A few days ago I prepared to take my first trip to Israel-Palestine as part of an interfaith delegation of human rights activists. I got as far as Dulles Airport.
Four other faith leaders and I — three of us Jewish, one Christian, and one Muslim — were prohibited from checking into our Lufthansa flight at the demand of the Israeli government.
Offered no documentation or explanation by Lufthansa officials, we could only presume this was punishment for our support of Palestinian human rights. This was confirmed when the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs told Haaretz that the travel ban was due to our support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
In my Jewish American family, I learned to engage critically with Israel, and after many years, I was ready to go and see with my own eyes the good and the bad: the land and sites that are holy to many, as well as the realities of Israeli occupation and institutional discrimination.
Unfortunately, the Israeli government wouldn’t let me.
Banned in TLV
I am heartbroken and angry that we’ve been denied this opportunity to travel. But this is far from the first instance of denial of entry, and it comes as no shock to me.
Israel has long enacted travel bans, mostly against Palestinians. Many Palestinian refugees and their descendants, displaced from their homes during the Nakba in 1948 — when over 750,000 Palestinians were made refugees — are not allowed to return. Many of those displaced during the 1967 War are also unable to return, despite the rights of refugees in international law.
Israel has also denied entry to international observers and human rights organizations.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Makarim Wibisono, was denied entry in 2015. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both been denied access to Gaza — where, according to Robert Piper, the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities, “the ‘unlivability threshold’ has already been passed.” Gazans currently receive between two to four hours of electricity daily and lack clean drinking water, while living under Israeli occupation and siege.
Like the denial of entry to international observers, the activist ban is part of a “see no evil” strategy to deny access to the reality on the ground, and in doing so chill human rights activism.
Suppression of BDS Activism
The activist ban targets supporters of the BDS movement, a Palestinian-led movement for justice and freedom calling on Israel to end the 1967 occupation, end the institutionalized discrimination against Palestinians living in Israel, and uphold the right of refugees to return. Like all boycott movements — from the American South to South Africa — the goal of BDS is to become obsolete: When Israel stops infringing on Palestinian rights, BDS will end.
Today, the BDS movement counts 200 successes in the United States alone.
Campaigns have successfully targeted corporations like Veolia, G4S, and Sodastream for their complicity in Israeli occupation and apartheid; passed over 50 resolutions at universities and colleges, as well as academic associations like the American Studies Association, Women’s Studies Association, and Peace and Justice Studies Association; and led divestment efforts in faith communities, including major U.S. churches like the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.
The success of the BDS movement is also evident in the repression faced by activists. In many states, legislation has been passed that punishes or suppresses BDS activism. And pending legislation in the U.S. Congress would criminalize BDS, with penalties as severe as 20 years imprisonment and $1 million in fines, which the ACLU deems “civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies.”
In Israel, an anti-boycott law allows for civil suits to be filed against anybody who supports boycotts, even those that only target illegal settlements. And in March, the Knesset passed a bill forbidding entry or residency to those who advocate for BDS — that’s the law which purportedly prohibits my entry.
Next Year in Jerusalem?
As my fellow delegate Shakeel Sayed said, “The holy land does not belong to any one group of people. All people belong to the holy land.”
My denial of entry makes even clearer what I already knew: Israel is not a democratic state where true dissent is allowed. Of course, a true democracy doesn’t keep millions of people under military occupation for decades or discriminate against them under apartheid either.
But perhaps just as significant is what my denial says about Israel as a Jewish state.
There’s no denying that barring Jews, including a rabbi, from the “Jewish state” is significant. As many have documented, Israel has always been for some Jews at the expense of Palestinians and other Jews. For example, many Mizrahim, or “Oriental” Jews, were settled in ma’abarot — transit camps consisting mostly of Mizrahim like themselves, who were expected to assimilate to European Jewish customs before becoming a part of Israel. A few resisted by demanding resettlement in the countries they’d come from.
Once again, as one Israeli minister warned recently, the “rules of the game have changed.” Israel is now only for Jews who don’t dissent.
“I promise that my activism to restore the dignity and honor of the people in Palestine will not stop, but will double down,” Shakeel vowed. And I promise that, too — so that if not next year, some day soon, all people will have access to justice and peace in Israel-Palestine.
Follow along with our #JustFaith17 delegation here to see what Israel was so afraid for the #interfaith5 see.