US student Lara Alqasem. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
Staunch Israel supporters are criticizing the country’s anti-boycott policies. Is the law necessary for Israel’s well-being and is it worth the damage?
According to political legend, former US president Lyndon B. Johnson once said, after seeing an anti-Vietnam War segment on CBS News, “If I’ve lost [Walter] Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Fair or not, Israel seems to have lost its Cronkite this week, when The New York Times’ arguably most pro-Israel writers Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, who described themselves as “unhinged Zionists,” wrote a joint column criticizing Jerusalem’s policies to combat boycotts.
To be sure, Weiss and Stephens, a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, are not what Cronkite was to Middle America in the 1960s, but they are prominent and influential voices, whose staunchly and reliably pro-Israel views have tracked with, or been to the right of, the American Jewish establishment. And the government has lost them in the war on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
For the first 10 years of the BDS movement’s existence, the government did not take it seriously. Then, in 2015, Gilad Erdan was given the Strategic Affairs portfolio and commanded a NIS 100 million budget to fight delegitimization efforts against Israel. Erdan has joked that what got the government to finally address BDS was that it targeted the things Israelis love most: soccer, as in FIFA, and cellphones, as in the French company Orange, which has since departed Israel for non-boycott reasons.
At first, Erdan took quiet action, working to support existing organizations that were already fighting BDS. Slowly, over time, he became more open about his efforts – though not all of them, because a law was passed making the Strategic Affairs Ministry exempt from having to comply with the Freedom of Information Law.
The battle against BDS was taken up another notch this year, when a law was passed to ban anti-Israel boycotters from entering the country. The MK who ushered it through the legislation process is Kulanu’s Roy Folkman, but Erdan lent it enthusiastic support, saying in January that “whoever continues letting [boycott activists] into Israel exposes Israeli citizens to harm.”
Since then, there have been a number of incidents in which activists were barred from the country because of their connections to organizations that are on the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s blacklist. In addition, many activists were stopped and questioned for what they felt were unfairly long amounts of time, including journalist Peter Beinart, who calls to boycott settlements, and Simone Zimmerman, a leader of IfNotNow, which calls for US Jewish organizations to take Israel to task for its continued presence in the West Bank. The incidents received breathless coverage by left-leaning Jewish outlets like Ha’aretz and The Forward, turning them into major news stories in the Israeli and Jewish news and, in some cases, to general media.
LAST WEEK, Lara Alqasem was stopped at the airport under the law banning boycotters from entering the country. Alqasem had a valid student visa and had been accepted to study at the Hebrew University.
Alqasem is a University of Florida student and the former president of her campus chapter of National Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the blacklisted groups, which advocates for a boycott and has created a hostile environment for many Jewish students on college campuses in the US. While she was involved in SJP, the chapter organized a demonstration in support of Rasmea Odeh, who bombed a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969, killing two Israelis, and was deported from the US last year for having lied about her record on her citizenship application. Alqasem also interned for Nonviolence International, a “fiscal sponsor” of flotillas seeking to break the naval blockade on Gaza, and a member of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a major promoter of Israel boycotts.
Alqasem’s defenders, such as some of her college professors, say she had a change of heart in the past year, favoring a more even-handed approach and seeking to learn more about Israel and Israelis. This is demonstrated by her seeking to attend the Hebrew University even though she was sharply criticized by her community, they say. She even visited Israel in December, without problems at the border.
CLICK HERE to read this extensive report by Lahav Harkov on JPost.com.