Israel takes strategic risk with detentions of US Jews
A rash of delays, denials of entry and interrogations of figures Israel has deemed undesirable in the last few months has raised questions
Julie Weinberg-Connors, a left-wing activist with the intention of immigrating to Israel, was initially denied entry at Ben Gurion Airport on Sept. 12.
The justification was that she had visited sites in the occupied West Bank before and in particular the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, which is slated for demolition by Israel in the coming days.
This led Israeli security services to deny her entry on the grounds that, according to Weinberg-Connors, she was “there to make trouble.”
The American-Jewish activist was eventually allowed into Israel after pressure from human rights organizations and her legal counsel.
This was part of a rash of similar delays, denials of entry and interrogations of figures Israel found undesirable in the last few months.
Israel recently passed a law allowing it to bar entry to people who advocate boycotts of Israel or Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The most notable example was the detention of Peter Beinart, a noted American liberal columnist and commentator, for participating in a demonstration against the occupation in the West Bank.
The Beinart detention created so much backlash that Israeli Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzach Hanegbi predicted that “now there will be someone who stands there and will check that such stupidity does not recur.”
Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the move an “administrative mistake.”
The latest incident shows that the policy of barring entry to “ideological undesirables” continues unabated. In fact, the Weinberg-Connors affair was an escalation from the Beinart incident.
Weinberg-Connors possessed an A-1 visa, indicating her eligibility to settle in Israel and, according to the Jerusalem Post, had filed immigration papers.
Entry into a country of which one is not a citizen – although in this case very nearly one – is a privilege and not a right. It is also not unique for a country to bar activists it believes work against its interests.
But the phenomenon of detaining liberal Jewish activists has serious implications for the identity of Israel as a Jewish state.
The country was designed as a safe haven for Jews from all corners of the earth regardless of their beliefs or opinions. This is the first time an ideological purity test has limited the foundational role Israel plays in carrying out the biblical prophesy of an “ingathering of the exiles.”
The Israeli claim to be the homeland for all Jews is challenged when potential emigres are filtered based on their political sympathies. The decision is part of a trend that could have strategic repercussions.
The new measures disproportionately target left-leaning American Jews. They also serve to alienate Americans – Jewish and otherwise – by curtailing free speech, a basic ideal in the United States.
Losing the Democrats
A recently leaked document outlining the strategic goals of the Israeli Foreign Ministry stressed the need to focus on “strengthening the ties with the various streams and establishing a dialogue with key liberal elements in the Jewish world and outside it.”
Indeed, the Jewish state puts a great deal of effort into safeguarding its relations with the American Jewish community. The influential and affluent community is considered to be a major factor in assuring the significant strategic support the United States provides for Israel through its domestic political influence.
American Jews provide millions of dollars annually in charitable donations and business investment to the Jewish state. Therefore, the maintenance of strong relations with that diaspora community has been a consistent goal for Jerusalem.
The repeated detention of American Jews in order to uphold an occupation policy many in that diaspora community do not support could serve to undermine that goal.
The document also spelled out the strategic necessity that Israel improve ties with the Democratic Party ahead of the November 2018 midterm elections, in which the Republicans are expected to lose seats. A key to traditional support for Israel in the United States is its bi-partisan nature.
This policy goal indicates an Israeli fear that too close an affiliation with the Republican Party, and the Trump administration in particular, could jeopardize relations with the Democrats and lessen Israeli influence in the United States.
Netanyahu’s adversarial relations with the Obama administration had already created a rift between the Israeli government and the Democratic Party. Moves to single out and detain progressive American activists could further hamper already tense relations.
For the Israeli government, this potential development is particularly worrying, as demographic trends predict future electoral success for the Democrats.
There is very little to be gained by detaining individual American peace activists unless they have been engaged directly in violent acts.
Demonstrations in the West Bank get little exposure in the international press and have had little effect on Israeli policy or its standing in the world.
However, singling out American Jews directly undermines its support in the two constituencies it needs most in the US: its kith and kin and the Democratic political elite.