Knesset Approves BDS “Travel Ban” Law

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The Israeli parliament has approved a law aimed at supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The new law, which some are referring to as Israel’s own travel ban, prohibits supporters of the BDS movement from entering the country. The ban has attracted widespread opposition from both within and outside of Israel, with many taking issue with the law’s vague language as well as the chilling effect it may have on free speech and protest against government policies. Some Israeli observers fear that the law will make the country a more closed one, sacrificing in the process its image as a democratic and free society.

The Jerusalem Post editorial team has been quick to respond to the new legislation by criticizing it for being too vague and for sending the wrong message: “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement tends to bring together a pretty despicable group of people with distorted attitudes about Israel who are often motivated by antisemitism….However, we believe that the legislation has the potential to do more harm than good. The law is ambiguous and difficult to enforce….the wording of the law is such that it could include less consequential BDS activism. The law also targets individuals who are calling to boycott settlements, a position held by some Meretz MKs who are emphatically Zionist but who are convinced that Israel’s continued control over the West Bank undermines its future as a Jewish and democratic state….BDS activists’ obsession with Israel smacks of antisemitism, but the best way to combat these people is not via ambiguously worded legislation that gives low-level functionaries inordinate power. We do not want to target individuals who are adamant supporters of a Jewish state, but who believe that holding onto the West Bank with its large Palestinian population is detrimental to Israel’s future….Vague legislation that bans BDS activists and gives too much power to government functionaries sends out the mistaken message that we have something to hide. The opposite is true.”

It is rare to see so many of Israel’s main dailies in agreement on a particular matter. However, it appears that the “Entry to Israel Law” has achieved just that. In yet another sign of the Jerusalem Post’s opposition to the travel ban, the Post’s own Ilan Troen notes how, even for vociferous opponents of the BDS movement, the law misses the mark: “[A]cademics across the world, including [in] Israel…find the amendment dangerous to academic freedom and harmful to our members, Israeli scholars as well as those who study Israel from abroad.… There can be no checkpoint of ideas. Security forces and defenses are essential for deterring actual attacks.…Our American members and the American public accept that advocating for a boycott – however strongly we object to BDS – is an exercise of free speech, and punishing or threatening to punish someone for that is a violation of rights. Israel must not become an isolated entity open only to those who ascribe to official policy. Israel has endured economic and cultural boycotts and produced a vibrant economy and culture, and has maintained an animated public sphere with lively debate. Such a self-imposed quarantine can surely only diminish this fundamental prerequisite to democratic discourse. This law is not only an encumbrance to academics, it is a danger to the vitality of Israeli life. It serves to isolate Israel more effectively than any of the BDS activities have been able to achieve.”

Others are worried about the impact on Israel’s image as a free and democratic country. For example, Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev characterizes the ban as “outrageous and moronic,” since “[e]ach and every incident in which a supporter of boycotting settlements will be stopped at Ben-Gurion Airport and sent back home, after being interrogated by the Border Police about his statements and thoughts, will drive another nail into the coffin of Israel’s image as an enlightened, democratic and ultimately rational state. The new restriction is anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish in its very essence. It compels the many Jews and non-Jews who support the State of Israel but vehemently oppose the settlement project to choose between the two….For the first time in the history of Zionism, Israel is stipulating that Jews who are combatting its policies abroad are persona non grata in the Jewish State.…Together with a previous Knesset law from 2011, which made Israeli citizens who espouse a boycott of settlements liable for damages, the new law takes Israel one more step down the slippery slope, if not an actual free-fall, of curtailing freedom of speech and instituting thought police instead. The next logical step can only be to outlaw criticism of settlements, and not just calls for boycott.

There are some, like Mira Sucharov, who are considering joining the BDS movement as a sign of protest against the Israeli government’s stance on the travel ban: “Now that Israel has passed a law barring entry to those calling for a boycott of even settlement products, I’m wondering if I should throw my weight behind full-fledged BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) after all. Driving me into the arms of BDS is probably not what the bill’s drafters had in mind, but ill-conceived legislation often has unintended consequences…. I am picturing what I will feel like if I am indeed denied entry on my next visit, as I insist that my interrogation is conducted in Hebrew — my favorite language on earth to speak. I will probably feel a mixture of anger, frustration and shame. I will feel great disappointment that I cannot visit the people — family and friends — and places — urban and pastoral — that I love….I will probably feel a sense of cognitive dissonance that the country to which I remain attached and yet so resentful for its early blindness over injustice and its continued slide to illiberalism…But I know that ultimately I have my own country that grants me freedom of expression, freedom of movement and freedom from state violence. That is immeasurably more than what Palestinians living under occupation have.”

Others, like Times of Israel’s Daniel Vulkan are already considering not traveling to Israel, fearing that his avoidance of products coming from the Israeli settlements in the West Bank might put him at risk of being turned away from Ben Gurion Airport: “I generally don’t think cultural or academic boycotts are useful in promoting a cause. I also don’t believe in boycotting products made within the Green Line (although it can be difficult to identify them, when items manufactured on both sides of the line tend to be labelled “Made in Israel”)….I do, however, try to avoid buying anything originating in the settlements over the Green Line. In doing so, I am behaving in the same way as many Jews in the UK, the USA and other countries (and indeed in Israel). In fact, a recent survey carried out by City University suggests that around a quarter of British Jews would support sanctions against Israel if they felt that this would encourage the Israeli government to engage in the peace process. So — would I be allowed into Israel? A strict reading of the law suggests that I wouldn’t. The law does grant discretion to the Minister of the Interior to waive it on a case-by-case basis, but do I really want to go to all that trouble and expense, knowing that I might be turned back on arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, subject to the whim of Aryeh Deri?”

Unfortunately, for those who are most likely to suffer as a result of the newly issued travel ban, the ban is not a hypothetical, but a very likely result of the new legislation. No wonder then, that the National leads with a hard hitting editorial against the new law, pointing out that “the fact of the matter is that Israel is far from a liberal country and other laws also recently passed by the parliament are clear evidence of this reality….Israel has previously criminalized support for boycotts by its own citizens, but this is the first time that Tel Aviv has targeted foreigners. … Millions of Palestinians live outside the country and are barred from obtaining permanent residence in Palestine. Israel will now be able to easily prevent them from visiting their homeland by saying they support a non-violent boycott of Israel’s occupation (of which the majority of Palestinians do). If there is any silver lining in this new law it is that it confirms how efforts to isolate Israel through a boycott are, indeed, working. If the boycott had marginal influence, as some Israel supporters have argued, then the parliament would not move forward with laws banning supporters.”

Finally, Ray Hanania, in an op-ed for Arab News, suggests that the muted reaction of many in the West stands in sharp contrast with their reaction to the proposed Muslim travel ban in the United States: “It is that hypocrisy that… is the driving force behind the flawed protest movement in America that is driven not by principle but by pure politics.… The Israeli anti-boycott law targets predominantly Muslim activists who support justice, civil rights and democracy. While Trump’s temporary suspension has received widespread condemnation over its alleged religious and racist discriminatory nature, Israel’s permanent ban targeting predominantly Muslim activists has been met with total silence. Two civil rights organizations in Israel, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and B’Tselem, have openly condemned the law as a violation of the civil rights of Christians, Muslims and Jews.…Israel’s law is draconian compared to the Trump executive order and yet the same people denouncing Trump are silent on Israel.…The fact that American politicians … distinguish between what Trump is doing and what Israel does is clear evidence of the fundamental hypocrisy that drives American politics. You cannot denounce Trump and be silent on Israel. Unless, of course, the real issue is not civil rights, justice or democracy and is purely about politics. These Trump critics do not care about Muslim rights. They only care about the politics of using Muslims as today’s preferred protest icon.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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