On October 2, a 22-year-old United States citizen who held a valid Israeli student visa and had been accepted to study at Hebrew University was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport and held for deportation.
Had the young woman, Lara Alqasem, agreed to the deportation she would have left the country immediately. However, she appealed the deportation order and was held in an airport detention centre for two weeks.
Alqasem’s crime, according to the Strategic Affairs Ministry? She is a former president of the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a group supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
“Ms. Alqasem was being denied entry to Israel because of her past activities, not her opinions. We have clear criteria,” said Asher Freidman, a senior official of the Strategic Affairs Ministry. “We believe that Ms. Alqasem meets these criteria based on her actions, and the actions of the organization of which she was a senior leader over several years.”
Alqasem’s detention has sparked consternation and debate in Israel. The Committee of University Heads of Israel joined with civil rights groups to protest the ministry’s action. Hebrew University, which accepted Alqasem to study Hebrew and human rights, joined in the appeal.
Every country has an absolute right to protect its citizens and ensure its national security. Physical attacks against the State of Israel pose a danger to both Israeli people and property. But the distinction between a physical threat and a non-violent protest is quite significant.
This past August, Peter Beinart, a leading American journalist, was detained for questioning at Ben-Gurion Airport while entering Israel. Beinart, who writes regularly for Haaretz and The Atlantic and appears often on CNN as a political commentator, came to Israel to participate in the bat mitzvah of one of his nieces.
There is little doubt that Beinart is a polarizing figure. He has written extensively about his opposition to Israeli policies regarding the non-existent peace talks and the Palestinian people. He has urged Israeli politicians to be more cognizant of the humanity of the Palestinians.
He has also written an important book, The Crisis of Zionism, in which he asks quite forcibly what role the current policies of Israel have played in the significant disconnect between Israel and young North Americans.
Recently, however, his work for The Atlantic has been focused on anti-democratic trends in the United States. He has written powerfully about the curtailment of minority voting rights and the ongoing attacks by the Trump administration against minorities.
It would be a significant stretch to say that Beinart is still at the forefront of criticism of the Israeli government.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to news of Beinart’s detention by releasing a statement: “Israel is an open society which welcomes all – critics and supporters alike. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where people voice their opinions freely and robustly.”
That is a very flexible statement. It allows a well-known political commentator to be released and sent on his way with only the memories of an overly zealous Shin Bet. But Alqasem is not a well-known commentator. She is a 22-year-old student who, as an undergraduate, participated in political rallies to call attention to real and perceived injustices. The prime minister has not issued an apology or an equally strong message in support of dissent in her case.
It is easy to imagine U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been very public in his condemnation of a free and unfettered press, detaining one of his critics or, as recently happened, encouraging violence against the press. It is so easy for us to feel virtuous in the face of Trump’s trampling on the truth and his vitriolic personal campaign against his critics. We have come to expect no less from him.
But Israel is the land of Torah, the Golden Rule and Pirkei Avot. For 70 years, it has embraced the persecuted from around the world. From Israel, we expect nothing less than robust, unfettered criticism of the unprincipled, the unethical.
So which is it?
Is Israel a country sufficiently secure in its own skin to accept and absorb criticism, especially when it is justified?
Or is Israel moving towards a form of inward-looking nationalism that perceives threats from every quarter, even 22-year-old university students?
We can’t have it both ways.