Every country in the world is allowed to decide who gets to visit. So the government of Israel was within its rights when it announced over the weekend that it would deny entry to senior leaders and high profile activists from 20 organizations that support the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
Personally, I don’t favor BDS, which I consider a cynical attempt to unfairly single out Israel and stifle the very exchange of ideas and goods that could help promote an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Plus, many BDS proponents won’t say whether they want to end the occupation, or put an end to Israel as a Jewish state.
It’s one thing to mount a targeted boycott. It’s another thing to obliterate a nation.
Nor am I personally a fan of Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the six American-based groups on the list. I find its tactics deplorable and I do not trust its motives.
But I can oppose BDS and dislike JVP and still believe that this blacklist is a really dumb idea. Because it is. The optics are terrible, while it’s not clear what such a blacklist accomplishes. And this new policy again raises uncomfortable questions about the Israel government’s continued attempts to narrow the definition of who gets to be a Jew.
“We have shifted from defense to offense,” Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan told Haaretz in defending the move. “The boycott organizations need to know that the State of Israel will act against them and not allow [them] to enter its territory to harm its citizens.”
Oh, I see. So if you say you’ll boycott us, we’ll boycott you first. Sounds a little like President Trump’s diplomatic strategy with North Korea.
Even if in principle Israel has the right to bar entry to those who favor these delegitimizing tactics, I still don’t understand what it hopes to prevent. To succeed — and so far it has not been very successful — BDS needs adherents outside Israel, not inside. And does Erdan really believe that JVP poses a threat if its members try to organize Palestinians living in the occupied territories? Those Palestinians don’t need to be told by an American activist what’s wrong with their lives.
If there are truly bad actors hidden among these 20 organizations — individuals who are demonstrably trying to harm Israel — the government can quietly deny them visas without any equivocation. But publicizing a blacklist just turns those groups into free-speech martyrs, encouraging even their critics to support them against this overreach.
Why, even the Jewish Agency for Israel won’t apply this blacklist to its immigration policies. “We will not prevent people from making aliyah for their political beliefs,” Yigal Palmor, director of public affairs and communications, told Haaretz.
This may be one case where the famously fractured Israeli government’s organizational dysfunction is a good thing. One minister says one thing, but that doesn’t stop another minister from doing the opposite.
The cumulative effect, however, is dispiriting. Already, the Netanyahu government has succumbed to ultra-Orthodox pressure to narrow the religious definition of who is a Jew — and therefore, who is eligible for the privilege of residing in Israel. If blanket political litmus tests are to be applied as well, then the Zionist aspiration of Israel as the homeland of all the Jewish people is put in jeopardy, isn’t it?
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Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.