Israel’s new law seeks to silence settlement protests

By Janine Zacharia | March 31, 2017

In early February, Jennifer Gorovitz disembarked at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport at the end of the 14-hour flight from San Francisco International Airport and headed to passport control.

The passport agent peppered the vice president for finance at the New Israel Fund, a nonprofit that awards grants to civil rights groups in Israel, with questions about her visit for a board meeting and what the organization does. “We promote civil society,” Gorovitz told him. According to Gorovitz, the agent replied: “Yeah right, civil society for Palestinians.”

“I’m not really understanding what’s happening here,” Gorovitz told the agent after the questions continued for a while. “I’m a former CEO of the San Francisco Jewish Federation; I’ve advocated for Israel my whole life; I’ve raised millions of dollars for Israel.”

Still, Gorovitz was taken to a separate area and questioned for another 90 minutes when finally, after colleagues intervened on her behalf, she was allowed to enter.

“I was upset,” Gorovitz told me. “My whole belief system was turned upside down.”

After the incident was reported in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the New Israel Fund received an apology from the director general of Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority.

A few days later, Israel rejected the visa application of a Human Rights Watch researcher, Omar Shakir. Then in early March, the Knesset — Israel’s parliament — passed a law blocking activists calling for an international boycott of Israel from gaining entry to the country. Israel’s frustration with the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or BDS, campaign has grown in recent years. And the law, proponents said, was designed to keep out “haters.” (The New Israel Fund does not support the movement.)

Israel has turned back ardent critics at the border before. But formalizing a political litmus test for entry shows just how threatened it feels by the boycott campaign and just how far to the right the country has moved.

The law makes no distinction between those who advocate a complete boycott of anything Israeli — academics, wine, technology — and those who support a much narrower boycott of Jewish settlements and the products manufactured there. The latter is designed to pressure Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and enable Palestinian statehood and has wider support, especially among liberal American Jews.

In fact, the law won’t lessen international censure. Only an end to the occupation has a shot at doing that, though many Israelis will point to previous Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and tell you no matter what Israel does, the world will still be against it.

What the law will do is further alienate progressive American Jews already concerned about the direction Israel is headed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public fondness for President Trump despite the xenophobic and racist tones of his campaign and early policy moves won’t make this community feel any more at ease. The March 22 Senate confirmation of U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who personally funded settlements and referred to the liberal American Jewish organization JStreet as “far worse than kapos” (concentration camp prisoners who performed tasks for the Nazis), only heightened the apprehension. At his confirmation hearing, Friedman called his choice of words “hurtful” and said he deeply regretted saying them. Still, JStreet has seen a recent spike in support, including here in the Bay Area.

Israel “can pass whatever law it wants,” Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, told Israel’s i24NEWS after the bill passed. “But it should be cognizant of the repercussions. The repercussions here are dissing a huge sector of a very pro-Israel American demographic.’’

Nir described his boss — a woman born in 1948, the year of Israel’s founding — as someone who has spent her adult life “fighting for Israel.” But because she supports boycotting settlement products, she won’t be able to visit Israel.

Israeli officials I spoke to say such concerns are exaggerated and in fact only the most vocal leaders of the BDS campaign will likely be blocked. The Knesset still has to coordinate how the law will be implemented. Most likely if you are a Bay Area resident who “liked” a tweet or Facebook post about the boycott and are planning to visit Israel, you should have no problem.

“I believe the intention of the law is to address … people who are discriminating against Israelis, just because they’re Israelis,” Israel’s consul general in San Francisco Andy David told me, referring to the groups that actively try to block Israelis from participating in academic forums and similar gatherings. “I would say, generally speaking, to Jews in the Bay Area that they’re always welcome and they’re welcome to criticize Israel if they feel the need to do that.”

So the law may be largely symbolic and the Gorovitz incident may have been a mistake — all other New Israel Fund board members traveling from abroad entered the country without impediment. But they also could be a harbinger of more harassment of visitors the current Israeli government deems hostile.

This would be a mistake. Demonizing Americans, particularly American Jews, who love Israel but want an end to settlements and the occupation, makes no sense. If Netanyahu, as he likes to say, really sees himself as the leader of all the Jewish people, he should answer the concerns of this community, rather than seek to silence it. Israel doesn’t have friends to spare.

Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief, teaches journalism at Stanford University.