BY HANK REICHMAN
On Monday, the Association of University Heads of Israel sent a strongly-worded letter to Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan warning of damage caused to Israel by the ministry’s decision to bar American student Lara Alqasem from entering the country, the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports. The letter came a day after the Hebrew University of Jerusalem asked to join Alqasem’s appeal to the district court against the decision to deport her. In addition, faculty members at several universities have joined in protesting her detention at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Alqasem, who graduated from the University of Florida, was accepted into a Master’s program at Hebrew University and granted a visa by the Israeli consulate in Miami but was denied entry upon her arrival. She appealed the decision and has since been detained pending a final ruling on her case. Her first appeal was denied. The second appeal is scheduled to be heard October 14 – the date she was set to begin her studies at Hebrew University – but her lawyers have asked for it to be held earlier. In her testimony to the appeals court last week, Alqasem said, “I don’t support BDS. If I supported it, I wouldn’t be able to come to Israel as a student.”
The ministry’s decision to deny her entry was based on several Facebook posts and a profile compiled by the disreputable American right-wing website Canary Mission. In a previous post to this blog I wrote, “Canary Mission is nothing but a blacklist, pure and simple. It echoes the long-discredited and horrific blacklists of the McCarthy era.” Canary Mission’s “file” on Alqasem, although some 1,500 words long, includes just two pieces of “evidence” linking her to the BDS movement: that she served as an officer of Students for Justice in Palestine and attended one demonstration against the presence of Israeli-produced Sabra Hummus in the university cafeteria. Concluded David Schraub, lecturer in law and senior research fellow at the California Constitution Center, UC Berkeley School of Law, and a BDS opponent, “There’s no evidence that Ms. Alqasem holds views remotely similar to the ones which putatively justify labeling some BDS leaders security risks, and simply intoning ‘security threat’ as a rote reflex justification for deporting a scholar is the hallmark of a police state.”
“Who knew that a single case of ‘involvement’ in an anti-hummus protest was all it would take to bring Israel to its knees?” Schraub continued. “What we’re seeing in this case more clearly than perhaps any other is the tacit alliance between far-left BDS activists and Israel’s increasingly illiberal right-wing government. In the present case, after all, the Israeli government has lined up decisively against one of its own universities (Hebrew University has vociferously backed its admitted student) and against the principle of free academic exchange. Which is another way of saying it has, in effect, joined the BDS cause. . . . Now, BDS and anti-BDS join under the same banner: fear of open debate, terror at what might be said or heard if the ‘wrong’ sorts are allowed to talk. A terrible alliance, joined in twinned illiberalism ”
The Association of University Heads is a voluntary body formed by the heads of Israel’s eight research universities. In the letter the group’s current leader, Tel Aviv University President Joseph Klafter, wrote that in a June meeting with Minister Erdan there was agreement that “preliminary consultation” with the committee or with the host academic institution would take place when the ministry believed that a potential foreign scholar “is involved in the call for a boycott of Israel and for its delegimitization.” Klafter added that he was “not going to get into the reasons that led to the young woman’s detention,” but stressed that “no consultation occurred between officials from your ministry and the Hebrew University concerning her. Even after she was detained, the academic institution was not contacted about it.”
The letter asked that working teams of the Strategic Affairs Ministry should be instructed “to make prior contact with the host academic institution or researcher inviting international students or foreign scientists to Israel – before an order to detain them at the airport is issued. The same kind of procedure should be used by officials of the Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry and the Shin Bet at your instruction – in order to minimize the damage to Israel’s reputation and its image in the world of academia.”
That potential damage was central to the association’s concerns. “The damage caused to Israel and Israeli academia as a whole, to the Israeli universities and particularly to Israeli scientists and researchers abroad by decisions of this kind could well exceed the potential damage, if any, of permitting her to enter Israel,” Klafter wrote.
On Monday, the Hebrew University senate passed a resolution calling the university “a place for the exchange of ideas, and for acquiring and creating knowledge. It is a place that does not shy from disagreements and is pleased to hear multiple voices. The minister’s decision not to permit the student’s entry solely because of her views constitutes a threat to what the institution of the university represents.” The resolution added, “The minister’s move – which raises questions about the independence that Israeli academia is given by government policy – actually has the effect of bolstering any such boycott.”
Yesterday, the Israeli scholars were joined by faculty members at Alqasem’s alma mater. In a letter to Israeli officials professor of Jewish and German Studies Eric Kligerman, who taught Alqasem in two Jewish studies seminars, wrote, “Her predicament is nothing short of the Kafkaesque. Although she has come to Israel to study justice, she now finds herself in limbo and held in custody, accused by faceless individuals by virtue of her presumed associations with the BDS movement.”
Writing separately, Tamir Sorek, a sociology professor who taught Alqasem in a course on “Israelis and Palestinians,” wrote that “she showed sincere curiosity and human empathy for all parties involved. Lara developed a desire to learn about Israel directly, through graduate studies at an Israeli university. As a young woman whose grandparents were Palestinian refugees, she had to cross considerable emotional barriers to reach this decision. It was [a decision] also criticized by BDS activists who saw the decision as a violation of the boycott they preach,” he wrote.
Jack Kugelmass, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida, wrote: “It’s truly unfortunate that Arab visitors and Arab Israelis are repeatedly facing detention when they come to visit or try to return to Israel. Aside from the human rights concern, I face a more practical issue. I want our students to spend time in Israel. I want them to learn Hebrew. And I want them to get to know the richness and complexity of Israeli society and culture. But I cannot promote pursuing study abroad in Israel if a component of our students are excluded.”
Israel recently passed a law barring entry to foreign nationals who support the BDS movement. The law was previously employed to deny entry to Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke. In August, AAUP’s Committee A released a letter to Minister Erdan and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri urging revocation of that decision. As I wrote in an op-ed piece explaining that action, the Israeli law “threatens nothing less than an academic counterboycott, as inimical or more to academic freedom as anything advocated by the BDS movement itself. . . . [T]he Israeli government’s efforts to bar scholars like Professor Franke are no less a violation of the free academic exchange essential to the growth of international scholarship and understanding than the academic boycott to which they are a misguided response.”
I continue to oppose academic boycotts, including the academic boycott of Israel, as potential violations of academic freedom. As I’ve previously written, with respect to the BDS issue more broadly “my sole focus has been on protecting the rights to be heard of both critics and defenders of either the boycott or Israeli policy. As the chair of AAUP’s Committee A I have also tried to keep my personal views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict private, lest there be some chance that they could be misattributed to the AAUP, which has and should have no position on this conflict at all.” But here I must stress that the Alqasem and Franke cases are not simply examples of two wrongs not making a right. The absurdity of denying entry for allegedly supporting the academic boycott of Israel to someone whose very act of seeking entry to study at an Israeli university would itself violate that boycott should be obvious. BDS advocates have only the power of moral suasion. They cannot prevent anyone else from violating the boycott they profess, although the recent case of Professor John Cheney-Lippold suggests they may be able to create minor obstacles. The Israeli government, on the other hand, has on its side the full police power of the state in its efforts to enforce its misguided and destructive counter-boycott.