Some might liken Lara Alqasem’s situation to that of Viktor Navorski, Tom Hanks’ character in the 2004 movie The Terminal, a citizen of fictional Krakhozia stranded at New York’s JFK airport because his passport had suddenly become invalid. But unlike the sympathetic protagonist of that film, Alqasem, a University of Florida graduate with Palestinians grandparents, is unlikely to get a feel-good Spielberg ending.
Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan is intent on forbidding her from entering Israel because he suspects her of being a supporter of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement and its boycott of Israel. As a result, she has been detained at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv for more than a week, despite having a valid Israeli A2 student visa to attend an MA program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Erdan reiterates she is free to accept deportation and be removed back to the US.
The problem is that Alqasem was previously part of the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine in her native Florida, a group aligned with the BDS movement. The young woman has filed an appeal against the decision to deport her, and, pending a court ruling, must remain in the cramped detention facility that has been her home for the past nine days.
Most likely, Alqasem will be deported. Erdan has explicitly conditioned her admission into Israel on something like a public recantation of her beliefs: “If Lara Alqasem declares in a clear and explicit manner that she erred in the past and she believes today that support for a boycott on Israel and the BDS [movement] is a mistake and illegitimate, and that she regrets having served in the past as head of the branch of a boycott group, we will reconsider our stance regarding her entry into Israel.”
The student has no intention of fulfilling such a request. Whatever the final outcome, the case has garnered wide media attention, shining a spotlight on the Netanyahu government’s “no entry” policy against foreign nationals—sometimes well-known, often themselves Jews—who criticize or condemn Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
Two Jewish New York Times columnists, Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, have written in support of Alqasem and criticized Israel’s treatment of her, recalling that recently, several Jewish American citizens—including professor Katherine Franke, activist Simone Zimmerman, writer Peter Beinart and Ariel Gold, the leader of CodePink—were also stopped at Ben Gurion airport, subjected to hours-long interrogations about their opinions regarding Israel, and sometimes denied entry.
Some members of the Israeli Parliament from the Meretz party (of the Zionist Left) have visited Alqasem, and the provost of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Barak Medina, spoke out in her defense, writing that Erdan’s “decision not to allow the student into the country merely because of her opinions constitutes a threat against what the university represents.” The university, he added, is “a place that does not shrink from disagreement and is pleased with a multiplicity of opinions.”
The Hebrew University took the unusual step of asking to join Alqasem’s appeal as she fights to be allowed to enter Israel and study in Jerusalem. Erdan reacted to this with outrage, accusing the provost of siding against Israel, the government and an anti-BDS law enacted by the Knesset.
The story of the American student highlights the discrimination faced at Ben Gurion airport not only by citizens of other countries, but also by Israeli citizens, especially if ethnically Arab, both on entering and on leaving the country. It also underscores the existing friction between the Netanyahu government and important sectors of the American Jewish community. Such differences, however, are not apparent between Israel and Jewish communities in Europe, where Israel’s current government seems to enjoy broad support.
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