On Wednesday the man regarded as the founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel (BDS), Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, headed to the airport outside of Tel Aviv intending to embark on a U.S. speaking tour and attend the wedding of a relative. Despite possessing a valid visa through 2021, he was prevented from boarding.
According to a statement released by the Arab American Institute (AAI), the group sponsoring his talks, Barghouti was told his travel block was due to an “immigration matter.” Airline staff told him they had orders from the U.S. Consulate in Tel Aviv and U.S. immigration services not to let him on the plane.
The denial sparks questions whether legislation circling on Capital Hill to curtail boycotts against Israel has come with a shadow policy to prevent its most vocal advocates from entering the country.
Speaking over Skype to an audience in Washington DC today for a discussion moderated by the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, Barghouti said he believes the travel ban was imposed “by Israel directly or by proxy by the United States” to “silence human rights defenders in the BDS movement” whether they are “Palestinian, Israeli, or international human rights defenders.”
He added, “They are resorting to more McCarthyite, more repressive intimidation, bullying and violation of basic rights to silence us.”
“By having U.S. immigration ban me from entering the United States, this is really a blatant attempt to silence my voice and it’s taking the opposition to BDS in this right-wing, xenophobic administration to a higher lever,” he said.
Barghouti lived in the U.S. for more than a decade including years spent earning a masters degree in engineering from Columbia University. He has traveled back and forth previously without issues, although he was temporary prohibited from leaving Israel earlier this year after his travel document was not renewed without explanation. Barghouti lives in Israel where he is a permanent resident and therefore does not possess Israeli citizenship or a passport. After Amnesty International intervened, his travel document was reinstated earlier this year, again without explanation.
In recent years 27 states have passed laws limiting or banning boycotts against Israel for state employees and contractors. Shortly after the measures were passed, four states struck down the laws as unconstitutional. Current federal legislation would upend those reversals. In February the Senate passed the Combating BDS Act of 2019 which grants state and local governments the power to stop doing business with boycotters of “Israel or Israeli-controlled territories.” A similar version of the bill is making the rounds in the House but is unlikely to pass.
James Zogby, the head of the Arab American Institute, said before introducing Barghouti at this morning’s event that he had attempted to arrange meetings between the BDS activist and members of Congress who oppose the tactic.
“What is especially troubling is that there are numerous pieces of legislation and or resolutions denouncing BDS, and some of them calling out Mr. Barghouti by name,” Zogby said. “A person much denounced and much defamed should have the opportunity to engage in conversation.
“We wrote to all of the members of Congress who were sponsors of the legislation asking if they would want to meet. The response has been to deny him entry.”
The BDS movement is modeled on boycotts of the South African Apartheid regime as a means of pressuring an end to the system of racial discrimination. In 2005 Barghouti produced a seminal document outlining his principles for a non-violent movement that could sway Israel to make fundamental changes in how it treats Palestinians. The call was widely endorsed by Palestinian nonprofits and activists abroad. Israel has vehemently opposed the movement as an effort to “delegitimize” the state and sought to connect it to Palestinian militant groups, which are labeled as terrorist organizations by the U.S. and Israel.
In February Barghouti’s name was mentioned in a report published by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs titled, “terrorists in suits.” While no illegal actions are ascribed to Barghouti, the file describes BDS “as a complementary effort” to “armed attacks against the State of Israel.”