The American Grad Student Living at Ben Gurion Airport

11 October 2018

I want to talk for a moment about Lara Alqasem. She’s the 22-year-old American who has been stuck at Ben Gurion Airport for nine days now. She arrived in Israel with a visa provided by the Israeli consulate in Miami. The Israeli government, however, refused to honor that visa and denied her entry on the grounds that she is a supporter of the BDS movement.

Ms. Alqasem denies that she supports BDS. She has appealed to the Israeli courts to be allowed to enter Israel. The senate at Hebrew University, where she is registered to study, has called on Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to allow her into Israel. The university also took the unusual step of formally joining the legal petition appealing the government’s decision.

Much of the debate around this case has fallen around the question of whether Ms. Alqasem is or is not in fact a BDS supporter. Many have pointed to the rather thin evidence the Israeli government is using. Others have suggested that the little that she has done does not qualify her as a leader in the BDS movement, which is the threshold for denial of entry articulated by the Israeli government. And then there’s the argument that the act of enrolling at an Israeli university disproves the notion that she is engaged in a boycott of Israel.

This entire debate is dangerous. The more we argue about whether or not Ms. Alqasem is a BDS supporter, the more we implicitly concede the point that there is nothing wrong with the Israeli government denying entry to a person simply because they don’t like her political views.

And, as you and I know, there is something very wrong with that policy. Applying political litmus tests to border crossings is the policy of autocracies, not of democracies.

As I have long argued, the BDS movement is a useful bogeyman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies to stoke deep-seated fears among their base. There is a reason why they talk about the BDS movement as a “strategic threat,” why they position it as some slick and powerful political force, and why they partner with megadonors who pour millions of dollars into fighting BDS on campuses. The more this happens, the less tolerant the base is of anybody who criticizes Israeli government policy and the more willing they are to accept the need to crack down on those who dare to speak out.

It is not only progressives who are pointing out the dangers of this kind of thought policing. In yesterday’s New York Times, two prominent American Jewish conservatives wrote in very critical terms about how Israel is treating Ms. Alqasem. As they put it: “Societies that shun or expel their critics aren’t protecting themselves. They are advertising their weakness.”

As this story continues to play out, we must continue to focus on resisting the effort to limit the scope of which political speech is considered to be appropriate. We must align ourselves with Israelis who seek to restore liberal democratic values. We must remember that the fight against neo-authoritarianism is a global one.

Earlier today, the court held a hearing over Ms. Alqasem’s case. Whatever it ultimately decides, the cause of keeping Israel an open and pluralistic society will need us to keep fighting.