As President Trump signed an executive order banning travelers from various countries throughout the Middle East, Israel passed a travel ban of its own, barring anyone who supports boycotts against Israel or its settlements from entering the country.
The law was voted through by centrist and right-wing Knesset members, and is widely seen as an attempt to ban foreigners who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) from entering Israel.
“The bill legalized a practice that was already in place,” said Professor Max Weiss in recent interview. Weiss is a prominent history and near eastern studies professor at Princeton, and recently gave a talk on the BDS movement and academic freedom at Princeton’s Day of Action with former Nassau Weekly Editor-in-Chief Joshua Leifer.
“Activists and public intellectuals who have taken a stance against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and prior to that the West Bank and Gaza, who had a reputation of some sort, would be stopped at the border and subject to interrogation, detention, or deportation. In that respect, we could see this as a continuation,” said Weiss.
In December, a prominent theologian and BDS supporter on a tourist visa was deported. In February, the vice president of the New Israel Fund, Jennifer Gorovitz, was detained at Ben Gurion airport and questioned.
In many ways, this new law can be seen as a radical departure—a public policy that gives the Ministry of the Interior the discretion to apply the law as it sees fit, and one that does not differentiate between those who boycott the state proper and those who call for boycotts of products or institutions in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli settlements continue to be an international source of contention.
Based on the Jordanian-Israeli armistice of 1949 and the 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice, the West Bank is considered an occupied territory with Israel as the occupying power. By this metric, any boycott of goods made in these territories by Israeli settlers does not constitute a boycott of Israel as a nation.
Critics of the BDS movement have decried the movement as anti-Semitic and long pointed to the de-legitimization of the State of Israel itself. Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, convened an anti-BDS conference at the UN on Wednesday focused on combating the movement. Israel also announced it would cut $2 million from its UN dues in protest of perceived anti-Israel UN resolutions. The funds will be redistributed to support international development projects in countries that support Israel.
But this new law seems to present a tension between the international Jewish community and the Israeli government itself, one that seemingly goes against the very tenets of Zionism that helped establish the state to begin with.
In its current iteration, the law bans anyone, Jew and Gentile alike, who supports any form of boycott against the Israeli government, including the operations of Israel in the occupied West Bank territories.
This means that Jews who support the boycott of products made in the West Bank attempting to emigrate under the Law of Return could be denied entrance to the country altogether. It’s unclear whether the law is actually enforceable.
At its core, it is a law against inaction, outlawing foreigners who consciously choose not to buy goods from Israel or its occupied territories. Dissent co-editor and prominent politics professor at the Institute for Advanced Study Michael Walzer said in a recent interview that “[the new travel ban] calls into question most of the founding principles of Israel, that Israel was to be a democracy and a society that guarantees the ordinary list of human rights.”
Walzer, a “liberal Zionist” who has stood staunchly against BDS for many years, is in favor of targeted boycott of goods from the occupied territories. Walzer said that the law was an indication of the lack of confidence of the Israeli right and its anxiety about foreign criticism. Much in the same ilk as Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, the Israeli travel ban may well be another example of emotional politics that aren’t actually enforceable. “It’s a violation,” said Walzer. “I’m doubtful that it’s enforceable. I suspect it’ll be one of those gestures that the right is very fond of.”
Much like the Trump administration’s fearmongering, this may be a move by the Israeli far right to bolster its own power domestically by continuing to point to external threats to the nation’s legitimacy and existence. Walzer fears that the travel ban might serve to further legitimize the BDS movement for those who were unsure about the issue and, in turn, bolster support for the Israeli right domestically.
“The government is an active ally of its external opponents. It fosters the opposition, and then uses the opposition, the endangered sense of Israel in the world, to reinforce its position domestically. I don’t think this government is unhappy about the (exaggerated) strength of BDS because they use it to forward their policies domestically,” Walzer said.
This increasingly endangered sense of Israel in the world has led to a hostility towards foreign critics that created this ban, and allowed the Israeli far right to thrive. Walzer warned that the travel ban could be a sign of future dark days for Israel.
“A government that cracks down on foreign critics is likely, in some not-so-distant future, to crack down on domestic critics. This is an authoritarian gesture that could be followed by worse to come.”