Israel's Travel Ban Backlash: Over 100 Jewish Studies Scholars Threaten to Not Visit Israel in Protest

'In spite of our different views, we stand in strong opposition to the new law,' petition reads, while other liberal U.S. Jews warn new law will cause drift toward BDS camp.

A protester waves a Palestinian flag as he demonstrates with others against the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Sunday, July 17, 2016.
Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

NEW YORK - Dozens of prominent Jewish scholars worry they won't be able to visit Israel anymore, citing a new law entitling the government to deny entry to supporters of boycotts against the country or its settlements in occupied territory. Meanwhile, only days after the passing of the new law, more than 100 Jewish studies scholars have signed a letter in which they threaten to refrain from visiting Israel in protest.

“Among us are those who oppose the BDS movement, those who oppose BDS but support a settlement boycott, and those who support BDS”, says the petition that has come to the attention of Haaretz, although it has not yet been published.

“In spite of our different views, we stand in strong opposition to the new law. It will be bad for Israel, bad for the cause of democracy at this fragile moment, and bad for the principles of free speech and thought on which our scholarship is based. We hope that the Israeli judiciary will overturn the new law and assure us that our political speech will not prevent us from continuing our rich scholarly interactions with Israeli colleagues in the field of Jewish studies. Should the law stand, we may no longer be permitted—nor permit ourselves—to enter the State of Israel”.

One of the letter's organizers, David Biale, Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis, told Haaretz that he visits Israel every year, and was planning to do so this summer as well.  “Now I’m going to have to reevaluate”, says Biale, whose studies focus on secularization in Jewish history.

“They want to push us into boycotting Israel; this is a very serious step. I’m very disappointed that Israel cannot deal with criticism in a democratic manner, and instead has to ban people who do not agree with the current government's policy, Zionists, friends of Israel, people who feel deeply connected to the country."

Many who have criticized the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement in the past feel Israel's legislation is pushing them closer to this camp, as they fear statements or petitions critical of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians may mean they are barred from visiting anymore. 

Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent magazine and professor at the Institute for Advanced Study has been one of the most prominent critics of BDS on college campuses, urging a more targeted boycott of the occupation. 

Walzer told Haaretz he saw the latest law as strengthening BDS. 

“I can assure you that it will greatly help the BDS movement, people who are critical of the government and also critical of BDS may think that the government is scared, that BDS is working.  There will be people moving towards BDS, and I have already received emails from people who have been critical of the Israeli government but also of BDS, writing that at this point, we might as well join BDS”.

“I don’t think BDS in the U.S. is a threat to Israel, I think it may be in Europe, I’m afraid the left intelligentsia in Europe is hostile not just to the occupation, but to the existence of the Jewish State, which is very dangerous”, he said.

Walzer, who has many friends and colleagues in Israel, has taught at Hebrew University and visited Israel on an annual basis is now uncertain of the implications of the new law for his next trip this summer. 

“I wonder if they will let me in. I signed a letter calling for a boycott of goods from the occupied settlements but I have also been active in opposing BDS on campuses. I have been going to Israel every year starting from the 70s. I'm coming in June, and I would be very surprised and angry if they turn me away," he said.

Walzer is also concerned that Israelis could be the next to be persecuted by attempts to stifle freedom of speech. 

“I think Israelis are to worry that a government that is not willing to tolerate foreign visitors who are critical, may not for long be willing to tolerate citizens who are critical”, he says. “Many countries have endured quite severe external criticism. I’m old enough to remember France during Algerian war, there was fierce opposition, and the opponents traveled to France. The French did not try to shut them out.”

Last year, the BDS movement suffered a setback when the Modern Language Association (MLA) voted against a proposed academic boycott of Israel.  A decision in favor of a boycott could have dealt a significant blow to Israeli academics and students working in departments of language, literature and related fields across Israel, as well as to collaborations and research involving Israeli academic institutions. 

The battle over MLA's decision unfolded on the opinion pages of American newspapers, with prominent scholars taking sides. Professor Todd Gitlin, who objected to an academic boycott of Israel, suggested a boycott targeting the settlements, instead. 

But now Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University, feels he may be a target of Israel's latest measure. 

“Having frequently and publicly opposed the BDS movement for years, while advocating an economic boycott of settlement products and investments, I now see that the state of Israel has added me to its enemies list”’ he wrote to Haaretz. 

“For such an honor I am not especially grateful. Nor do I rejoice at the spectacle of Israel walling itself off into a fortress of paranoia. Once again, Fortress Israel partisans who wrap themselves in Biblical precedents are cherry-picking their verses.  They might consider, for example, Isaiah 13:11:  "“I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity. I will end the arrogance of the proud and humble the insolence of tyrants.” 

Others on a potential Israeli blacklist include other scholars who signed Gitlin’s letter, such as Professor Hasia R Diner, director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University, who calls the measure counterproductive and "juvenile”. 

“It only infuriates and inflames, Given the nature of the communication in the world we live in, you cannot stop ideas, unless you block the internet. I’m against academic boycotts, but this could possibly tip me over to say, you know, BDS is in fact the only way,” Diner says.

“If the letter prevents me from being allowed to come to Israel, ok, I will not come, I won’t come to scholarly meetings, I will not use the Israeli archives, I won’t meet with my Israeli colleagues. But who is going to be harmed by it? I could see a kind of ripple effect, of American scholars saying, ok, we can’t come to Israel, so we won’t invite you to out conferences.”