Mobilizing Dissent: How We Responded to Jen’s Detention

23 February 2017

I was sitting in a Tel Aviv restaurant a week and a half ago, several days before NIF’s winter Board meeting was to begin in Jerusalem, when my phone buzzed with an incoming text. It was from Jennifer Gorovitz, NIF’s VP for Finance, Operations and Administration, who had just landed at Ben Gurion.

Jen wrote that she was being harassed at passport control: “Won’t let me go. Asking tons of questions about my work. Insisting on all the names of people I will be meeting with. Belittling our work… I said ‘I’m a Jew and a Zionist’ and he said ‘yeah, right: a Zionist.’ When I said . . . ‘we build the civil society sector,’ he said ‘the civil society of the Palestinians. I said ‘civil society of all Israeli citizens.’ Then he told me to go to the detention area to be interviewed and he kept my passport. Now I’m being interviewed by security personnel. What do I do?”

Now, being detained at the airport is very much in the zeitgeist, both in Israel, and of course here at home in the US these days. And while it is, sadly, commonplace for Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinians, and foreign activists to be detained and subjected to intensive questioning, liberal American Jewish Zionists who happen to disagree with current Israeli policy have not generally been treated in this way.

At least not until now.

Back at the restaurant in Tel Aviv, I texted reassurances to Jen, and we immediately began mobilizing our people, with our Board Chair Talia Sasson, a former senior official in the Office of the State Prosecutor, phoning airport security to find out why Jen was being detained and to demand her release. She was told that Jen was being held for “national security” reasons.

Meanwhile, Jen was being questioned first by a female officer in plain clothes who did not identify herself or the concerns of Immigration but again asked several questions about NIF. Jen could see a sheet of paper with “BDS” written in big letters. It was underlined. Thinking this could be the error and the reason for her detention, Jen volunteered that NIF opposes BDS, and that the agent could check our website where our funding guidelines are posted prominently. The agent said that she would, but would not tell Jen why she was being detained. Jen was then taken back to a holding room full of other detainees.

She texted again: “Now I know what it’s like to feel rejected by a country you love. . . I am purposefully sitting next to the young Palestinian couple who were detained in solidarity. . . And, I just so empathize in a visceral way with what people experienced in the States last weekend.”

By this point, NIF had mobilized some of Israel’s leading civil rights attorneys, and other friends of the organization, who were trying to figure out why Jen – a former Federation CEO and Wexner Heritage alum, who has taken dozens of American Jews to Israel and raised millions of dollars for the country — was being detained, and to secure her release. And we let the media know what was happening.

At the airport, Jen kept texting me. “I was just taken to a second interrogation room by two plain-clothed men who didn’t identify themselves, and was asked the same questions again: Who do you work for? What does your org do? I was out and proud about who I work for and what I do. Do they want me to be upset so that I will reject the State of Israel and walk away from it?” They then sent me back out to the detention area.

A few minutes later, about an hour and a half from when she was first detained, Jen wrote that she was being released. An NIF staffer met her at the airport, escorted her to Jerusalem and bought her a well-earned stiff drink.

By the next day, Jen was, quite literally, a front-page story in Israel. For the next 24 hours, our office was full of TV and radio news teams as well as print reporters, and Jen’s story dominated headlines in Israel, and was reported around the world in scores of papers, from the Guardian in London to the Los Angeles Times. She even starred in a political cartoon in Haaretz.

Privately, several Israeli officials called NIF leaders to apologize for what happened. Publicly, the Ministry of the Interior offered a partial “apology,” which consisted of expressing regret for any “anguish” Jen’s interrogation might have caused her. They also denied that national security or BDS had anything to do with her detention, despite what Jen and others were told and saw. One source claimed to the media that she was detained to discuss her previous trips to Israel, although Jen was not asked a single question about any of her prior trips. Still, a partial apology was something, and that partial apology was broadcast around the world.

More heartening was the outpouring of support for Jen that came from regular Israelis. NIF received over a hundred new donations from Israelis who described their outrage and shame that an American friend of Israel was treated this way, just because she refused to tow the hard-right government line. I was also gratified by the opinion pieces and editorials – from hawkish as well as liberal Israeli dailies – condemning Jen’s treatment.

We still don’t know the real reason why Jen was detained, whether it was an over-zealous passport control agent conducting a personal political witch-hunt which spun out of control for 90 minutes, or something more sinister. Either way, I am proud of the message that NIF and our supporters – as well as thousands of regular Israelis – sent to the authorities: democracies don’t shut down or keep out dissenting voices. Rather, they welcome the debate. That is the essence of democratic society, and it is something that I know the NIF community of supporters will keep fighting for, both in Israel and here at home.