Israel’s Wrongheaded Retreat on BDS
Regardless of whether you support or oppose a new law allowing Israel to bar entry to prominent supporters of anti-Israeli boycotts, one outcome was eminently predictable: Israel would lack the guts to enforce it even when doing so was most justified. That was amply proven by Wednesday’s decision to grant a one-year work visa to Human Rights Watch researcher Omar Shakir. By this decision, Israel eviscerated the one crucial point the law got right, despite the many it got wrong: You cannot wage an effective war on the BDS movement while giving the people behind it a pass. As the old truism goes, people are policy.
Shakir is the epitome of someone who should have been denied entry, and his case exemplifies why the law’s basic assumption–that boycotters must be targeted personally–is 100 percent correct. He has given lectures on college campuses in which he accused Israel of being an apartheid state, advocated anti-Israel boycotts, compared Zionism to “Afrikaner nationalism,” rejected a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the grounds that it would “institutionalize injustice,” and called for ending Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. His resume also includes a stint as a legal fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, an organization that provides legal assistance and training to BDS activists and files war crimes suits against Israeli defense officials. Nor would discovering all this require any great research skills on the part of government officials; it’s all in a handy memo, complete with links, that NGO Monitor published in December.
Yet in his new role as HRW’s “Israel and Palestine director,” Shakir is supposed to oversee the production of unbiased, objective reports about human rights violations in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Needless to say, the very idea is fatuous; when someone has already made up his mind that Zionism is racism, Israel practices apartheid and a Jewish state has no right to exist, expecting him to produce unbiased research on this subject is like expecting the head of the Ku Klux Klan to preside fairly over the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Instead, Shakir will spend his year here producing reports full of vicious anti-Israel slurs. Thanks to the “halo effect” enjoyed by all human rights organizations, those findings will be treated as credible by numerous well-meaning people overseas and will further undermine Israel in the international arena.
In short, allowing Shakir to take up his post will do Israel incalculable harm. Yet, instead of doing the minimum research required to justify barring him as an individual, the border control authorities made a hasty decision in February to deny him a visa on the sweeping grounds that HRW is an anti-Israel organization. Clearly, accusing an entire organization of being anti-Israel is far harder to justify, even if it happens to be true (which, in HRW’s case, I believe it is). Doing so without exhaustive research and intensive preparation for the inevitable diplomatic backlash was insane.
The predictable result was that the State Department exerted pressure on HRW’s behalf since it’s an American organization. And then, instead of retreating to the narrower and more easily defensible position of barring Shakir on the grounds of his clear unfitness for his post, Israel capitulated completely. Thus instead of HRW being justly embarrassed at having chosen someone so patently unqualified as its “Israel and Palestine director,” boycott advocates were handed a totally unjustified and very public victory.
One might think this is simply a case of bureaucratic ineptitude that has nothing to do with the new law, especially since Shakir’s visa was initially denied before the new law even passed. But the new law actually makes such damaging outcomes even more likely. Why? Because it differs from the old law, which also allowed prominent boycott advocates to be denied entry, in one respect only: Instead of border control officials needing the interior minister’s permission to bar a prominent boycotter, they can now do so on their own authority, unless the government intervenes.
In other words, under the old law, visas were theoretically denied only in cases where the government had already decided it was prepared to stand behind the denial. By handing this authority over to relatively low-level officials, the new law makes it even more likely that the government will end up beating humiliating retreats from eminently reasonable decisions simply because they were made without the necessary research and preparation.
In all other respects, the new law is identical to the old. Like the old one, it applies only to the most prominent boycott advocates. Consequently, it accomplishes nothing except to further increase the likelihood of bureaucratic snafus, while also producing a lot of unfavorable publicity, upsetting even many of the country’s prominent defenders, giving extra ammunition to people who seek to tar Israel as anti-democratic, and creating unwarranted anxiety among well-meaning people who now fear being denied entry on grounds that aren’t even actionable under the law, such as a personal refusal to buy settlement products.
If Israel is to fight the BDS movement effectively, anti-Israel activists like Shakir must be called out as publicly as possible instead of being allowed to pose as objective researchers whose anti-Israel screeds should be considered credible. And barring them from entering the country, precisely because it’s such a high-profile step, can be an effective way of doing so. But if Shakir’s case is any example, the new law will at best contribute nothing to this essential effort, and, at worst, may even end up hindering it.
Originally published in Commentary on April 26, 2017