We don’t imagine that pictures of Rebecca Vilkomerson are hanging in post offices across Israel. But the organization she heads, Jewish Voice for Peace, was recently banned there, so she and other group leaders are barred from entering the country.
Of the 20 groups (six of them American) that Israel banned for advocating the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, JVP is the only one that holds itself out as “Jewish” — although many of the other groups on the list have Jewish leaders and receive support from Jewish funders.
We oppose BDS, as does every Jewish organization other than JVP. Like many others, we see in the BDS movement a hostility that not only opposes Israel’s military and civilian presence in the West Bank, but that is also part of a larger campaign to delegitimize the very existence of the Jewish state.
But there is a difference between boycotts and hostile rhetoric on the one hand, and missiles, tanks and violent, life threatening attacks, on the other. Wars of words and contrarian thinking and debate are nothing new to a robust democracy like Israel. Precisely those kinds of give and take go on daily in the Knesset and throughout the public sphere. So, what is driving the ban of BDS advocates? And why is Israel reluctant to challenge on its home turf the legitimacy and unsupportable justifications of the BDS movement?
Part of the answer may lie in the troubling approach developing in Israel, much of it bolstered by what is understood to be words and actions of encouragement from President Trump’s administration. The government’s domestic focus has shifted rightward, focusing on the haredi Orthodox community that provides the glue for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on his governing coalition. At the same time, it has taken moves interpreted by the Palestinians as foreclosing any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state.
There is a growing sense that the country is circling the wagons, an image that is not helped by resorting to such undemocratic methods as barring those with offensive and unpopular views from entering the country.
“In general, democratic states know well that you don’t remove ideas by just suppressing them,” notes Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. The entry ban, she says, will have little or no effect in suppressing a BDS movement that has not been particularly effective anyway.
Which begs the questions: What strong democracy fears critics? And why should the Jewish state fear fellow Jews?
In announcing the ban, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan promised that Israel would not allow BDS groups “to harm its citizens.” Harm how? On this issue, we agree with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition Zionist Union. “Israel is beautiful. Israel has equality,” she said. “Let [boycott advocates] see it! Keeping them out only expands the gap between Israel’s image and the reality.”