The United States said Wednesday that it supports freedom of expression and was in touch with a Florida student who has been refused entry into Israel over her alleged support for a pro-Palestinian boycott campaign.
The student, 22-year-old Lara Alqasem, appeared in Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday in her legal battle to be allowed to enter Israel for a year-long study program.
The State Department said that the US Embassy in Jerusalem was offering consular assistance to Alqasem, who has chosen to challenge her Israel entry ban and has been held at the airport for a week. Israeli authorities said Thursday she is being held at an immigration facility but is not under arrest.
“As a general principle, we value freedom of expression even in cases where we don’t agree with the political views expressed and this is such a case,” State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters.
“Our strong opposition to the boycotts and sanctions of the state of Israel is well-known,” he said.
But he added: “Israel is a sovereign nation that can determine who enters.”
The comments appeared to be stronger than the previous US position on the case; State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday that the government was aware of the matter, but “ultimately, it is up to the government of Israel to decide who it wants to let into the country.”
Alqasem, a 22-year-old US citizen with Palestinian grandparents, landed at Ben Gurion airport last Tuesday with a valid student visa to study in a masters program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But she was barred from entering the country and ordered deported, based on suspicions she is a boycott supporter.
Alqasem has denied she supports the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign against Israel, and has remained at the airport facility for the last eight days while she appeals the deportation order. Israel says she is free to leave the country should she choose to do so, but she is fighting though the courts to be allowed in. The Hebrew University is backing her.
The case has drawn widespread criticism from a range of international and Jewish groups. This was joined Wednesday by two Jewish pro-Israel New York Times columnists who excoriated Jerusalem for what they say are “paranoid policies” over her continued detention.
The column by conservatives Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss in support of Lara Alqasem reflected what analysts say is growing unease in the US Jewish community, even among staunch Israel supporters, with hamhanded policies pursued by the Netanyahu government.
In a joint Wednesday op-ed titled “Why is Israel afraid of this young American?” Stephens and Weiss write that by expelling its harshest critics, Israel is only reinforcing their prejudice.
“Societies that shun or expel their critics aren’t protecting themselves. They are advertising their weakness,” Stephens and Weiss wrote, after expressing their Zionist bona fides. “Does the Jewish state, which prides itself on ingenuity, innovation and adaptability, really have so much to fear from a 22-year-old graduate student from Florida?”
The writers said that expelling boycott supporters “powerfully reinforces the prejudice of those visitors (along with their supporters) that Israel is a discriminatory police state.”
Pushing back against the column, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan defended Israel’s right to bar Alqasem.
“We are doing whatever we believe that is right for the security of the state of Israel and that is more important than whatever the New York Times or other newspapers around the world will say about our policy,” Erdan told the Associated Press Wednesday.
Last year, Israel enacted a law 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 the ministry.
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.
Also Wednesday, more than 300 academics penned a letter in the British Guardian Wednesday calling the case “an attack on academic freedom.”
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.
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 noted that 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.
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.”
Meanwhile, Alqasem’s family said Israel was exaggerating her involvement in SJP, saying she only belonged to the campus group for a semester.
In an interview from Florida, her mother, Karen Alqasem said her daughter has never made any threats against Israel and is not religious.
“She may have been critical of some of Israel’s policies in the past but she respects Israeli society and culture,” she said. “To her, this isn’t a contradiction.”
“She is being treated like a criminal but she is not a criminal,” Karen Alqasem said.
Her lawyer and a group of opposition lawmakers have visited Alqasem and say she is in safe, but subpar, conditions.
On Tuesday, Erdan floated a possible compromise, saying in a radio interview that he would rethink his decision to expel her if she apologizes and renounces her support for BDS.