On Monday Jan. 30, Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) was set to pass into law a bill that bars BDS (boycotts, divestments and sanctions) advocates from the country.

The bill would extend the ban to those who back the anti-Israel BDS movement as well as those who support the boycott of settlement goods in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank.

The bill has been in the works for over a year, passing its first Knesset reading back in November.

Two weeks ago, the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee reportedly approved the final wording of the bill, sending it to the plenary for its second and third/final reading.

That was supposed to happen on Monday evening (Israel time), when the bill was anticipated to garner a sufficient number of votes in favor to pass.

On Monday afternoon (EST) I learned from several colleagues that the vote was postponed. They tell me that there’s no indication when the bill will be back on the Knesset agenda.

The delay is a shame.

That’s because this is a bill that needs to become law—the sooner the better.

Below I summarize it, discuss the criticisms that have been raised, and highlight the type of virulently anti-Israel “tourist activism” that’s likely to be impacted if the bill becomes law (and the kind that won’t).

Not surprisingly, the anti-boycott bill has generated “outrage and dismay” from left-of-center legislators and NGOs in both Israel and the U.S.

As I suggest below though, most of the criticisms are overblown. The law would be an important corrective to an absurd situation that’s developed in Israel where foreign activists routinely take advantage of the country’s democracy in order to work against it.

Still, opponents are right that if the new law is executed poorly, it could defeat its purpose by increasing support for BDS.

Also included below is a short statement exclusive for Legal Insurrection from Lahav Harkov, the Knesset reporter for The Jerusalem Post.

Israel’s Latest Anti-Boycott Bill

The proposed legislation, which has been advanced by both right-wing and centrist Israeli lawmakers, seeks to prevent foreign nationals who have publicly called for a boycott of the Jewish state, or who work on behalf of a pro-BDS organization, from entering Israel.

Jonathan Lis reports for Haaretz.com:

The Knesset is likely to give final approval Monday evening to a bill that would forbid granting entry visas or residency rights to foreign nationals who call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts of either Israel or the settlements.

However, the interior minister would be able to make exceptions to this rule if he deems it warranted in a particular case.”

The language of the bill rests on a legal definition of anti-Israel boycotts from a 2011 law, which allows citizens to bring civil suits against Israeli persons and organizations that call for the boycott of Israel and settlements.

So a key aspect of the bill is that it extends to cover settlement-boycott supporters who would also be barred from entering the country under the law (the ban wouldn’t apply to foreign nationals who already have residency permits).

The bill has been in the works for some months, gaining traction following the formation of a joint taskforce this past August.

Convened by Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Interior Minister Arye Deri, the taskforce was mandated to work on ways to prevent entry and to deport BDS activists who are illegally exploiting their tourist visas by engaging in political activities.

[Aryeh Deri]

Note that representatives of international organizations are able to apply for humanitarian aid visas in order to work in the West Bank legally. But the terms of these visas prohibit recipients from engaging in political or legal activities.

So the taskforce was asked to consider how Israel could rectify the situation in which BDS activists are routinely receiving 3-month tourist visas in lieu of the specific humanitarian aid visas, and are thus operating in the country illegally.

The bill is a result of the taskforce’s effort.

It was approved for a first reading in the Knesset back in November, with 42 lawmakers in favor, 18 opposed and 7 abstentions.

The bill had been on last week’s plenary agenda for a final reading and vote, but was postponed at that time too.

Criticisms of the Bill Are Untenable or Exaggerated

Opponents of the bill have charged that it silences legitimate political dissent and criticism of Israel’s policies, especially the “occupation” and settlements.

But it’s hard to see how the new law has any fundamental problem in relation to freedom of expression.

Israel isn’t obligated to issue a visa to every foreigner on the grounds that failing to do so censors political opinion. Advocates of the ban are correct that, under international law and practice, Israel has the right to control its borders and determine which foreign nationals are entitled to enter the country.

Every sovereign nation does.

As the organization Honest Reporting remarks:

Countries throughout the world issue visas to visit, to work, and other similar activities. There is no country in the world that issues a visa for people to advocate for the destruction of the host country, nor is there any country in the world that would be expected to let such a person stay after violating the terms of their visa. Quite simply: Israel should be held to the same standards as every other country on Earth.”

The Israel-based watchdog group NGO Monitor has produced a Fact Sheet that includes information about how other democracies—including the U.S., Denmark, the UK, France, and Canada—have in recent years routinely denied or revoked visas to foreign nationals considered “security risks”, such as those with suspected links to terrorist organizations or known for voicing “radical sentiments.”

So even among democracies, Israel isn’t particularly unique in refusing entry to people determined to be threats to the state.

What Israel envisions doing under the new law is entirely consistent with standard practice.

But if it’s passed, it would make such bans more transparent because individuals would no longer be refused entry into Israel on a case-by-case basis, solely up to the discretion of the government.

Currently visas are granted automatically except for visitors who the Interior Minister specifically bars. The new law would change the situation so that entry for individuals affiliated with designated pro-BDS organizations would be automatically banned, unless the Interior Minister allows it.

By making the default option not to grant a visa unless the government says otherwise, the new law would effectively identify and advertise which of the dozens of NGOs currently operating inside Israel are deemed to be harmful to the Jewish state.

Critics have a point that doing this could give “more fuel” and ammunition to BDS enemies. It could look like Israel is trying to “gag” people—especially those on the Left who oppose the occupation.

But such a backlash would only happen (and be justified) if the law is implemented improperly.

The law shouldn’t make it impossible for people who voice legitimate criticism of Israel’s government and its policies to get tourist visas. In executing the law, the Interior Ministry would need to be mindful that it stay focused on the Israel-haters, and not be abused by silencing legitimate protest and political opinions, including those of anti-occupation leftists.

Pro-BDS NGO Activists Recently Denied Entry to Israel

Critics of the bill stand on firmer ground in making the claim that existing law already gives the state considerable leeway to ban people from entering the country.

This argument that the law would be redundant isn’t completely without merit.

Under existing law, Israel’s Interior Minister (Arye Deri) is already able to bar foreign nationals from entering Israel. Deri has exercised this discretion with increasing frequency in recent months by revoking, or refusing to issue, visas to various BDS-promoting activists.

NGO Monitor’s Fact Sheet noted above includes a number of cases this past summer when Israeli border control refused entry to specific individuals.

Several additional cases have also been reported recently in mainstream media stories:

Brigitte Herremans (Belgium)

Back in September, Brigitte Herremans, a BDS-supporting Belgian activist affiliated with the anti-Israel Catholic aid groups Broederlijk Delen and Pax Christi, was reportedly denied entry by Israeli officials upon her arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.

[Brigette Herremans | Credit: JTA]

Herremans was supposed to lead a two-week “Familiarization Trip to Israel and Palestine.”

A major anti-Israel activist (she directs Broederlijk Delen), Herremans has been a longtime advocate of EU economic sanctions and settlement product labeling.

On past trips to Israel, she’s guided Dutch groups through the West Bank where she’s encouraged them to think of Israel as a non-democratic, oppressive, apartheid state and its counterterror security measures as aimed at “territorial expansion.”

After her tours, participants are meant to educate their communities by relating these messages back home and assisting to identify and train future participants.

Dr. Adam Hanieh (UK)

Also in September, Dr. Adam Hanieh—a senior lecturer form SOAS University in London—was reportedly denied entry to Israel at the airport. Hanieh claimed to be headed to Birzeit University in Ramallah to teach graduate student classes there.

Active in BDS campaigns linked to the virulently anti-Israel NGOs Addameer and the Palestine section of Defense for Children International, Hanieh was turned away apparently because of his support for the Hamas terrorist organization in his various writings.

Hanieh was reportedly sent back to London and banned from Israel for ten years.

Dr. Isabel Apawo Piri (Malawi)

Last month, Israel refused entry to Isabel Phiri, a Malawi citizen and Christian theologian, on account of her leadership role with the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Phiri arrived at Ben Gurion Airport with a tourist visa.

She was sent back to Germany (from where she had originally departed to Israel) by Interior Minister Deri who decided against issuing her a visa following consultation with Public Security Minister Erdan.

[Isabel Phiri | Credit: Haaretz]

The WCC is a well-known virulently anti-Israel and pro-boycott umbrella organization that represents approximately 350 Protestant churches (for more information on the WCC’s “anti-Israel obsession” see scholar Malcolm Lowe’s article published by The Gatsetone Institute here).

The Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum led by Father Gabriel Naddaf, spiritual leader of the Aramean Christian community in Israel, reportedly had sent information to the Interior Ministry which exposed Phiri as an executive for the WCC who was traveling to Israel to consult with church leaders at the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI)—a WCC-supported group that promotes boycotts and “demonizes Israel under the purported guise of ‘peace activists’.”

[Credit: Israel Hayom]

Basically, Ministers Deri and Erdan surmised that Phiri would spend her time in Israel engaged in anti-Israel political activity—going to the West Bank to gather stories of Israel behaving badly, and then working to broadcast this false information to churches in the WCC/EAPPI network in Europe and the U.S.

It was a reasonable guess.

The WCC/EAPPI has been doing this for the last 15 years.

In sum, the above cases show that even without the new law, boycott-promoters run the risk of being turned away at the border. But in each case, Israeli authorities have been condemned for the expulsions, even though the foreigners involved were in violation of their tourist visas.

Herremans tweeted that her expulsion showed how “Israel fears human rights activists.” Deputy PM of Belgium Alexander de Croco expressed “regret” at her deportation. In a letter to the Israeli embassy in the UK, SOAS director Baroness Valerie Amos claimed that the decision to deport Hanieh was an “arbitrary breach of academic freedom.”

Israel’s refusal to allow Phiri into the country also garnered considerable attention and condemnation. An editor at the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, deeming Phiri “unfairly targeted”, wrote that her deportation was a sign of “BDS paranoia gone wild.” Outside Israel, the WCC vehemently protested too, asserting that Israel was “wrongly accusing” Phiri based on misinformation.

If the anti-boycott bill passes into law, it would provide a more transparent rationale for such visa refusals. What now looks arbitrary and unjustified will be shown to be fully warranted.

Who the New Law Would Keep Out of Israel

If the anti-boycott bill becomes law in its current form, it would enable the government to refuse entry into the country of two types of BDS-backing foreign nationals:

  • BDS activists who seek to damage the Jewish state by spreading false information and promoting demonizing narratives about the country; and
  • BDS activists who act to harass and obstruct IDF and security personnel by organizing and participating in violent protests or making contact with representatives of terror organizations.

In both instances, these activists are engaging in activities that are inconsistent with the status of tourists. As noted by the bill’s sponsors, the law isn’t intended to cover “any individual who ever said something” that crossed the line from legitimate criticism of Israel to antisemitism.

It’s aimed primarily at the representatives of non-governmental organizations and agencies that work against Israel.

Good examples of the types of activists that would be barred under the law are those affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).

It’s an organization that was founded some 15 years ago at the start of the second intifada and whose leaders have long supported violence as “legitimate national resistance.”

Its radicalism is notorious.

As documented by Johns Hopkins University Professor Joshua Muravchik in his outstanding 2014 book Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, ISM leaders have often expressed sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers. At least one has interacted with Hamas—even receiving an award from Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh back in 2008. Also that year, Muravchik notes that an ISM volunteer was sentenced to 42 months in a U.S. federal prison for giving about $20,000 to Hamas while working in Israel on behalf of ISM.

ISM “tourism” is risky for all those involved.

Rachel Corrie, an American ISM activist was accidentally killed in 2003 while trying to prevent a bulldozer from clearing brush and debris that was shielding Palestinian fighters and the tunnels they were then using to smuggle arms from Egypt.

In recent years, ISM operatives have traveled routinely to Israel on tourist visas, “visiting flashpoint locations” and participating in protests at Israel’s security fence.

The Palestinian village of Bil’in has been one such popular destination for ISM foreign activists. They gather there to instigate fights with the IDF, incite local Palestinian residents to violence, and to get propaganda footage for the media.

Anti-Israel “Political Tourist Activism” that (Probably) Won’t Be Effected by the New Law

As best I can tell, the new law won’t have an impact on foreign nationals or organizations that haven’t publicly called for a boycott of Israel.

Not all vehemently anti-Israel activists have signed on to BDS. So this means that a lot of tourists and a great deal of politically-motivated anti-Israel tourist activism simply won’t fall under the law’s purview.

It’ll still happen.

A good example of the kind of tourism subterfuge that likely won’t be stopped if the bill becomes law is a new West Bank tour initiated by the far-left U.S.-based organization Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights in partnership with the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika).

According to promotional material for the trips released this past summer, the program is being made possible through a “generous grant by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.”

Truah hasn’t officially called for the boycott of Israel, nor has it committed itself to participating in one.

The same is true for Breaking the Silence (BtS).

Its members and spokespeople are IDF veteran soldiers who spend much of their time vilifying and bad-mouthing their country to foreigners and spreading falsehoods about the military’s operations in Gaza and the West Bank. For years, BtS has been running “alternative tours” to the Hebron area guided by former IDF combatants who served there.

Eye-witness accounts of BtS programming suggests that its message about Israel, the military’s activity in the West Bank and the conflict in general isn’t any more balanced or factually-accurate a representation than what’s on offer at BDS-promoting events.

So basically, by the end of their visit, these American-Jewish political tourists will be “brainwashed” into believing the Palestinian narrative of the conflict: Israel has illegally stolen Arab land and oppresses the Palestinians, committing crimes against humanity.

Still, participants going on the Truah-BtS “Go and See” trips probably won’t be turned away at the airport.

Why The Bill Should be Passed Into Law

For years, vehemently anti-Israel BDS activists have abused Israel’s open and democratic policies to easily obtain tourist visas.

Once in country, they don’t spend much of their time visiting Israel’s many tourist attractions. Nor do they interact with the diverse communities that make up Israel’s inspiring citizenry.

Instead, these tourists make a bee-line to the West Bank where they engage with other virulently anti-Israel NGOs with harmless-sounding names (e.g., Holy Land Trust, Green Olive Tours, and Olive Tree Initiative). Then, they produce biased and factually inaccurate accounts about the maliciousness of Israel’s state and its people which they relate to colleagues and friends back home.

Not content to just talk, some of these tourist activists have taken to joining in on Palestinian protests at Israel’s security fence, where they often egg on violence, at times participating directly in it and provoking Israel’s IDF and policing units.

With cameras at the ready, these radical activists film “Pallywood” footage, sharing it on social media and to captive audiences at seminars, conferences, and meetings back home.

Basically, these activists are entering Israel under false pretenses and systematically engaging in political warfare against the Jewish state. A “whole industry” now exists of organizations that bring people to Israel on tourist visas solely for anti-Israel purposes.

As noted by Janet Levy in an essay from several years ago for The American Thinker:

This seemingly innocuous network of tourism enterprises is actually a comprehensive influence operation to indoctrinate unsuspecting tourists and turn them against the Jewish state.”

No country in its right mind would stand for it.

Exclusive Statement for LI from Lahav Harkov, Knesset Reporter for JPost

I reached out to journalist Lahav Harkov to get her view of the bill.

[Lahav Harkov]

I figured she was a good person to contact, given that she wrote an article on it back in November (and also wrote about the 2011 anti-BDS “Law to Prevent Harm to the State of Israel via a Boycott” on which the current bill draws).

Harkov’s now on maternity leave with her first child, but she responded right away (via Direct Message on Twitter):

There are a few things to consider. First of all, the bill bases the definition of a boycott on the 2011 Boycott Law, which includes boycotting Israeli government institutions and regions under Israeli control. Regions under Israeli control include Judea and Samaria. That significantly broadens the pool of boycotters. So Peter Beinart, to give a prominent example, could theoretically be banned from entering Israel if the new law passes. I’ll let other people debate the wisdom of this law, in general or its current draft. What I think needs to be pointed out is the probability of its enforcement. I highly doubt the State of Israel will invest the necessary manpower and funding to keep every single college student who tweeted #BDS or whatever out of the country. Chances are, if this law passes, it will only be used in the highest-profile and most extreme cases.”

Harkov’s take on the legislation is spot on. She’s also probably right about Beinart.

The well-known American columnist and liberal political commentator has long publicly supported the boycott of Israel’s settlements.

So, if the law passes, and Beinart comes to Israel planning to lead a group of fellow tourists through the West Bank, he may very well find himself on the next plane back to JFK.

[Credit: JTA]

Conclusion

The anti-boycott law targeting high-profile boycott-promoting foreign nationals is long overdue. It’ll effectively tackle some of the most egregious forms of fraudulent “tourism subterfuge” going on in Israel today.

But the law will also put leading anti-settlement activists and organizations on notice that Israel will no longer willingly tolerate “BDS-lite” activism.

That too would be a positive step, because much of this programming, ostensibly only targeted at Israel’s “occupation”, often has the same effect as other forms of pro-BDS tourism: collecting information that can be used to harm Israel’s international standing and reputation by demonizing settlers and disseminating bogus accounts about life in east Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria/the West Bank.

Bottom line: People from across the world will always be welcome in Israel, a state that devotes significant resources to its tourist industry. Israel is among the most exciting and beautiful countries on the planet. Tourists who go should plan to spend their time creating lifelong memories at holy sites, natural wonders, cultural venues, and world-class restaurants. So visas shouldn’t be issued routinely to those who want to visit simply so that they can “fight Israel”, and delegitimize the state and vilify its people 24/7 when they get back home.

In the battle against BDS, this law is a no-brainer.

[Featured Image: American Anti-Israel BDS Activist Ariel Gold arrested during rock throwing protest 2015, via IsraellyCool.]

Note: we’ll provide an update to this post when the bill comes up for a final vote in the Knesset (h/t to Lahav Harkov and Dr. Gerald Steinberg, Bar Ilan University Professor of Political Science and founder of NGO Monitor, for helpful background information used in this post and for informing me about the bill’s postponement.)

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman