Packing for a summer vacation trip to Israel usually includes some sunscreen, a hat, a few T-shirts (one of them clean, for Shabbat) and a pair flip flops. But American Jews active in peace groups have recently began making sure they have another item on their checklist before leaving for the Holy Land: a phone number of a civil rights lawyer.
Among them is journalist Peter Beinart, who was detained for questioning by Israel’s Shin Bet before being allowed to enter the promised land. After the questioning, which he described as “depressing,” he called attorney Gaby Lasky and was released shortly after, allowed to join his family.
If the notion of needing a lawyer on hand before visiting Israel sounds unnerving to most American Jews, the underlying circumstances are even more alarming: Israel, as was proven in recent months with Beinart, with progressive activist Simone Zimmerman and with others, maintains blacklists of Jewish Americans who are critical of its policies. And to be clear, the blacklists of American Jews which is being maintained, updated and utilized by the Jewish state are based on their political views and their perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not on a real threat of terrorist activity against the country.
To understand how Israel’s relationship with left-leaning Jewish-Americans devolved to a point in which liberal Jews are no longer assured entry to Israel, there is a need to look at the war Israel proclaimed on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the leading role it gave the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in spearheading this battle.
The idea was to assign this otherwise marginal government ministry with a well-funded mission of countering Israel’s detractors in the public arena, particularly those questioning the legitimacy of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and calling for boycotts of Israeli products and divestment from Israel. Among the tools provided for this task was a 2017 amendment to Israel’s entry law, which bars entry to the country from those who call for boycotting Israel or “any of the areas under its control.” This definition broadens the definition of BDS to include also those advocating a targeted boycott on products from the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Peter Beinart is one of them, as is, for example, Americans for Peace Now, a Zionist Jewish organization.
Beinart, to be clear, is by no means an extremist. A supporter of Israel who is well immersed in the Jewish community and attends an Orthodox synagogue, Beinart has focused his criticism on Israel’s shift away from its commitment to a two-state solution, on threats to Israel’s democracy, as well as on the growing rift between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel and America’s liberal-leaning Jewish community.
What followed was a list of pro-BDS organizations, actively involved in promoting international boycotts against Israel, whose members will not be allowed into the country. The list included groups such as Americans Friends of Service Committee and Code Pink, as well as one Jewish pro-BDS group—Jewish Voice for Peace. According to official Israeli numbers, 250 visitors were denied entry in the past year, but the figure is made up of mainly Muslim and Arab visitors who were deemed, by the Shin Bet, as involved in terrorism or in “political subversion.”
So how did the blacklist balloon to include Zionist Americans who oppose the Israeli occupation or who support the Palestinian quest for an independent state?
These cases seem to fall into the gray area of Israel’s strict entry rules. Beinart, Zimmerman and other American Jews are not included on the list prohibiting their entrance to Israel, and, as opposed to the 250 confirmed cases of denied entry, were not detained by the Shin Bet’s Arab division but by the much smaller division which deals with Jewish extremism. Their blacklist has less to do with an immediate threat to Israel’s security and more with the wish to register, catalogue and possibly deter those coming to Israel in order to participate in pro-Palestinian activities. For Jewish Americans on this list, entering Israel will not be denied, but they can expect to undergo extra questioning, at times stressful and humiliating, before exiting the gates of Ben Gurion Airport.
Another goal of the questioning is the Israeli government’s attempt to build as comprehensive as possible a database of international peace activist and to map their ties with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. This became clear by recent testimonies of the Jewish-Americans and non-Jewish visitors held for questioning.
“What he did do was ask, again and again, for the names of objectionable organizations I was associated with,” Beinart recalled. “Write down names of Palestinians you know. Write down names of journalists you associate with. Write down names of Palestinian organizations you support,” was the way author and scholar described his recent encounter with Israeli Shin Bet officers.
So what happens next?
First, it should be clear to every Jewish American who has expressed opinions critical of Israel’s occupation, who supports boycott, whether broad or targeted, and who has participated in Jewish-Palestinian activities to end the occupation, that their name appears on a list maintained by the Israeli government.
Some can expect to endure extra questioning, some will breeze through passport control as they’ve done so many times in the past, but all will enter Israel with that uneasy notion that they might spend the next hour or two (or more) in an extremely uncomfortable situation. Israel may never make use of the list, but it is now clear that the list exists and those who are on it already know very well that they are.
Arab-Americans and Palestinian-Americans wishing to visit Israel already know the feeling. They describe coming to Ben Gurion or to the Allenby Bridge crossing aware of the fact that it will take many hours and many questions before they emerge to the other side. Israeli-Arabs know to arrive at the airport hours in advance if they don’t want to miss their flight. They’re used to watching their Jewish-Israeli neighbors walk by to the departure gates as they get sent off to a second and third round of security checks. International peace activists and BDSers know not to bring laptop computers and to make sure they clear their phone contact list before leaving for Israel.
Now Jewish-Americans are in the same boat.
True, Netanyahu offered a rare apology to Beinart and the Shin Bet issued a statement attributing the detention to a lapse in judgement. It is also clear that the uproar caused by Beinart’s questioning will deter Israel, at least for a while, from leaning too hard on Jewish Americans entering the country. But at the end of the day, the message has been transmitted and was received by all members of the American Jewish community involved in efforts to oppose the current Israeli government’s policy toward the Palestinians: You’re on our lists. We know who you are.