An old adage contends, “It is better to be smart than to be right.” Well, during the past few months, the Israeli government appears to be consistently ignoring that time-tested advice.
Israel spends millions of dollars and invests tremendous efforts trying to improve its image and fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. While to many, the BDS movement might seem a legitimate way to protest Israeli policy, a majority of the BDS leadership oppose the very existence of Israel and not just its policies. It is clear, however, that in its zeal to counter BDS, too often Israel’s actions end up strengthening the movement instead.
The perfect case in point is the detention at Ben Gurion Airport of Lara Alqasem, a graduate student who planned to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem this year. Alqasem, who has Palestinian grandparents and was president of the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which is aligned with the BDS movement, is widely quoted as having called for a boycott of Israeli hummus.
Alqasem applied and was accepted at Hebrew University into an MA degree program. She visited six months ago, as a tourist, to see if she indeed wanted to study here. Alqasem then applied for a visa at the Israeli consulate in Miami, which she was granted. When Alqasem arrived in Israel last week, she was told she could not enter, because she had supported the BDS movement. As a result, she was to be deported the next morning. Alqasem fought back, and with the aid of Israeli lawyers delayed her impending departure. A week later, and Alqasem is still being held in detention at Ben Gurion airport, while the court decides her case. She claims the very fact she chose to study in Israel shows she no longer supports the BDS movement. The government claims her mere belonging to the BDS movement violates Israeli law, and thus gives it the right to deny her entry.
Hebrew University took an unusual step and participated in the dispute, calling on the government to allow Alqasem to enter the country. Furthermore, the university requested permission to present on Alqasem’s behalf, stating “an ‘extreme step’ like banning Alqasem from entering the country could deter foreign scholars and students from coming to Israel and should be taken only for the strongest and clearest reasons—e.g. preventing violence and lawbreaking.” In Alqasem’s case, no such claims were given.
MK Gilad Erdan, Minister of Internal Security and Strategic Affairs, attacked the university, stating: “It is regrettable that the Hebrew University has sided with a boycott activist who was part of a violent organization which has ‘shut the mouths’ of all Israeli supporters on U.S. Universities. What chutzpah for an organization that receives public funds to ignore the law and support her.”
I do not know Lara Alqasem, and have no idea whether the Consulate in Miami made a mistake in issuing her a visa. However, it is clear that the decision to stop Alqasem from entering the country once her visa had been approved inflicts greater damage upon Israel’s image than anything brought to pass by this 22-year-old masters student.
By Tuesday morning, as the extent of the PR disaster generated by the Alqasem detention had become evident, Minister Erdan stated that if Alqasem agreed to denounce her support for BDS and state that BDS was not legitimate, the country would reexamine its decision regarding her entry.
This is not one disparate incident. There is a pattern here. The decision to arrest and imprison Ahed Tamimi for slapping an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer is another example of mismatched reaction. Tamimi undoubtedly sought to provoke a response and Israel obliged—despite the fact it was clear Tamimi would become an international icon/martyr the minute she went to prison. What had she done—insulted the honor of the soldier by slapping him? The soldiers reacted with admirable restraint. A smart punishment might have been confining Tamimi to her house and cutting off internet access. Instead, the Israeli government put Tamimi in jail for seven months. Now, Tamimi is in Vogue. Perhaps imprisoning Tamimi was right, but it was certainly not smart.
There is another event, which has not yet taken place but is likely to happen—i.e. the destruction of the West Bank, Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar. The Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled it is legally permissible for Israel to relocate the village. Nevertheless, the entire international community—even including the United States—has come out against the action. Is Israel right to force the relocation of this village? Conceivably so. (I am not expressing an opinion.) However, would it be smart to do so? Certainly not.
Israel has some weighty challenges. It has to deal with terrorism, which resulted in the death of three Israelis in the last two weeks alone. Israel has to cope with thousands of Palestinians on the Gaza border, who attempt to break through the border fence and fire incendiary devices, which endangers Israeli soldiers, who then shoot, and often kill. These shootings, devastating for the families of those killed, will also haunt the soldiers for the rest of their lives—and they are obviously terrible for Israel’s image. Sadly, most security experts feel there is usually no other choice. If the demonstrators were to break through into Israel, the lives of the soldiers and all civilians nearby would be in mortal danger.
These crises, together with the strategic threat that Iranian forces in Syria pose, are very real dangers. Instead of focusing on true challenges, Israel repeatedly responds to problems of its own making. This only undermines its standing in the world.
Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.