A US student barred from Israel over past support for a pro-Palestinian boycott campaign appeared before the Jewish state’s top court Wednesday in a final appeal against the state’s decision.
Lara Alqasem, 22, landed at Ben Gurion Airport on October 2, for master’s degree studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Despite having a visa, she was not allowed to clear immigration, due to a 2017 law barring supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
At Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing, Alqasem’s lawyer said the state should apply common sense when applying the law against BDS supporters.
“Why would she want to enter Israel to call for a boycott?” Yotam Ben Hillel asked.
“She committed to not do so, and is aware” she would be deported if she did campaign, the lawyer added.
Justice Uzi Vogelman asked the court how refusing entry to Alqasam helped the fight against boycotts and met the criteria of the law, given that the university said the prospective student was not an activist.
“We have here someone who is not an activist, declares that she is not an activist and is coming here to study. How does a ban on her entry advance the fight against BDS?” said Vogelman.
Justice Neal Hendel also seemed concerned as to whether the criteria required under the law were being met.
“The law is the law, and the [interior] minister [can use their] judgment, but is there a sufficient basis for revoking her entry at this stage?” Hendel asked.
Meanwhile Justice Anat Baron said that it should be questioned whether there was legal basis for the barring.
“There is no evidence of activities now, just concerns, and it’s good that we be concerned, but where do the concerns find expression in the law?”
Alqasem, reportedly of Palestinian descent, was president of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine during her undergraduate studies at the University of Florida.
The group has supported boycott campaigns against Israel.
The state’s representative argued that the interior ministry had the authority to prevent Alqasem’s entry, based on the law and her past actions, which indicated a “central role” in her organization.
The panel of three judges adjourned the hearing ahead of reaching and publishing a decision.
Alqasem, who says she left SJP in 2017 and was no longer part of the BDS movement, has decided to stay in Israel and challenge the decision. Two appeals to lower courts have been rejected. She has been held at an airport detentions facility.
Announcing its decision Friday, the district court judge said that the government’s entry ban was in accordance with the law.
In its ruling last week, Tel Aviv District 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.”
The judge, Erez Yekuel, found that there was “no disputing” that Alqasem from 2014-17 was a member of an organization that called to boycott Israel, 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.
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.
That ruling came a day after Israel’s strategic affairs minister said he had rejected a letter sent to him by Alqasem’s lawyers promising she wouldn’t participate in boycott activities during her stay in Israel.
Gilad Erdan said the letter failed to comply with criteria he had detailed. “The text doesn’t comply with what I said,” Erdan said. “It didn’t say she renounces what she did in the past or that she promises not to do so in the future. It said, more or less, that during the period of her studies in Israel she won’t be involved in boycott activities.”
Erdan alleged that the letter’s text “reveals the fact that she backs the ideology of the boycott and isolation of the State of Israel.”
Alqasem 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 wants Alqasem to undertake her studies. A representative said foreign students and researchers provide “oxygen” for local academia, while their presence could counter boycott efforts.
“We think that if people come and live here, they’ll see we’re not an apartheid state,” the university’s attorney Pepi Yakirevich said in court on Wednesday.
In March 2017, the Knesset passed a law banning the entry of supporters of BDS, a movement inspired by an international campaign against South Africa before the fall of apartheid.
The judges questioned the point of barring a person who was no longer active in the BDS movement.
But outside court, an attorney for a right-wing NGO insisted Alqasem would resume campaigning activity if allowed to enter Israel.
“There are enough circumstances and supporting evidence to all our claims that prove that Lara Alqasem isn’t here in order to be a regular student and gain an education,” said Yaakov Cohen of Im Tirtzu.
Her true aim is “to incite and create provocations,” he added.
Israel says Alqasem is free to leave the country should she choose to do so. The case has drawn widespread criticism from a range of international and Jewish groups.