Just what is the Israeli government afraid of?
I asked myself this question on Sunday afternoon after receiving a text message and subsequent phone call from Peter Beinart, a senior columnist for the Forward, who had been detained at Ben Gurion International Airport on his way to attend his niece’s bat mitzvah in Israel.
I understand why a sovereign nation, especially one in as dicey a neighborhood as Israel, would carefully scrutinize incoming visitors for risk of terrorism and other violence. Honestly, I’ve been impressed by Israel’s sophisticated vetting of travellers ever since I was in London’s Heathrow airport in 1986 when El Al security guards, and not their British counterparts, foiled an attempt to bring explosives on an airplane carrying 376 passengers bound for Tel Aviv.
Closer to home, there is ample room for debate about how Israel should defend its own border against, say, attacks from protesters in Gaza.
But treating a journalist like a potential terrorist only because he has challenged Israeli government policies using words and argument, while still proclaiming — and living out — his love for Israel?
How does that keep anyone safer?
Beinart’s story is becoming all too familiar. After he, his wife and two children showed their American passports, he was pulled aside for questioning, and then interrogated by one security official and then another. Pointedly, they asked him whether he supported organizations that threaten Israeli democracy.
No, Beinart answered.
It should have ended there, if it had to start at all, but the questioning continued. By the end, Beinart wrote, he realized two things: He was never offered any legal basis for his detention. He was never given any “consistent or objective standard” for his detention, either. Beinart had participated in a legal, peaceful protest the last time he was in Israel, and it seemed the government was worried he would do so again.
In other words, he was suspect for openly acting on his beliefs, even though those beliefs and those actions were entirely consistent with Israel’s vaunted democracy.
Clearly, this ham-handed, incoherent attempt at intimidation embarrassed the government. Within hours of the Forward publishing Beinart’s account, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying that the detention was an “administrative mistake.”
But when I asked the spokesperson for the Israeli consulate in New York whether that explains other recent detentions — Meyer Koplow, philanthropist and chair of Brandeis University’s board; Simone Zimmerman, co-founder of the anti-occupation group #IfNotNow — she replied: “The statement refers specifically to Mr. Beinart.”
It seems that these attempts to prevent visits or harass individuals at the border have increased since a law, enacted last year, allows Israel to bar entry to people who advocate boycott of the country or of the illegal settlements in the West Bank. But I could not find independent analysis to confirm that suspicion.
So the question remains: What is Israel afraid of?
Yes, there is the persistent conflict with Gaza, which on occasion has flared into real danger for Israelis living along the border, and the nagging possibility of violence on Israel’s northern border. But there’s hardly evidence of liberal-minded American Jews aiding Hamas or Syria or any other protagonist plotting war.
The answer, obviously, is the growing, almost hysterical, fear of the boycott, divestment and sanction movement. I don’t support that movement, because I don’t believe it is the strategic path toward promoting real peace and because its leaders refuse to say whether they want an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories, or an end to Israel as a Jewish state.
But I appreciate why some activists have turned to BDS as a non-violent form of protest, a way to inflict economic damage without physically harming individuals and communities.
Surely a country with as sophisticated a security apparatus as Israel ought to be able to distinguish between a person posing a genuine threat and a journalist practicing the right to free speech and the dissemination of ideas. Or the activist seeking peaceful change. Or the philanthropist supporting civic renewal.
And surely a country “where people can voice their opinions freely and robustly,” as Netanyahu said in his statement about Beinart, should know the difference between collecting intelligence on the bad guys and stockpiling what should be innocuous information about the good guys.
More importantly, the detentions of Beinart, Zimmerman, Koplow and others are telegenic diversions from the more serious violations of human rights suffered by Palestinians. As Zimmerman told me after her detention earlier this month: “My main concern right now is to be sure folks understand that what happened to me and others is a fraction of what Palestinians experience daily.”
And that story is, perhaps, what Israel is truly afraid of confronting.
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner. Sign up here for her weekly newsletter, Jane Looking Forward.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.