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Seriously, Boycotters: If the Goal of Your Visit is to Harm Israel, Stay Home

Ever since a group of right-wing and centrist lawmakers joined forces to ban foreigners boycotting Israel from entering its borders, Israel’s amendment to its 1952 Entry into Israel Law from anti-Israel activists, it also sparked the ire of many who whole-heartedly support the Jewish state and oppose the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Most recently, the brouhaha re-erupted when five “famous and significant” radical BDS-promoters were barred from flying from the U.S. into Israel.

There’s a radical irony to the hysterical response these individuals had to being barred from Israel, one that is no doubt lost on the boycotted boycotters. By exercising their own First Amendment rights to vent on social media and in the press, these activists, working to undermine and undo the country 24/7, are now upset at being kept out of the very country that they so despise.

But laying aside this irony, those who oppose this law are wrong. Most of these criticisms of the law, which passed in the Knesset this past March in a 46-28 vote, have been overblown. In fact, the amended Entry Law shouldn’t make it difficult for the vast majority of people who criticize Israel to get tourist visas, as was re-iterated this week in a joint statement issued by Interior Minister Arye Dery and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan.

The statement was offered a day after the latest controversy erupted, and it enumerated a list of criteria that the Interior Ministry plans to use in determining who will be barred. To meet the criteria, you have to hold a senior-level position in certain targeted organizations, be key activists in the boycott movement, be an establishment figure who openly supports the boycott, or operate on behalf of the targeted organizations.

In other words, if you’re a left-wing Jewish-American college student who tweeted using the hashtag #BDS; a faculty member who made a one-time donation to a BDS-supporting organization; or a rabbi who signed a resolution favoring the boycott of products from West Bank settlements at some point in her life, you will not be banned from Israel.

The law also won’t apply to organizations that are “anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian,” much less to foreigners critical of settlements. Israel’s government has neither the manpower nor the interest in establishing such a self-imposed quarantine.

Rather than stifling free speech, the law is a long overdue corrective to the absurd situation that’s developed in Israel in recent years, in which high-profile foreign nationals have routinely taken advantage of the country’s democracy in order to work against it.

But the leaders of the BDS movement are legend for taking advantage of Israel’s democratic institutions. Think of the Qatari-born Omar Barghouti, founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) who opposes Jewish self-determination and calls on the world to isolate Israel. Despite all this, Barghouti chose to study for an advanced degree at Tel Aviv University. Then you’ve got prominent anti-Israel campaigner Ken Loach, who wants every musician and artist to stop performing in Israel, apparently exempts his own films, which have been screened in the country without his objection since the early 1990s, from the anti-Israel cultural boycott.

Why would people who so detest Israel want to go there, study there, or screen their films there? It makes sense only in the context of the BDS-promoting tourist activism that’s gone unimpeded for years, and at which the newly amended entry law takes aim. Prominent representatives of major BDS organizations who go to Israel, like the five hardcore BDS activists who were prevented from boarding their flight this past Monday, don’t arrive to do touristy things like creating life-long memories at the country’s holy sites, natural wonders, cultural venues, or world-class restaurants.

Instead, they visit so that they can engage in anti-Israel political activity and collect new material for delegitimizing the state and vilifying its people once they get back home. While in-country, they gather false information that they can later use in propaganda footage for the media and to promote and spread demonizing anti-Israel narratives. More than a few can be found out and about harassing and obstructing IDF and security personnel at protests. Such activities go beyond simply “advocating” for a boycott.

And Israel has long taken the liberty of keeping such people out of its borders. In fact, one of the few legitimate criticisms of the law focuses on the fact that it’s largely redundant. The Interior Ministry already has considerable leeway and broad authority to ban people from the country by denying or revoking visas and deporting them upon their arrival at Ben Gurion Airport. It had done so on a number of recent occasions, for example, last year, Dr. Adam Hanieh, a senior lecturer from SOAS University in London, was denied entry to Israel after he claimed to be headed to Birzeit University in Ramallah to teach a graduate class there. A major player in UK-based BDS campaigns, he was turned away because of his support for Hamas in his various writings and banned from Israel for ten years.

Indeed, Israel isn’t unique in refusing entry to foreigners who are considered high-threat security risks, like those with suspected links to terrorist groups or known to have voiced radical sentiments.

This brings me to one of the main benefits of the new law. Prior to the amendment, senior-level BDS activists who came to Israel from a friendly country could stay on 3-month visas unless they were specifically singled out for non-entry by the Interior Ministry. Now, the Minister is required not to issue visas to these virulently anti-Israel activists who meet the criteria of “actively, consistently, and continuously” promoting boycotts through their organizational work. In other words, the newly amended law will make such bans more transparent because these individuals will no longer be refused entry into Israel at the sole discretion of the Minister of the Interior.

The advantage here — especially once the government publishes the “complete list” of pro-BDS organizations that would be targeted and automatically banned by the new law — is that there’ll be a clear rationale for what looked like arbitrary and unjustified visa denials and expulsions based on a whim.

Critics of the law stand on firmer ground in pointing out that the spectacle of interrogating academics and clergy at the country’s gates, or informing airlines that they not allow them to board flights, is a “public relations disaster” that would give more fuel and ammunition to Israel’s enemies by making it appear like the government is trying to gag people and stifle legitimate political debate. But while Israel may be facing PR havoc, this doesn’t mean it is violating legal, ethical, or even common sense norms.

As is always the case, Israel will be damned if it does and damned if doesn’t. But on this issue, as with all other matters, Israel should be held to the same standards as everyone else. But this is clearly too much to ask.

Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University.

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