute a smear on her reputation and could, indeed, incite extremists to target Phiri as long as the reports remain on the web as they are.
With great power comes great responsibility, as we have learned from Pizzagate. Dery, Erdan and the news outlets labeling her a BDS activist have abused that power and should be liable for defamation. They must be held accountable for making patently false statements about innocent people.
The media outlets involved should be reminded that the historical role of the fourth estate is to question the establishment, not to be its stenographic mouthpiece, which is what is happening right now. In doing so, they perpetuate lies and help suppress freedom of speech.
At a time when the U.S. media is engaged in an energetic debate about how to curb “fake news” reports that get mainstream media traction, the Israeli media, and English-language Israel-oriented news sites, need to commit to the same effort, to distinguish fact from demagogic fiction, in order to properly serve the public and protect unfairly targeted individuals.
Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz English and an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Follow him on Twitter: @stevekhaaretz