Opinion

Once Again, a Stifling of Voices in Israel

It is up to us to keep our government in line and ensure political freedoms for all.

A left-wing protest in Tel Aviv: Israelis know that there is nothing inherently anti-Israel about working to end the occupation.
Tal Cohen

First, the immigration authorities detained at Ben-Gurion International Airport Jennifer Gorovitz, a native of San Francisco who has raised millions of dollars for Israel and is currently vice president of the New Israel Fund.

Then, they refused to issue an entry permit to a researcher of Human Rights Watch – a U.S.-registered NGO – saying that he was aiding Palestinian propaganda.

Who is next in line of those whose opinions are not approved by the Israeli Population, Immigration and Border Authority?

In both cases the authorities apparently realized the gravity of their actions. With Gorovitz they backtracked. With Omar Shakir, the HRW researcher, it appeared they might reconsider. But just on Thursday, the immigration authority again denied his visa application.

These incidents show us that the authorities' decisions are not incidental. They are apparently the fruit of a policy – explicit or implicit – to block at the gates of Israel activists who oppose occupation and settlement policies so as to stifle voices other than those of the Israeli government.

The specifics of the cases make clear their absurdity.

Two weeks ago, on her way to the New Israel Fund's board meeting, Ms. Gorovitz was detained for an hour and a half at the airport and was interrogated three times for what were defined as “security considerations.” All the questions focused on NIF's activities.

NIF, an Israeli-American partnership, is one of the largest and most significant contributors to the bolstering of civil society, social justice and the foundations of democracy, freedom and equality in Israel. NIF also supports the two-state solution and opposes occupation and settlements in the West Bank.  It supports, among other things, the human rights defense of Palestinians both in Israel and in the West Bank.  In recent years, NIF has been a target of attacks by the right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

After a significant public outcry, the immigration authority expressed regret for the incident with Gorovitz in hindsight. "It was a mishap," they said.

Then the “mishap” seems to have occurred again. The immigration authority refused, according to a Haaretz article on February 24, to grant a work permit to a researcher from Human Rights Watch due to the claim that the organization, which has worked in Israel for many years, is “operating in politics in service of Palestinian propaganda while falsely waving the flag of human rights.”

A day after the Haaretz report, the immigration authorities said they would reconsider the case if an appeal was filed. It is clear that the about-face by the authorities was made following the personal intervention of Foreign Minister Netanyahu who received a complaint from the U.S. government on the matter. U.S. Jewish groups – including NIF – had protested the refusal of HRW’s visas.

The preservation of freedom of expression in Israel is a cornerstone of democracy. Without it, there is no true democracy, even with Knesset elections every four years. Those for whom Israel is precious, who try to maintain Israel as a democratic state, must raise an outcry against this policy. We should follow the example of the U.S., where angry protests and objections are being heard loud and clear on the streets of American cities in response to anti-democratic government policies.

The attempt to prevent the entry of those who espouse a different voice into Israel is meant to weaken those within the country who disagree with government policies. The U.S. intervention in the HRW case just proves the power of democratic forces to utter an outcry and help Israel protect its precious democracy.

Will we in Israel be able to act on our own to stop the next “mishap” and ensure political freedoms for all? It is up to us to keep our government in line.

Talia Sasson is president of the New Israel Fund, which supports democracy and equality for all Israelis.