Public letter to Israel over its misguided new travel ban

I thought long and hard before pressing ‘send’ on the note to Ambassador Dermer (the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.), which follows.  These words could indeed put me, a relatively center-left Zionist, on a list for serious scrutiny (or worse) the next time I arrive in Israel.  But the law passed two days ago, making it legal to bar admission to Israel based solely on people’s advocacy for even limited forms of boycott or divestment or sanctions [“BDS”], has me deeply distressed.  I’m aware that my own future travel plans to Israel, like those of countless other liberal Zionists out there, are in fact already in jeopardy.

I wrote to the Ambassador on the New Israel Fund portal (and you can too!).  Since then, Jim Klutznik (as chair of Americans for Peace Now) has issued a powerful denunciation — “Monday, Israel’s Knesset kicked me in the behind. It made me into a persona-non-grata…  Yes, I can travel to any Arab country in the Middle East, from Morocco to Oman, but I can’t visit my Jewish homeland.  Why? because I believe that West Bank settlements are a major obstacle to peace and I therefore encourage my fellow American Jews to boycott only them, as I do.”   Nonetheless, he still affirms:  “This outrage will not deter me – nor APN – from continuing to fight for the Israel we believe in.”  Wearily, I agree; elements of civil society in Israel deserve no less than our fullest support.  But I wonder:

(a) how can these gratuitous attacks on liberal Zionists not take their toll?

(b) how can I in good conscience [or simple prudence, given the possibility of being turned right around] plan my next family vacation, sabbatical, or synagogue trip to Israel?

(c) what next, for the other land I love, with a government so inimical to what many of us have long deemed “Jewish values” like truth, open debate, self-reflection, and pursuit of justice and peace?

Comments are welcome from all — especially from those who, like me, want desperately to continue to love Israel, but find it ever harder to do so.  The letter follows.

Dear Ambassador Dermer:

I’m a pro-Israel, anti-BDS local rabbi and Jewish leader — who, after yesterday’s Knesset vote to deny entry to those on record supporting even limited boycotts, has to seriously consider ending our frequent synagogue Israel trips, and warning congregants about travel to Israel.  After all, any number of them (their rabbi included) have, as devoted progressive Zionists, stopped purchasing shtachim-made products [from the occupied territories], and encouraged others to do the same.  Suddenly, the law of the land makes our entry at Terminal Three doubtful.  Why lead an Israel mission full of devoted liberal Jews, eager to connect with the homeland and its people, only to be turned around after a ten-hour flight?!

Though the current coalition clearly devalues the views and contributions of Jews like us, we are in fact some of your greatest allies.   In America and elsewhere, the most effective hasbara is done by advocates like us who can draw the key distinction between being anti-Israel (something we universally condemn) and anti-occupation (which we are, davka [intentionally ironically so] out of Zionist zeal, whether or not the ruling party agrees).  Serious progressive Zionists like me have what the current Israeli government lacks:  credibility with those who disagree with them.  As progressives, we befriend and work closely alongside people of conscience – including skeptics, progressive Christians, European allies, and others who might otherwise join the anti-Israel bandwagon.  With them, we alone can make the pro-Israel (and yes anti-occupation) case.  But now, the case itself is less clear — and our ability and desire to make it took a big hit with yesterday’s vote.

What now?  I have supported Israel through thick and thin, visited more times than I can count, lived well over a year of my life there, woven Israel into my private Jewish journey and my public rabbinate, served as a delegate at the World Zionist Congress, and pushed my synagogue community to bring a JAFI shaliach into our midst for six years running — is that not sufficient Zionist cred?!  I worry too for those thoughtful peers whose Jewish and universal values lead them to support broader BDS efforts.  I shudder to consider how scared of non-violent social change efforts Medinat Yisrael [the State] has become – and how far it’s willing to drift from its founding principles and ethics, to quash those efforts.  What other democracy demands that tourists toe the ruling party line?

Suddenly, because of principled views on settlements (views which I share with no small number of my Israeli friends), I and thousands of other long-time Ohavei Yisrael [lovers of Israel] are unwelcome.  The rug has been pulled out from under us.  And what of Israel’s historic commitment to the “Ingathering of the Exiles,” especially amidst today’s rampant diaspora anti-Semitism – now the Chok ha-Shvut [the Law of Return] applies only to Jews whose politics align with the ruling party, since those who differ can’t even get through customs?

Along with the good folks of the New Israel Fund — an amuta [NGO] that embodies the Zionist vision of the upbuilding of the land most powerfully – I register my concern more broadly about the erosion of democratic principles in Israel.  As NIF notes, this “recently passed law to deny entry into Israel to individuals based on their views is a clear attempt to punish political speech and stifle dissent.”  It will backfire.  And it will cost Israel dearly.  Please, reconsider!  “It’s time for Israel to stop using political litmus tests and to take steps to safeguard the right of dissent.”

I stand as well with renown progressive Zionist Peter Beinart, who writes, “while I oppose boycotting Israel as a whole, I support boycotting Israeli settlements, which I believe threaten Israel’s moral character and its long-term survival.  I’m joined in that belief by prominent Israeli writers like David Grossman, Amos Oz and A. B Yehoshua.  But I doubt that will help me when I’m standing in front of the admissions clerk at Ben Gurion Airport.”

And I stand too with pro-Israel pro-Peace J Street:  “The bill is the latest piece of Israeli legislation to undermine Israel’s own democratic principles and its international standing. As a liberal democracy, Israel should be able to tolerate non-violent political protest and dissent…  [like me,] J Street is opposed to the Global BDS Movement… But we believe that BDS supporters have a right to their opinions and to non-violent political action.  This bill will do nothing to deter the Global BDS Movement – indeed it hands them a victory.  The bill will further isolate the country, validate Israel’s critics and deny many people the opportunity to hear and learn from Israelis and Palestinians firsthand.”

Tafasta meruba lo tafasta,” says the Talmud — “if you try to grab too much, you end up holding nothing.”  By lumping anti-occupation Zionists along with anti-Israel haters, in a clear attempt to block any movement toward a Two-State Solution (which remains the ostensible plan even according to PM Netanyahu though his allies in the coalition suggest otherwise), you alienate key allies.  And by defining others out of Zionism, and making it difficult for even active pro-Israel American Jews like us to book our tickets for TLV, you risk the very future of the Israel-diaspora partnership.

Mr. Ambassador, please send this message from one American Jewish leader (representative of many) back to the cabinet:  change course, before more damage is done — and before Israel loses even more of its long-time friends and supporters.

[post-script: others, including many academics, agree; see for instance Israel’s travel ban backlash: Over 100 Jewish studies scholars vow not to visit Israel in protest]…

[And a final post-script, from 3/9, when my own Reconstructionist Rabbnincial Association made this statement]:

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) and RRC/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities (RRC/JRC) are strongly opposed to and deeply disappointed by the Israeli Knesset’s passage of the “Entry Bill.” This law denies entry to foreign visitors who have publicly supported any form of boycott of the State of Israel or boycotts limited to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The Entry Bill broadly curtails legitimate civil discourse and liberties, moving the country further away from some of its bedrock principles – robust democracy, open debate, and vigorous pluralism. A democratic state has to be willing to tolerate non-violent political dissent even when its government profoundly opposes the dissenters’ ideas, and one of Israel’s longstanding points of pride has been its commitment to being a state that is both a Jewish homeland and a democracy. This legislation damages Israel’s democratic principles and its international standing as a democracy.

The law also potentially shuts the door on the opportunity for many future visitors to go to Israel and “see for themselves” – an experience that is crucial to the formation of complex, personal, and nuanced understandings of Israeli society.
Finally, coming on the heels of the recently passed law allowing West Bank outposts built by settlers in violation of Israeli law to be legalized retroactively, the Entry Bill is another example of a new law dangerously conflating Israel proper with West Bank settlements. For example, the Entry Bill threatens to turn away at Ben Gurion Airport any foreign visitor who may oppose boycotts against the State of Israel, but who may have supported targeted boycotts of products made in the settlements. Tour groups that have policies of not going over the Green Line as part of their itineraries could be refused entry, as could participants in organizations that have policies of only investing inside of the Green Line. As the New Israel Fund has stated, “By conflating boycotts of settlements with boycotts of the State of Israel itself, the legislation makes common cause with Israel’s adversaries who see no distinction between the legitimacy of the vibrant democracy that exists within Israel’s pre-1967 borders and the profoundly undemocratic reality that exists in the occupied territories.” We agree.

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2 Responses to “Public letter to Israel over its misguided new travel ban”

  1. Rene Boni Says:

    gut gezukt. kol hakavod, Rabbi Fred. I continue to feel and say, “THAT’S MY RABBI!!” Shabbat Shalom!
    Rene

  2. Kay Halpern Says:

    Thank you, Rabbi Fred, for your letter to Dermer. The most powerful and poignant part was when you cited the Talmud: “if you try to grab too much, you end up with nothing.” Israel is headed in the same direction as Icarus, blinded by hubris (and fear): the wax wings will melt.

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