ADL, J Street and Reform movement back student BDS activist barred by Israel

Israel’s decision to block Lara Alqasem from entering country harms Jewish state’s democracy, US groups say; a Tel Aviv court rules ban is legal

American Lara Alqasem, center, sits in a courtroom prior to a hearing at the district court in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
American Lara Alqasem, center, sits in a courtroom prior to a hearing at the district court in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Several progressive American Jewish groups have given their support to a US student refused entry to Israel and held at the airport for 10 days over her alleged support for anti-Israel boycott efforts, saying the move undermined Israel’s democracy.

The case of Lara Alqasem has been one of the most resonant and controversial since a 2017 Israeli law banned entry to supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates a boycott of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.

On Friday, a Tel Aviv court upheld the government ban, saying the state was acting legitimately to protect itself. Alqasem now faces deportation, but will not be required to leave before Sunday and may choose to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In a statement Thursday to JTA, an Anti-Defamation League spokesperson said Israel should open its democratic society to its opponents.

“We stand by our earlier position that Israel’s democracy, pluralism, and open society serve as one of the best arguments against the BDS movement,” said the ADL, which has previously criticized the boycott entry ban.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO And National Director of the Anti-Defamation League testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2017, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on responses to the increase in religious hate crimes. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“We believe that enabling people to see and experience Israel for themselves is the best antidote to those who seek to de-legitimize and demonize it.”

Statements from the Reform movement and J Street U, J Street’s college arm, likewise said that barring Alqasem does not accord with Israel’s democratic values.

“The Reform Movement categorically opposes BDS,” Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, the Union for Reform Judaism vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism, said in a statement Wednesday. “But at the same time, we believe this type of blunt and shortsighted approach toward activists who pose no security threat is inconsistent with Israel’s commitment to an open and free democracy.”

“As pro-Israel, pro-peace American Jewish student activists, we strongly oppose attempts to silence and repress college students or any other individuals on the basis of non-violent political views and activities,” J Street U wrote in a letter Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who heads the state’s anti-boycott activities.

Illustrative: Students protest at an anti-Israel demonstration at the University of California, Irvine. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)

Following the court ruling Friday, Erdan praised the ruling, saying that Alqasem was an active member of a BDS group and that she had deleted her social media accounts to obscure her activism.

“The court clearly declared that a state has the right to protect itself not only in matters of security, but also to fight boycotts against its products, culture or standing,” he said in a statement Friday evening. “The judge emphasized that the decision was not made to deter visiting students because not every student serves as the president of a branch of a prominent boycott organization and tries to hide such by erasing their social media accounts.”

In its ruling, the court said that “any self-respecting state defends its own interests and those of its citizens, and has the right to fight against the actions of a boycott… as well as any attacks on its image.”

Alqasem, from the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, suburb of Southwest Ranches, is a former president of the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. The group is associated with BDS.

The judge, Erez Yekuel, found that there was “no disputing” that Alqasem was a member of an organization that called to boycott Israel between 2014-2017, and for two years was the president of its Florida campus chapter, and that the organization allegedly urged the “boycott of Israeli society” and expressed support for those who carried out activities to harm Israel.

US student Lara Alqasem sits for a hearing at the Tel Aviv District Court on October 11, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

He cited contradictions in her testimony, noted that she had wiped her social media history, and found that the state had the right to bar someone who sought to harm the country’s economy and image.

The 22-year-old American, who has Palestinian grandparents, landed at Ben Gurion Airport last week with a valid student visa; she was registered to study a human rights one-year program at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

But she was barred from entering the country and ordered deported, based on allegations that she was an activist in the boycott movement. She has been held at an immigration facility at the airport while she sought to fight the entry ban. Israel said she could leave at any time but would have to renounce the boycott movement if she wished to be reconsidered for admission.

The Hebrew University, which had supported her appeal, condemned Friday’s decision.

“Alqasem decided to study and live in Israel against the principles of the boycott and even stated her opposition to BDS,” the university said. “We are convinced this decision does not help our struggle, and even harms academic efforts in Israel to draw students and researchers from overseas.”

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