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The impact, and opportunity, of Israel’s BDS ban

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When Israel published its list of 20 pro-BDS groups worldwide whose members would be barred from entering the country, the reaction was, to be honest, one I totally anticipated.  I will refer to it as “activist swagger,” the self-congratulatory “we must be doing something right” attitude. Yousef Munnayer of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), one of the banned organizations, described it as a “badge of honor.”  Indeed, it is.

Yet momentous as that list is seen in some circles, I believe it has little to no impact on the groups who are banned.  This is because most activists for justice in Palestine have known for a long time that entry into the belly of the beast is not to be taken for granted. There are numerous stories, predating that list by years, of being turned away at Ben Gurion Airport, denied entry, and even being banned for years.  If anything, the list makes official the fact that Israel imposes a political litmus test on all visitors: if you are known to support Palestinian rights, and work in solidarity with Palestinians, you are not welcome. The meticulous precautions taken by activists before flying to Israel—changing names on Facebook, erasing contacts from one’s phone, deleting certain social media accounts, not taking one’s laptop along, are all proof that the ban has been in effect for many years, and that activists were aware of it.

(Image: Carlos Latuff)

Nor, despite all the attention given this particular facet of the list, is this the first time that Jews are being denied entry.  Rabbi Alisa Wise, for example, the deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, had been prevented from boarding a plane heading to Israel in July 2017, along with the rest of the members of an interfaith delegation. Adam Shapiro, co-founder with Huwaida Arraf of the International Solidarity Movement, was banned in 2009 from entering Israel for ten years.  Many others simply never tried, knowing they would be denied entry, even though they are Jewish, because of their activism.

Additionally, as soon as the list was made public, various members of the now-officially barred groups stated their intent to keep organizing, asserting that they will not be intimidated.

“Our commitment to the rights of Palestinians, and our demand to hold Israel to account for the denial of these rights, is unwavering,” USCPR’s Munayyer asserted.

“At a time when the Israeli government is moving to expand settlements, redefine Jerusalem, and annex portions of the West Bank, support for nonviolent activism that seeks freedom, equality, and justice is critical.  Therefore, as long as these and other human rights violations persist, we will continue to support Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions efforts as effective nonviolent tools for realizing political and social change,” the American Friends Service Committee wrote in a statement responding to the ban.

American Muslims for Palestine also referred to their being included on Israel’s blacklist as a badge of honor, stating that “we remain steadfast and committed to advocating for the rights of Palestinians, and refuse to be bullied by such draconian tactics.”

Similarly, Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of JVP, explained that the ban had long been in effect, if not formally known as such, and that it will not silence her or anyone else working for justice.  Ben Lorber, JVP’s campus coordinator, added that “Israel will not succeed with this ban in intimidating American Jews away from joining JVP and supporting the BDS movement for justice and equality. Nor will it succeed in stifling the Palestinian call for justice, or in bullying people of conscience the world over out of supporting that call.”

What, then, will be the impact of the list?

Israel has long labored to convince its allies that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is anti-Semitic.  Much of the anti-BDS legislation, and the support such anti-democratic legislation is securing amongst American politicians, is precisely because the Zionist lobby, working though such groups as the Anti-Defamation League and StandWithUs, has convinced these lazy or opportunistic politicians that BDS is little less than cleverly disguised Jew-hatred.

This explains, in part, why the reaction to this list seems to have zeroed in on the fact that the staff and members of Jewish Voice for Peace are now banned. The list makes clear that Jews are now banned from the self-proclaimed “Jewish democracy,” if they support Palestinian rights.  Thus by including JVP on its blacklist, this list will strike at the very heart of those who maintain that, to quote the otherwise excellent Israeli journalist Amira Hass, Israel is “a democracy for Jews.”   Hass says this critically, as in, “a democracy only for Jews,” but Israel is not even that, in that it imposes its political litmus test on non-Israeli Jews, even as it criminalizes internal dissent, including by its own Jewish citizens.

The blacklist is also revealing in that it omits known members of Nazi groups who do not even bother to disguise their anti-Semitism.  Thus, as Haaretz has pointed out, Sebastian Gorka, prominent member of a Hungarian Nazi group, is welcome. So is Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-right “Freedom Party” of Austria, as well as Nicolas Bay, of the openly anti-Semitic National Front in France.

USCPR’s Munayyer is correct in pointing out that the list will backfire. “When Israel, which aims to portray itself to the world as liberal and democratic, blacklists activists dedicated to nonviolent organizing and dissent, it only further exposes itself as a fraud. It is clear to us how effective building the movement for Palestinian rights around the world has become,” Munayyer wrote.

Supporters of BDS can all wear our activism as a badge of honor, even as we hone our message while addressing anti-BDS legislation: Israel is not worried about anti-Semitism, if it were, it would ban members of Nazi and white supremacist groups.

Ultimately, the oddly selective blacklist is not about protecting Israel from anti-Semitic attacks, it is about defending it from the one strategy, BDS, that seems to be working.  Shunning the charade of “talks” and “process,” BDS has exposed the racist ideology at the very heart of Zionism, allowed the Palestine solidarity movement to build global alliances with other progressive groups around such issues as decolonization, incarceration, and indigenous sovereignty, and enabled individuals to enact their solidarity in concrete ways that have secured many victories, big and small.   No blacklist banning entry into Israel can stop this.

Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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2 Responses

  1. JosephA on January 11, 2018, 10:08 pm


    Thank you for writing a very logical and insightful article.

  2. Elizabeth Block on January 12, 2018, 4:25 pm

    I went to Palestine a couple of years ago, with Christian Peacemaker Teams. (I’m not a Christian!) My anti-Zionism is no secret. People asked me if I wasn’t afraid of being turned back at Ben Gurion. I said that one of the editors of Mondoweiss got in, no problem – the border official just said his name, meaning: You’re Jewish, you’re in. And indeed I had no problem.
    But I have no desire to go back, and certainly no desire to spend any tourist shekels in Israel.

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