The response to Lara Alqasem’s admission into Israel, so she can pursue a graduate degree at Hebrew University, has so far been as expected. Liberal Zionists rejoiced at this “proof” that Israel is indeed a country that tolerates political dissent, so long as it is an inconsequential youthful error. But there is much more to Alqasem’s case that needs to be examined, hinging on her identity and her choices, as well as how these were perceived, or intentionally ignored.
First is the question whether her Israeli and Zionist supporters (her Israeli legal team, the Meretz Knesset members who spoke out in favor of letting her in, and J Street, to mention some of the key players) would have supported Alqasem if she had wanted to apply to Birzeit University, or Al Quds University, thus claiming her right, as a Diaspora Palestinian, to live in Palestine while matriculated at a Palestinian university. What if, upon graduation, she had wanted to teach at a Palestinian university, something Israel routinely bars faculty from doing, by creating often insurmountable obstacles to their legal stay in the country? What if she had planned to work for a Palestinian human rights organization, rather than study human rights at Hebrew University? After all, Palestinian Americans, including students and faculty, are not allowed entry into our country–this is the status quo that Zionists do not question, let alone challenge in court. Israel’s chokehold on Palestinian education, which led to the launch, as early as the 1970s, of the Right to Educate campaign, is long-standing, well documented, and not a cause taken up by J Street or Meretz. It seems her supporters were viewing Alqasem, the young Diaspora Palestinian who wants to live in Jerusalem, as simply an American student who wanted to study at an Israeli university–thus whitewashing Israeli academia. And in the process they exploited her circumstances, and the media attention she was catapulted in, to promote Israeli “openness.”
J Street, better known among pro-justice activists as “AIPAC lite,” welcomed the Israeli High Court’s decision to allow Alqasem to stay in the country, describing it as “a strong sign of the continued vitality of pro-democratic forces in Israel.” The staunchly Zionist organization, which opposes BDS, issued a statement explaining that “J Street has been proud to stand with other American Jewish and Israeli organizations, leaders and activists that mobilized to support Alqasem and oppose the government’s decision. We are committed to continuing our common struggle to defend Israel’s core democratic principles and institutions.” Yet J Street never mentioned the racial profiling Alqasem had been subjected to upon arrival at the airport, consistently referring to her only as “an American student.”
J Street, and liberal Zionists overall, are celebrating what they view as a victory for Israel’s “liberalism,” thus denying the racism inherent in Zionism, and a violation of Palestinian rights, and pointing the finger only at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan’s, heavy-handed approach. They make no mention of the fact that Alqasem was targeted not because she was president of her school’s SJP—that information only came up after her profiling at the airport–but because she is of Palestinian descent. Jewish Americans entering Israel are not pulled aside and scrutinized, unless they are placed on the “BDS blacklist” of 20 international organizations. Even someone like Peter Beinart, who as early as 2012 came out in support of a “Zionist BDS,” was questioned for an hour, and received an apology from Netanyahu before being allowed in the country. In other words, Alqasem’s liberal Zionist supporters never denounced the racism that led to her interrogation, and consequent detention, the racism that views her, but not Beinart, as a demographic threat, an “infiltrator.” They seem utterly oblivious to the fact that such racism, such profiling, long predates Netanyahu and Erdan, and is essential to Israel’s ethos as “the Jewish state.” And they must have been reassured by the fact that, by matriculating at a highly complicit Israeli institution, Alqasem is complying with the requirement that she not engage in BDS while in Israel.
Do the liberal Zionists who celebrate Alqasem’s admission into Israel grasp the circumstances that drive a young Palestinian to cross a picket line, thus undermining a solidarity movement she never denounced, just so she can be allowed entry into her country? And do they grasp that the Israeli High Court ruling on Alqasem’s case is no victory, since it does not jeopardize the law banning entry to BDS organizers? It is simply a ruling to allow one individual to enroll at an Israeli institution, in violation of the academic boycott, and with a commitment not to engage in BDS while in Israel.
Ultimately, the proof of Israel’s openness will not come from its admission of a young Palestinian student who is willing to enroll in an Israeli institution for a year, during which she is subject to restrictions on her political speech, activism, and expression. Israel will prove itself a democracy when all Palestinians are allowed return, with no restrictions. And Lara Alqasem’s case has proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Israel is nowhere close to such openness.