BDS Organizations Barred From Israel Say Blacklist Is Increasing Their Membership

One observer says the blacklist is ‘colossally stupid’ and ‘counterproductive political theater’

A photo of protesters in the BDS-focused organization Code Pink, lead by Ariel Gold, coordinator of its “justice for Palestine” campaign
Photo Courtesy Ariel Gold

NEW YORK – Leaders of the U.S. pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions organizations named on a newly released Israeli blacklist and barred from entering the country say they believe that being blacklisted by Israel is will only fuel their growth.

Jewish Voice for Peace is the only exclusively Jewish organization named of the six U.S. groups on the list of 20 published by the Israeli government, whose leaders will be banned from entering Israel because of their advocacy of BDS.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director, said that it has immediately increased interest in the group. “Based just on social media in the hours (since JVP was the first group reported by Haaretz to be on the list), this will increase our membership,” she said. In 2017 JVP grew to about 15,000 dues-paying members, she told Haaretz. 

“We’ve gotten quite a number of lovely public declarations saying ‘this is pushing me to become at JVP member,” said Vilkomerson, whose organization trains church and student groups to advocate for BDS. “The work we do is in the U.S. so we don’t think it will interfere with that. The intention of this policy is to bully and intimidate people into silence on this issue. But this will strengthen people’s resolve,” she said.

A ban on active BDS proponents entering Israel went into effect in March. Until this week Israel refused to specify who would be affected by the ban, but on Sunday published a full list of 20 organizations around the world, whose leaders and senior members, with some exceptions, will be barred from entering Israel.

The U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, which provides tools and training to groups interested in advocating for BDS and which lobbies against U.S. aid to Israel and American support for Israeli government policies, is one of the six U.S. groups whose leadership will be banned from Israel. In a statement Yousef Munayyer, its executive director, wrote, “we wear this designation as a badge of honor. When Israel, which aims to portray itself to the world as liberal and democratic, blacklists activists dedicated to nonviolent organizing and dissent, it only further exposes itself as a fraud. It is clear to us how effective building the movement for Palestinian rights around the world has become.”

In an interview Mounayyer told Haaretz that the blacklist “helps our work because it shows people the true nature of the Israeli government and their policies. It is a clear indication of the effectiveness of the movement that we’re working to build. It’s a de facto statement by the Israeli government that our work is important,” he said. “We will only redouble our efforts in light of this.”

Those who hold senior or important positions in blacklisted organizations will be denied entry, as well as key activists even if they hold no official position, according to earlier reporting by Haaretz. Mayors and establishment figures who actively and continually promote boycotts will also be prevented from entering, as will activists who arrive to Israel on behalf of or as part of a delegation initiated by one of blacklisted groups.

Others U.S. groups included are American Muslims for Palestine, the National Students for Justice in Palestine (neither of which responded to inquiries from Haaretz), Code Pink and the Quaker American Friends Service Committee.

Ariel Gold, national co-director of the BDS-focused organization Code Pink, and coordinator of its “justice for Palestine” campaign, said she is “horrified” by being included on the new list.

“A country that claims to be a democracy is directly attacking freedom of speech,” said Gold, an American Jew, in an interview. “This is part of a broader picture of cracking down on activists, and cuts off our ability to work on the ground there. It’s a way of really dividing our groups and our work,” she said.

“It is unacceptable especially from a state that puts itself forward as being the only democracy in the Middle East,” said Gold, whose trip last summer was one of many recent visits to Israel and the West Bank. “BDS is a non-violent and time-tested method of bringing about social change. In the U.S. it’s a protected First Amendment right.”

Yet even some who oppose JVP and the other named groups and their tactics think that Israel’s blacklist is a bad idea.

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, wrote on Facebook that Israel may be well within its rights to bar people who “who deny their fundamental legitimacy and who implicitly or explicitly support violent resistance against it,” as JVP did when it invited Rasmeah Odeh to speak at its last convention. Odeh was convicted in Israel of participating in a 1969 supermarket bombing which left two Israelis dead.  But “on the strategy side of the issue, I think this decision by the Israeli government — both to have a ‘blacklist’ of organizations barred from entry, and to talk about it to the press— is colossally stupid,” he wrote.

“Israel could publicly ignore JVP and quietly turn away activists at the border; their approach now, in contrast, galvanizes much more support” for organizations like JVP, he wrote. “I don't see the logic behind it: it is just shortsighted and counterproductive political theater.”

New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch said, in a statement, “we do not support the BDS movement,” wrote Sokatch. But “we oppose the government's travel ban and all its actions to punish those with whom it disagrees."

“Banning political opposition is the policy of autocracies, not democracies a travel ban that uses blacklists and litmus tests to bar visitors from entering Israel based on their beliefs, flies in the face of the democratic principles enshrined in Israel's declaration of independence.”

The American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker group on the blacklist for its advocacy of BDS, said in response to it’s inclusion, “we will continue to stand up for peace and justice in Israel, occupied Palestine, and around the world.”

Kerri Kennedy, associate general Secretary for international programs for the organization, wrote in a statement that her organization “has supported and joined in nonviolent resistance for over 100 years. We answered the call for divestment from apartheid South Africa and we have done the same with the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions from Palestinians who have faced decades of human rights violations.”