The case of Lara Alqasem: Israel goes against Jewish liberal tradition by detaining American student

There is a long tradition of Jewish liberalism being violated by Israel's actions against alleged supporters of BDS

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 16, 2018 5:45AM (EDT)


American Jews remain politically divided today in much the same ways we've traditionally parted.

The first tradition, perhaps best embodied by Sen. Bernie Sanders and his iconic 2016 presidential campaign, emphasizes progressive ideals — social justice, economic equality and an overall emphasis on human rights. It is this tradition that has resulted in only two Jewish Republicans serving in the current Congress compared to 29 Jewish Democrats (30 if you count Sanders), explains why three of the four liberal Supreme Court judges are Jews (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer), accounts for Jews supporting Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 1924 and, overall, has made the trope of the "Jewish liberal" into something of a cliche.

The second tradition, which is perhaps best embodied today by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is not only conservative but seems to emphasize a distinctly nationalistic strain of conservatism. In the United States today its most prominent advocate is The Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart alumnus, and finds its most powerful policymaker in President Donald Trump's adviser Stephen Miller.

To really get a sense of this mindset, however, one need only look at the story of the American graduate student, Lara Alqasem, who was detained by the Israeli government despite having been accepted into Hebrew University. Her offense, it seems, was supporting a movement that dares criticize Israel. Alqasem has been detained at Ben-Gurion Airport since October 2, despite having a student visa from the Israeli consulate in Miami, because Israeli authorities claim she supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, according to Haaretz. Last Friday the Tel Aviv District Court rejected an appeal by Alqasem to intervene in her case, and even Hebrew University — though defending her — did so by arguing that "the student decided to come to study and live in Israel despite the principles of the boycott and even declared her opposition to a boycott of Israel."

In other words, Hebrew University is implicitly acknowledging the validity of Israel's travel ban against foreign supporters of the BDS movement. It is simply arguing that this ban shouldn't have been applied to Alqasem.

Hebrew University may have a point — the case against Alqasem is flimsy, to put it generously — but there is a deeper issue here. It is complicated, though, because there are aspects of BDS that smell fishy. Yes, Israel is guilty of a number of human rights violations against the inhabitants of the Palestinian territories, but the BDS movement — in addition to being only arguably effective at best — reeks of punishing an entire nation for the sins of its government.

Countries like the United States, Russia and China have been guilty of far worse than Israel and yet have not been targeted by protest movements anywhere nearly as popular as BDS, or had its ordinary citizens lumped in with that government to nearly the same extent. It is understandable why critics of the BDS movement believe that it has anti-Semitic undertones, and they're not entirely wrong. At the same time, the fact that some supporters of BDS are anti-Semitic does not mean that all of them are. More importantly, the fact that criticizing Israel could be used by malicious actors to delegitimize the Jewish State doesn't mean that criticisms should be avoided. Even if Alqasem is a supporter of BDS, there is something troubling about a nation that claims to be founded on Enlightenment principles deciding that a scholar who challenges it poses an existential threat — and to such a degree that her basic rights can be suspended.

Then again, as David Schraub noted in Haaretz, the underlying goal of the travel ban isn't to stop BDS (if anything, it only emboldens the movement and makes its supporters feel validated), it is to rally support against left-wing political movements:

Yes, if the Israel’s government objective is to undermine BDS, then blocking someone like Ms. Alqasem from entering the country until she issues a patently coerced show-confession is obviouslycounterproductive.

But if the goal is to put the squeeze on liberal social, political, and cultural institutions - academia foremost among them - then the government’s behavior is quite productive.

BDS may not tangibly threaten the current Israeli political order, but Israeli liberals actually compete in elections. Using BDS as a means of undermining them, as a rallying point for right-wing populism and as an excuse for illiberal repression, is too tempting a tool to give up.

Because Jews are part of a global community as well as the communities within their own countries, it behooves progressive Jews throughout the world to speak out against threats to liberalism caused by Jews elsewhere. It is necessary not only because Alqasem is an innocent victim — someone who has been detained based on a very tenuous case establishing her connection to a movement that shouldn't deny her access to Israel even if she is involved in it — but because Jews need to make sure that the best aspects of Jewish political tradition aren't marred by the ugliest facets of right-wing nationalism today.

The dilemma facing modern Jews calls to mind the words of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who had Jewish ancestry: "My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work." By detaining Alqasem, Israel violates the spirit of Rivera's words by aligning itself against someone who they claim wishes to advocate for the downtrodden masses and, if she is in fact innocent of the charges, making her a member of said downtrodden masses herself.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bds Benjamin Netanyahu Bernie Sanders Boycott Divest Sanctions Israel Lara Alqasem