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Hebrew University defies Israel on banishment of boycott activists

The decision by the Hebrew University to join US student Lara Alqasem in her petition against Israeli authorities reflects a growing trend in which various public organizations launch battles of principle against government policy.

US student Lara Alqasem was denied entry into Israel upon her arrival at the Ben Gurion Airport on Oct. 2. Alqasem had received a student visa to attend the Hebrew University, but authorities argued that she was a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activist against Israel. Alqasem then petitioned the court, with the Hebrew University joining her action.

The decision of Hebrew University Rector Barak Medina to support the fight of Alqasem was not only motivated by a desire to protect a student of the University. The significance and importance of his decision was in pitting the Hebrew University, the leading Israeli academic institution founded 100 years ago, against the government’s policy, which is viewed by the university leaders as rejecting basic human rights, most of all freedom of expression. 

Alqasem had been active in the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, an organization that works to boycott Israeli academics and applies the boycott doctrine of BDS. Despite her activity in the group, she visited Israel a year ago, and following her visit applied to study for an international master of arts in human rights and transitional justice at the Law Department of the Hebrew University. She received a student visa from the Israeli Consulate in Miami, but upon her arrival, she was interrogated by representatives of the Interior Ministry and representatives of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs. Then the visa she had received was nullified. 

The decision to ban her entry was based on the Law of Entry to Israel, which was amended in 2017 to stipulate that a visa would not be granted to anyone who called for boycotting Israel or participated in such a boycott. The amendment particularly targeted supporters of the BDS movement. Upon her detention at the airport, Alqasem initiated a legal battle to reverse the decision, but the Tel Aviv District Court determined that she met the standards the law set to deny entry to Israel.

Alqasem did not give up, and appealed to the High Court, which deliberated the case with a panel of three judges. On Oct. 18, the High Court accepted her appeal, ruling that she was entitled to enter the country. Judge Neil Handel wrote in the decision that the fact that Alqasem wishes to learn in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University does not support the thesis that she is a covert boycott activist. Judge Anat Baron said Alqasem’s past actions did not provide sufficient justification for the state’s decision. And so the impression was given that the decision to deny her visa was made because of Alqasem’s political views. Baron stated that if this was indeed the case, “This would be an extreme and dangerous step that could lead to the crumbling of the foundations of Israeli democracy.’’ The three judges agreed with the position of the Hebrew University that denial of the visa greatly damages its battle against the academic boycott.

The High Court’s ruling was apparently motivated by the instructions formulated by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs for implementing the revised law. Al-Monitor has learned that these restrictions on implementing the law — especially the one determining that it would apply only to people working consistently and continuously in significant action to boycott Israel — were established after two meetings of representatives of the Hebrew University with Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan and his staff. The meetings were initiated by the university administration and Medina many months before the Alqasem incident in the interest of an active policy of university involvement in the life of the state on issues of principle, values which Medina, who is also a law professor, preaches to students. 

Medina, who represented the position of the Hebrew University in the case, is considered one of Israel’s top experts on human rights. He was a candidate for the High Court and was recognized in 2015 as a knight of quality government by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel for his public activity for human rights and against corruption in civil service.

Medina told Al-Monitor that the deportation from Israel of a person accused of supporting the boycott could lead colleagues who might otherwise take no action in the matter to boycott Israel in a show of solidarity. He said that in recent months, and following the Alqasem incident, international academic bodies have expressed great concern at the government’s policy on the prohibition of entry to boycott activists. Medina said he personally supports the entry even of boycott activists, and ‘’here I would argue with them and show them the other side of the issue. But in my role as rector I work in the public and national interest and because I know that Alqasem’s deportation would greatly harm the battle against the academic boycott of Israel.”

This position was bolstered by the support of two of the most prominent supporters of Israel in the United States, and anywhere, Abe Foxman, director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, and attorney Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard University professor emeritus.

In an emergency meeting of senior faculty at the Hebrew University on Oct. 17, an incident was mentioned where Italian archaeologist Barbara Bolognani, who works as a researcher at the Hebrew University, was detained when she left Israel two weeks ago for a conference abroad and her laptop was confiscated. The university says that incidents such as these damage academic freedom and aid critics of Israel abroad. 

But there were also academics who oppose Medina’s and the university’s positions. At the same emergency meeting, some were concerned that the university’s position would lead to a worsening of the government’s general criticism of the university. Such criticism has been expressed lately by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who said at an Oct. 14 government meeting that the “university cartel was broken.” He was referring to data about a decline in the number of students registered at older universities, compared with the increase of number of students registered at other higher education institutions.

While the Hebrew University received no response when it called on other universities to join and support it, it seems there’s a growing trend in which various public organizations launch battles of principle against government policy. Thus, Israeli municipalities, among them Rishon LeZion or Herzliya, petitioned recently against the Supermarket Law (limiting the opening of businesses on Saturdays). Another such battle is the public campaign conducted against a bill advanced by Culture Minister Miri Regev, enabling her to withdraw state support from cultural institutions she considers disloyal to the state. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said in an interview with Reshet Bet Radio on Oct. 21 that municipalities in Israel must fight against the loyalty bill introduced by Regev, whom he called the “minister of censorship.”

Huldai said, “We will stand as a bulwark against anyone who violates freedom of speech.” 

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