The case of Lara Alqasem, the American citizen fighting deportation from Israel, is shining a bright light on Israel’s racial profiling of American students, the growing witch hunt against BDS activists, and the very real impact of smear websites. Alqasem said when the Israeli immigration officer interviewing her upon arrival looked her up online, the first website that appeared was her profile on the extreme right wing anti-Palestinian “Canary Mission,” which shows her as past president of the University of Florida’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. Her case is also catapulting into prominence the rationale behind the academic boycott of Israel, and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s (USACBI) recently launched campaign to end Study Abroad in Israel programs at American universities.
Alqasem, who is of Palestinian descent, had been accepted into a graduate program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and obtained a student visa to Israel, only to be denied entry into the country upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport on October 2nd. As I write this, over a week later, she is still in detention, awaiting the verdict from her October 11 court hearing. Alqasem has become a cause celebre, with major newspapers (Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and more) reporting on her case and, in an interesting series of twists, Zionists of all stripes rooting for her admission into the country.
While we can only support victims of racial profiling and ideological exclusion, much of the advocacy she is receiving is highly problematic. Many of her defenders present Hebrew University as a positive force, a welcoming institution, and Alqasem as a “good Palestinian,” so long as she denounces and renounces BDS. Indeed, the attempts to distance her from BDS are coming from everyone who supports her. Her lawyer, Yonatan Ben-Hillel, claims: “We’re talking about someone who simply wants to study in Israel, who is not boycotting anything.” And her Hebrew language teacher at the University of Florida, Dror Abend-David, in a letter to the editor of Haaretz, also wrote: “Apparently the fact that she chose and was accepted by Hebrew University in Jerusalem demonstrates that she wasn’t boycotting Israel.” Abend-David continues: “When she told me that she was about to study in Jerusalem, I understood from her that she had simply chosen the best program in the academic field that she was in. The State of Israel, which takes pride in the academic system that it presents to the world, needs to act accordingly.”
Thus the advocacy in support of Alqasem is whitewashing Israeli academia, and showing it to be a victim of the far right, even though there is ample documentation that all Israeli universities are complicit in the oppression of Palestinians. This is done through a Zionist curriculum that negates Palestinian culture and history, but also, more concretely, in engineering and architecture departments that develop plans for the illegal settlements, as well as the surveillance technology to monitor Palestinian movement. Hebrew University, in particular, straddles both East and West Jerusalem, in violation of international law. Additionally, the elite research universities develop the weapons used in Israel’s repeated military assaults on Palestinians.
At the same time, whether she intended it or not, Alqasem’s case raises questions within the Palestine solidarity movement beyond her desire to live and study in Jerusalem. As Ali Abunimah points out, Alqassem’s decision to enroll at Hebrew University undermines the academic boycott of Israel. Indeed, the president of Hebrew University, Asher Cohen, cited anti-BDS efforts as his motivation for helping Alqasem. “What’s being done regarding this student hurts our activities against BDS,” Cohen said, thus basically acknowledging he is more interested in fighting BDS than helping any particular student. “She [Alqasem] wants to come here and learn. For a year…. She says she’s coming to study for a year. … That activity of hers is against BDS.” A Haaretz editorial, urging her release, similarly uses her case as a strike against BDS. Alqasem, the editorial states, “should be released immediately and Erdan’s secret thought police eliminated. This must be done before boycott activists have another excellent reason to call Israel a benighted country.”
And much as one can understand Alqasem’s desire to get to know her grandparents’ country, our support must not be allowed to jettison BDS. The cause is greater than any individual. BDS is the strategy called for by a majority of Palestinian civil institutions in order to secure all Palestinians’ right to enter their homeland, regardless of their views on Israel and Zionism.
As USACBI explained:
“The global BDS movement is opposed to international study in Israel. USACBI encourages students in the US who want to enroll in academic programs in the region to explore options at Palestinian universities. Lara Alqasem’s week-long detention at Ben Gurion Airport is an example of Israel’s discrimination against Arab Americans and illustrates that study in Israel is not equally accessible to US students and is undertaken at some risk for many.
Furthermore, Israeli government officials have demanded that Lara Alqasem denounce BDS as a condition for possible entry into Israel. This type of ideological coercion is a scandalous example of Israel’s efforts to extort from Palestinians in detention statements aimed at undermining Palestinian national interests. If one did not support the academic boycott of Israel before the detention of Lara Alqasem, Israel’s treatment of this American Palestinian student provides ample reason to embrace BDS.
USACBI encourages students and professors to make a commitment to Palestinian human rights and boycott study abroad programs in Israel.”