Netanyahu says detention, questioning of Peter Beinart at airport a ‘mistake’
PM says 'Israel is an open society which welcomes all'

Netanyahu says detention, questioning of Peter Beinart at airport a ‘mistake’

Prominent journalist is latest in a string of progressive US Jews questioned about their political affiliations, support for Palestinians, while trying to enter Israel

Illustrative: Author Peter Beinart waits to speak at an event November 14, 2012, in Atlanta.  (AP Photo/ David Goldman/File)
Illustrative: Author Peter Beinart waits to speak at an event November 14, 2012, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/ David Goldman/File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday condemned the detention and questioning of prominent liberal US Jewish journalist Peter Beinart at Ben Gurion Airport, saying the step was an “administrative mistake.”

Beinart said Monday that he was detained at the airport and interrogated for an hour about his political views, before being allowed to enter Israel. The move follows several recent incidents of left-wing US Jews being questioned about their political views on entering Israel.

In an op-ed for The Forward, a liberal Jewish publication for which he regularly writes, Beinart said officials provided no explanation for his detention.

But Netanyahu said Beinart’s detention was a mistake.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu heard of Mr. Beinart’s questioning at Ben Gurion airport and immediately spoke with Israel’s security forces to inquire how this happened,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement published in English only.

“He was told it was an administrative mistake,” the statement continued. “Israel is an open society which welcomes all — critics and supporters alike. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where people voice their opinions freely and robustly.”

The Shin Bet security service also apologized, saying the detention stemmed from a “judgement error” by the officers.

“We are sorry for the distress caused to Mr. Beinart,” it said in a statement, adding that the Shin Bet’s chief had ordered an investigation into the case.

Beinart said he would not immediately accept Netanyahu’s apology.

“Benjamin Netanyahu has half-apologized for my detention yesterday at Ben Gurion airport,” he tweeted. “I’ll accept when he apologizes to all the Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans who every day endure far worse.”

Simone Zimmerman. (YouTube screenshot)

Beinart is the latest progressive American Jewish activist to be detained and questioned upon entering Israel. Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of the progressive Jewish group IfNotNow; Abby Kirschbaum, who works for an Israeli-Palestinian tour company; and the novelist Moriel Rothman-Zecher were all recently detained and questioned about their protest activity.

In early July, the Jewish pro-boycott activist Ariel Gold was denied entry into Israel. A law passed last year allows Israel to bar supporters of the BDS movement, which encourages boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

“Now, it seems, the Knesset wants me to choose,” Beinart wrote in a 2017 column criticizing the entry law. “Either stop visiting Israel or stop opposing the occupation. In a variety of ways, that’s the deal Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been offering American Jews for close to a decade now. Embrace Israel at the cost of your principles or embrace your principles at the cost of Israel.”

Beinart’s detention was slammed by left-wing figures, who called for an investigation into Israel’s apparent new policy of blacklisting liberal US Jews.

Former opposition leader and new Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog said that he had appealed to the Knesset to investigate the policy at the borders as long ago as May. “Unfortunately the damage to Israel’s reputation and the unnecessary uproar among the Jews of the diaspora were caused for nothing,” he said.

“How idiotic do you need to be to think Peter Beinart is any sort of danger to the State of Israel?” asked Zehava Galon, former leader of the Meretz opposition party.

“An insane story,” Galon added. “It is time to expose the blacklists and the criteria for being included in them.”

The liberal Jewish group J Street also condemned the “political interrogation,” saying Israel was descending into a “dark and dangerous abyss.”

Yael Patir, the organization’s director in Israel, said that “if the Israeli government wants any ties with the vast majority of US Jewry, as well as the preservation of Israeli democracy, the political interrogations must stop immediately.”

Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, which supports a range of progressive Israeli organizations, called the questioning of left-wing activists “morally unacceptable and anti-democratic.”

“The Netanyahu government has shown once again that it is now a matter of policy to use border crossings as interrogation chambers,” Sokatch said in a statement Monday. “The government is demonstrating that the test for entering the country is a political one — either you agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-right wing coalition or you’re subject to questioning, intimidation, or refusal.”

Depressing, but not frightening

Beinart, a frequent critic of Israel’s policies, said he arrived Sunday with his wife and two children to attend his niece’s bat mitzvah celebration, and that security officers at the airport flagged him for extra screening.

He was taken for questioning, where an official repeatedly asked him whether he was involved in organizations that could provoke violence, promote anarchy, or threaten Israeli democracy.

The interrogator also asked about a pro-Palestinian protest Beinart attended in Hebron during his last visit to Israel, according to the piece.

But Beinart, a supporter of settlement boycotts, said he was never asked about the issue, and was not offered a legal basis for the detention.

After assuring the officer he was not going to attend another protest and making a phone call to Gaby Lasky, a lawyer affiliated with the New Israel Fund, Beinart was freed, he said, and allowed to enter the country.

Peter Beinart (photo credit: CC BY-ND Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr)
Peter Beinart (CC BY-ND Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr)

“The conversation was depressing, but not frightening. I never felt scared or victimized,” Beinart wrote, adding that he enjoyed “national, religious and class privilege,” compared to others detained trying to enter Israel.

He claimed that the ordeal showed how Israel has been “emboldened” by US President Donald Trump’s tough border policies, having last year banned citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.

“An Israeli government led by men who respect neither liberal democracy nor the rule of law now knows it has kindred spirits in Washington,” he charged, saying the Jewish state was “getting uglier.”

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