Hebrew U. head backs detained US student, warns case harms anti-BDS efforts

‘What’s being done hurts our activities against BDS,’ Asher Cohen says as university asks to join appeal against deportation of alleged boycott supporter Lara Alqasem

Hebrew University President Prof. Asher Cohen (Courtesy)
Hebrew University President Prof. Asher Cohen (Courtesy)

The Hebrew University on Tuesday threw its support behind a US student of Palestinian descent, who has been held at Ben Gurion Airport for a week and faces deportation for allegedly supporting an Israel boycott.

Lara Alqasem, 22, who has Palestinian grandparents, was prevented from entering the country after arriving at Ben Gurion Airport last Tuesday, despite having received a student visa from the Israeli Consulate in Miami to study in a masters program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has been held in a airport detention facility ever since while she appeals to be let in, arguing that she does not support a boycott of Israel.

Hebrew University president Asher Cohen said Tuesday that the fact Alqasem wants to study at the school was proof she does not support a boycott, but the attention her case had drawn could end up giving ammunition to actual supporters of the BDS movement.

“What’s being done regarding this student hurts our activities against BDS,” Cohen told Army Radio. “She wants to come here and learn. For a year…. She says she’s coming to study for a year. … That activity of hers is against BDS.”

The Population Immigration and Border Authority has said the decision to stop Alqasem at the airport was due to her “boycott activity,” while Strategic Affairs Ministry officials said she was a member of the National Students for Justice in Palestine, a campus group that calls for boycotting Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians.

This undated photo provided by Alqasem family shows Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old American graduate student with Palestinian grandparents, who landed at Ben-Gurion Airport Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, with a valid student visa. She was barred from entering the country and ordered deported, based on allegations that she supports the BDS boycott movement. (Alqasem family via AP)

Israel enacted a law last year banning any foreigner who “knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel” from entering the country. It also has identified 20 activist groups from around the world whose members can be denied entry upon arrival. It so far has blocked 15 people from entering, according to Erdan’s ministry.

On Monday, the Hebrew University asked to be included in a Tel Aviv District Court petition Alqasem filed against her deportation.

Cohen said the university supports the law that bars BDS activists, “but this is [a legal battle] over the interpretation of the law. The law is intended to stop BDS activists. But that’s not what she’s coming here to do.”

Israel’s universities “are targeted by BDS… and are on the front line in the battle against BDS,” Cohen said. “We’re always against BDS.”

Illustrative: Signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011 (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)

On Monday, a group of university heads in Israel sent a letter to Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud), whose ministry is responsible for countering the BDS movement, arguing that holding or deporting Alqasem could end up hurting Israel by giving backing to critics of the country, Haaretz reported.

Alqasem is registered to study human rights at the Hebrew University.

Erdan has criticized the university for supporting the student’s court appeal against her impending deportation.

“The Hebrew University is working together with the extreme left here,” he told Army Radio Tuesday.

But he also said that if Alqasem were to renounce her past activities and publicly declare that boycott efforts are not legitimate, he would reconsider her case.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on September 13, 2018. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

“If Lara Alqasem will tomorrow in her own voice, not through all kinds of lawyers or statements that can be misconstrued, say that support for BDS is not legitimate and she regrets what she did, we will certainly reconsider our position,” he said.

Alqasem, from the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Southwest Ranches, Florida, is a former president of the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. The group is a branch of the BDS movement, whose name comes from its calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

In her appeal, Alqasem has argued that she never actively participated in boycott campaigns, and promised the court that she would not promote them in the future.

“We’re talking about someone who simply wants to study in Israel, who is not boycotting anything,” said her lawyer, Yotam Ben-Hillel. “She’s not even part of the student organization anymore.”

On Monday, Erdan called claims that Alqasem didn’t support BDS “fake news.”

The ministry uses a variety of sources to identify BDS activists, including tips from informants and social media posts. The ministry says its suspicions were deepened after learning that Alqasem recently deleted all of her social media accounts.

Alqasem also received a boost from her former Hebrew professor at the University of Florida, who described her as an exceptional and curious student. In a letter to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Dror Abend-David said she had an “open and positive attitude toward Judaism, Jews, and the State of Israel.”

In an interview from Florida, her mother, Karen Alqasem, affirmed her daughter’s tolerance and intellectual drive.

“Studying and getting to know the country was Lara’s dream for as long as I can remember,” she told The Associated Press. “She may have been critical of some of Israel’s policies in the past but she respects Israeli society and culture. To her, this isn’t a contradiction.”

Her lawyer and a group of opposition lawmakers have visited Alqasem and say she is in safe, but subpar, conditions. In a conversation with her daughter last Friday, Alqasem said Lara complained of a bedbug infestation in her cell. With her phone confiscated and communication mostly restricted to calls with her lawyer, Lara has felt “completely cut off from the world,” she said.

Erdan has argued she is free to leave, but by doing so she would forfeit her appeal.

In addition to the anti-BDS campaign, Israel has detained or interrogated a number of vocal Jewish critics, both Israeli and foreign, about their political views while entering the country in recent months. These tactics, along with legislation curbing the influence of anti-occupation advocacy groups, have raised concerns that the nationalist government is trying to stifle dissent.

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