The latest rebuke to the ‘entry to Israel’ law barring entry to foreigners who call for a boycott of Israel or settlements has come from lecturers in Israel studies in the Diaspora.
Although many of the leading lights of the Association of Israel Studies have struggled valiantly against the advocates of BDS on U.S. campuses, they may find themselves barred from entering the country simply because they don’t hold the ‘correct’ view on the West Bank settlements and the purchase of their produce.
In a statement the Association commented:
There can be no checkpoint of ideas. Security forces and defenses are essential for deterring actual attacks. But it is fantasy and misleading to think that interrogating academics at the country’s gates contributes to national security. Ideas, good and bad, have no borders and can be spread by modern communications and social media. This ill-conceived law will also have a chilling effect on Diaspora students who seek an education in Israel, academics who wish to engage in research and many others who simply want to participate in conferences.
The statement further points out that ‘it will create the absurdity’ that the U.S.-chartered Association for Israel Studies will no longer be able to hold its meetings in Israel.
This stalking of academics who teach Israel studies is symbolic of the growing gap between Israeli politicians who think in the short term, and the Diaspora which has existed for far longer than the State of Israel itself.
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Many Jewish philanthropists have willingly supported Israel studies – not as an arm of hasbara – but as an intellectual good in itself, imbuing the best in traditional Jewish values. For many Diaspora figures, Israel studies is the jewel in the communal crown.
Surveys in the United States, Britain and several other countries suggest that a majority of Diaspora Jews do not favor the expansion of the settlements. In all likelihood, they probably would not venture into the West Bank unless they had a good reason to do so. While a few, such as Peter Beinart, do openly advocate a boycott of settlements, there is a probable majority of Diaspora Jews who – given the choice – would quietly favor Israeli produce over settlement produce, and prefer not to buy the latter.
This is essentially the silent, personal protest of Diaspora Jews, because to do so publicly would simply be good public relations for the BDS campaign.
The many condemnations of this law have not come from ‘the usual suspects’ on the left, but from prominent mainstream Diaspora organizations. Significantly many whose personal practice was not to buy settlement produce have ‘come out’ and now declare their views openly. As Rabbi Arthur Green remarked in Haaretz a few days ago, it had been his personal practice not to make kiddush over wine produced in Kiryat Arba.
The unintentional consequence for the law’s sponsors, Betzalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) and Roy Folkman (Kulanu), may now be their responsibility for igniting a campaign in the Diaspora to publicly challenge a decision of the Israeli government. The law may mark a watershed in Israel-Diaspora relations – a point in time when the Diaspora began to bite back.
The law’s passing also signifies the weakness of Israel’s center-right; it has willingly become a fellow traveller with the far right. Likud, Kulanu and Yesh Atid have bowed to the breast-beating populism of the times that we live in.
Many on the center-right cite Ze’ev Jabotinsky as the well-spring of their political views. Yet Jabotinsky, who earned his living as a journalist, believed in the power of words and the importance of ideas. What would he have thought about this approach to a difference of political views? It should be recalled that the British refused to allow Jabotinsky into Mandatory Palestine after 1930 because, like MKs Smotrich and Folkman, they believed that his presence in the Yishuv constituted a threat and his views should not be heard. As history records, he died in exile.
Will the new law be enforced? Will Netanyahu rouse himself from indecision on this issue? It may well be that at the end of the day, this act by Israel’s politicians will be queried in a court of law.
In the meantime, many Diaspora Jews, especially academics, will view this development as harassment by those who are unable to abide a different opinion and believe that uniformity brings unity.
Colin Shindler was the first professor of Israel Studies in the UK. His next book The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History will be published shortly by Rowman and Littlefield.