American Jews who love Israel and see boycott as a tool to change the country for the better are anguished over a new Israeli law that could ban them from visiting the country they cherish.
Israel’s parliament passed a law February 6 to ban advocates of the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, otherwise known as BDS. The law is meant to target activists who intend to do “serious damage” to Israel, a spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs told the Forward this week. But the law’s vague wording could mean it also locks out people who feel a strong affinity for Israel, including many American Jews who advocate for a boycott of Israel or its West Bank settlements.
“I feel it in my kishkes [guts],” Ellen Lippmann, the rabbi at Brooklyn’s Kolot Chayeinu, said of the new law. “It’s not just a matter of the mind, it’s a matter of the heart and the kishkes.”
Lippmann said she “fell in love” with Israel when she spent a year there during rabbinical school. Today, the love remains, but she is also critical of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, and says that settlements play an “immense role” in preventing the end of Israel’s West Bank occupation.
While Kolot Chayeinu doesn’t take an official stance on BDS, Lippmann herself boycotts products made in Israeli settlements. It’s a stance she has shared with her congregation by mailing out a list of settlement goods to avoid.
Lippmann, who travels to Israel with her congregation and with Rabbis For Human Rights, said that she isn’t sure if the ban will apply to her. She is more concerned about its effect on several of her congregants who are active supporters of BDS.
One such congregant is Carolyn Klaasen, who also serves on the board of Kolot Chayeinu and is a member of Jewish Voice For Peace, an organization that promotes BDS.
“Basically, if you Google my name, you see BDS,” she said in an email to the Forward.
Klaasen, who had intended to travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories in the coming years, said that it will remain to be seen whether Israel enforces the ban against her and fellow Jewish activists. The prospect that it would is very painful, she said.
“I was surprised by how much it hurt to be banned from Israel because I use nonviolent tactics to stand in solidarity with Palestinians,” she said. “That being said, I know this ban is so much harder for so many Palestinians, and I am proud to keep supporting the BDS movement until we can all come and go freely.”
Some activists are concerned about being separated from their family members who live in Israel. Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of JVP, lived in Israel for three years and travels there once a year. She is married to an Israeli, and her children have Israeli citizenship. Under the new law, she believes that she will no longer be allowed in to visit her husband’s family and her aunt, uncle and cousins who all live in Israel.
“Not being able to enter is a serious loss for me personally,” she said, calling Israel “a place that has been very important to me throughout my life.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Morton Klein, head of the right wing Zionist Organization of America, said that Israel was right to keep out American Jews with family in Israel if they are using their trips to the Holy Land to promote the boycott.
While other Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and J Street, have decried the boycott law, the ZOA supports it as a way for Israel to protect itself against those whose goal it is to “destroy Israel,” Klein said.
Forward senior columnist Peter Beinart, who supports the boycott of settlement goods while buying from inside Israel, said that the law lumps in Israel’s most severe critics with those who love it but want to change it, placing everyone into “enemy camp.”
He said that the law is just one incident incrementally distancing liberal American Jews from Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of President Trump, whom most American Jews voted against, is another.
“There is a massive conflict of worldview and values there, and the forces that are interested in finding some ways of reconciling those are growing weaker and less relevant,” he said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.