The detention of Peter Beinart for an hour of political questioning at Ben Gurion airport yesterday as he and his family arrived to attend a bat mitzvah is roiling the Jewish world today. Beinart is a strong Zionist. And today the Prime Minister himself rushed out an unusual statement in English saying he had “immediately” looked into Beinart’s detention. (“He was told it was an administrative mistake. Israel is an open society which welcomes all – critics and supporters alike.”)
Of course detentions are nothing new at Israeli ports, and we have reported on countless incidents in which Palestinian activists have been deported. Here a young American schoolteacher denied entry for arbitrary reasons. Last year a young skateboarder was interrogated aggressively for eight hours before being deported.
But Beinart is a Zionist Jewish writer who has become more and more critical of Israel in the last 10 years, and his detention is causing alarm in American Zionist circles about the political culture of the country they love. “This is crazy,” writes a prominent neoconservative. J Street says the Beinart treatment is part of an Israeli government pattern of targeting American Jews, which is politically dangerous for Zionism:
the Israeli government is shamefully signaling its contempt for the beliefs of progressive American Jews and for the norms of liberal democracy. As with the recently passed nation-state law, they are alienating supporters of Israel around the world.
Daniel Gordis, a conservative Zionist, shares the concern that Israel is alienating Jewish opinion:
Although it is hard to know exactly who is issuing directives to the security services on this issue, the clumsiness leads one to suspect there is an unstated goal. It seems likely that Netanyahu has decided to stoke the embers of “Zionists versus Israel’s enemies” discourse, which will win him points with the right-wing factions of Israeli society he needs to win the next elections.
Gershom Gorenberg, a liberal Zionist writer, is also alarmed by the detentions of Jews:
Mr. Netanyahu, you are keeping lists of people whose opinions you don’t like. …Seriously, Mr. Netanyahu, I have lived here for 41 years, raised 3 children here, and I love my country. But you are not making me or people with my concerns about your government feel welcome.
The alleged pattern includes a few earlier Jewish detentions. On August 5, Simone Zimmerman of IfNotNow and the Sanders campaign tweeted that she and her friend Abby Kirschbaum were detained for four hours at the Taba crossing from Egypt, and were asked about their political views.
We are being questioned solely about our political opinions and activities vis a vis Palestinians esp in the occupied territories… [Later] We’re out. That was four hours of rounds of interrogation, waiting and mostly attempted intimidation centering on our connections to Palestinians.
Before that it was author Moriel Rothman-Zecher, who was detained and questioned over his actions in the territories with Breaking the Silence and All That’s Left, and told by a security official that his grilling was a “warning.” (“Just listen to my warning. Make sure not to go down the slippery slope. You can go now.”) Rothman-Zecher was plainly disturbed by the treatment, and sees a pattern of targeting dissent.
A month ago it was Meyer Koplow, a leading American donor to Israel who is on establishment boards, because he had a copy of This Week in Palestine in his luggage. He’d just been on a liberal Zionist tour that included the territories. Times of Israel:
“The most disturbing question she asked me, and she asked me more than once, was what was I going to do with the information I learned in the territories,” Koplow said. “What business is it of security at departure as to what I’m thinking or what I might say?”
Dani Dayan, the Israeli consul general in New York, later apologized to Koplow for his treatment but justified the questioning on security grounds.
Israel has long targeted Jewish dissenters. Jews who have been balked by Israel include: Ariel Gold, a supporter of BDS prevented from entering last month; Norman Finkelstein, who was arrested in 2008 and deported, for visiting a human rights activist (Finkelstein was told he can’t come back for ten years); Lillian Rosengarten, author and Holocaust survivor, deported in 2010 for trying to enter Gaza in the freedom flotilla; and Noam Chomsky, prevented from entering the West Bank in 2010, after hours of questioning. The Ministry of Interior said later that Chomsky’s refusal had been a mistake.
Beinart’s detention is shining a light on the treatment of others. Elizabeth Tsurkov:
The uproar about
@PeterBeinart‘s questioning at Ben Gurion Airport forced Netanyahu to come out with this statement. When people of Arab descent & non-Zionist Jews were questioned & even deported, he kept mum
Yousef Munayyer notes that Netanyahu has cracked down long ago on other dissenters, including those supporting BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), so who is he to talk about democracy.
This is laughable from the head of a government leading, coordinating and pumping money into a world wide repression effort against dissenters.
Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace points out that the action is part of a longstanding pattern.
translation of “administrative mistake”: when actual ongoing undemocratic policies are noticed by the world. The nation state bill and the response to it is on the same continuum
And Abby Kirschbaum noted last week after her questioning, “the level of surveillance and intimidation we experienced tonight was unsettling, but it is a fraction of the lived reality for the Palestinians I know and am proud to work with.”