Is Lara Alqasem undermining Palestinian boycott campaign?

Lara Alqasem (via Nonviolence International)

For some, Lara Alqasem may be taking a noble stance by insisting that she ought to be allowed to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, despite the Israeli government’s effort to deport her.

It is intuitive and natural to stand by any Palestinian, especially when they are in Israeli detention, and to that extent she deserves solidarity.

But her actions merit a closer look from the perspective of their impact on efforts led by Palestinians to hold Israel accountable for catastrophic and ongoing violations of their rights.

From that point of view, Alqasem’s decision to enroll at Hebrew University directly violates and undermines the Palestinian campaign to boycott Israeli institutions complicit in Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, especially since her case has become an international political issue.

Denied entry

The 22-year-old US citizen with Palestinian grandparents landed at Ben Gurion airport on 2 October and was denied entry despite having a student visa for a graduate program issued by the Israeli consulate in Miami.

The pretext for denying her entry is her previous membership in the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports the BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement for Palestinian rights.

This is part of an ongoing crackdown, led by Israel’s strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan, against supporters of Palestinian rights.

“Lara served as president of a chapter of one of the most extreme and hate-filled anti-Israel BDS groups in the US,” Erdan said. “Israel will not allow entry to those who work to harm the country, whatever their excuse.”

The Israeli government has based its case against Alqasem on claims made by the anti-Palestinian website Canary Mission.

Since she landed, Alqasem has been detained at Ben Gurion airport pending court challenges to the decision to deny her entry.

On Monday, an Israeli judge ruled that she would remain in detention until her case is settled.

The Electronic Intifada understands that another hearing is set for Thursday.

The Israeli government insists that Alqasem is not being detained since she is free to return to the US any time she chooses.

Demand for denunciation

On Tuesday, Erdan changed his tune – evidently seeing the opportunity to turn Alqasem’s case into a victory for Israeli propaganda.

“If Lara Alqasem will tomorrow in her own voice, not through all kinds of lawyers or statements that can be misconstrued, say that support for BDS is not legitimate and she regrets what she did, we will certainly reconsider our position,” Erdan stated.

Indeed, through her lawyers and family, Alqasem has already made clear that if she ever supported the Palestinian-led nonviolent movement to bring pressure on Israel to stop its crimes against Palestinians, she no longer does.

“In her appeal, Alqasem has argued that she never actively participated in boycott campaigns, and promised the court that she would not promote them in the future,” the Associated Press reported.

“We’re talking about someone who simply wants to study in Israel, who is not boycotting anything,” her lawyer, Yotam Ben-Hillel, told the AP. “She’s not even part of the student organization anymore.”

“She may have been critical of some of Israel’s policies in the past but she respects Israeli society and culture,” Lara’s mother, Karen Alqasem, told the AP. “To her, this isn’t a contradiction.”

Cause celebre

In the meantime, Alqasem has become a cause celebre for liberal and right-wing Zionists.

She has received visits from lawmakers of Israel’s leftist Meretz party, which like its right-wing Zionist counterparts opposes any return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in what is now Israel because they are not Jews.

Hebrew University, an institution complicit in theft of Palestinian land and other forms of discrimination, and which opposes the BDS movement, has asked to join her legal appeal.

And on the opinion page of The New York Times, Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens, two right-wing, staunchly pro-Israel columnists, have also rallied to Alqasem’s defense.

“Israelis have good reason to see the BDS campaign as a thinly veiled form of bigotry,” the columnists write, smearing it as akin to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. They also attempt to tie Students for Justice in Palestine to terrorism, another gross smear.

Yet they suggest that letting Alqasem in could help “stem a worrying trend among young American Jews, who are increasingly alienated from Israel because of its hardline policies.”

Weiss fought staunchly against the academic freedom of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims at Columbia University when she was a student there, yet without irony she now defends Alqasem.

It’s no surprise however that anti-Palestinian polemicists like Stephens and Weiss would want to see students like Alqasem crossing the boycott picket line.

Violating the boycott

But PACBI – the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel – takes a different and clear stance. The campaign group wrote to The Electronic Intifada:

“Any international student, regardless of her/his identity, enrolling in a complicit Israeli university, like the Hebrew University, is violating the relevant BDS guidelines. We strongly advise against such enrollment and against any other connection to these complicit institutions.”

“The Hebrew University, like all Israeli universities, contributes to Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid. These institutions play a persistent role in planning, implementing, justifying or whitewashing Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights,” PACBI added.

There’s a couple of important things to note about this statement – its reference to international students as well as identity.

Some might argue that Alqasem’s Palestinian ancestry justifies her attending Hebrew University. But this is not the case.

PACBI’s academic boycott guidelines do permit some Palestinians – those with Israeli citizenship – to attend Israeli universities, but this is not merely because of their ethnic identity as Palestinians.

Rather, it is because they are in a “coercive relationship” with the Israeli state. As taxpayers and citizens – albeit second class because they are not Jewish – Palestinians in Israel have no choice but to attend Israeli schools and universities to fulfill their right to an education while remaining steadfast in their homeland.

Their situation is therefore akin to Black South Africans who fought for access to and attended the apartheid regime’s universities in their country, or Black Americans who insisted on attending racist institutions as part of the civil rights struggle to force an end to segregation.

This “coercive relationship” analysis can arguably be extended to Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, especially East Jerusalem, where Palestinian educational choices are severely restricted by Israel.

But it is difficult to see how it could apply to someone like Alqasem, an international student who with her US citizenship is not dependent on Israeli institutions for an education.

Alqasem’s personal desire – shared by many Palestinians in the diaspora – to be connected with her ancestral homeland is also understandable, but as an American citizen she already had possibilities to do that which for millions of stateless Palestinian refugees remain a dream.

With her US passport, Alqasem is nominally able to visit historic Palestine – or enroll in a Palestinian university – though due to Israel’s arbitrary discrimination, Palestinian Americans are frequently denied entry.

Yet as her case proves, going to the trouble of obtaining a student visa from Israel provides no greater guarantee of entry.

Paying a price

It would be especially unfortunate if Alqasem decides to denounce the boycott call when others are paying a price for respecting it.

This week University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold was denied a raise and a sabbatical as punishment for refusing to write a recommendation letter for a student for a study abroad program in Israel.

If a student had wanted to do a study abroad program at an institution in South Africa under apartheid, Cheney-Lippold had explained previously, “I would have declined to write a letter for her as well.”

And USACBI, a US-based group that supports the academic boycott, has launched a major campaign against study abroad programs in Israel.

Campaigners argue that because Israel regularly and arbitrarily denies entry to persons of Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim ancestry, these study abroad programs violate equal rights clauses in educational institutions.

As an individual, Alqasem is of course free to accede to Israel’s demand to publicly denounce BDS in exchange for a personal benefit. But if she does so she will be striking a blow at the collective efforts of people all over the world to end Israel’s brutal repression of Palestinians.

Alqasem’s lawyer, Yotam Ben-Hillel, responded to a request for comment from The Electronic Intifada by saying he would meet with a representative of the publication in person in Jerusalem – an impractical condition since the publication does not have a representative there.

He then responded to a follow-up asking him to speak by telephone or Skype, or to provide written answers to the questions sent by The Electronic Intifada, by saying he was too busy to do so in advance of Thursday’s hearing in Alqasem’s case.

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It appears that Erdan is demanding not only that Lara Alqasem make a public statement renouncing her personal support for BDS, even if this is just imputed support by virtue of her former membership of Students for Justice in Palestine, but also to publicly state that BDS is an illegitimate form of protest per se. Its one thing not to support BDS and another thing to reject the right of others to do so. Surely another instance of Israeli overkill with a dash of public and personal humiliation thrown in. They almost can't help themselves; the little chair syndrome lives on.

As for standing in solidarity with Alqasem simply because of her Palestinian ancestry - well, no but neither should she be subjected to too much criticism because she is breaking the picket line. She is young and in any event it is unreasonable to expect BDS or a picket line to be respected by all people of Palestinian ancestry. There has never been an instance where all people belonging to a persecuted minority stand in solidarity with that minority and not seek favour or advantage with their oppressors. Nor do the once oppressed ordinarily stand up for others under current oppression, as we see with the behaviour of so many Jewish Israelis and Jews who are citizens of western states.

I'd rather all energy be directed to support those who actively apply BDS principles and pay a price for this as we see with Cheney-Lippold. Let Alqasem go. She may be the poster girl for Brett Stephens and co for a little while and who knows, her Israeli experience may cause her to rethink her stance.

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The question remains - why did Lara Alqasem change her mind on BDS? This is especially surprising, since she was with SJP, and SJP is considered to be 'hardcore' BDS due to its support for a One-State Solution.

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Sheldon....Do we the public really know what is in her mind today after being in an Israeli detention cell for over a week? I do not think it is helpful to the BDS Movement to try and dictate how a fellow human being rounds out their education. She is not going to 'teach' as far as has been reported which makes her story just about wanting to 'learn' in her own way and place....even if we disagreed with her choice of 'learning' Institution we(public) should not condemn her choice but encourage her to continue on her journey of knowledge in a world filled with mis-information.

If she goes along with the Occupiers and condemns the BDS Movement then of course we can all see her for who she really is....but until that bridge is crossed I believe we should give her the benefit of knowing what is right and what is wrong in the struggle for Palestinian Justice.

Just some thoughts. Thanks.

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I do not see how she is being held up as a BDS supporter as just the fact she wants to study at Hebrew University proves she has no conviction to believe in what the BDS movement is trying and succeeding in accomplishing...showing to the global community that the Israeli gov't policies towards the suppression of the rights and dignity and self-determination of the Palestinian people it in fact a crime and should not be allowed to continue without economic consequences.

What is on display in Tel Aviv is the Israeli gov't attempt to coerce Lara to speak out against the BDS movement when all she wanted to do was study in Israel. This is the real story...the Israeli gov't attempting to "use" an American-Palestinian as a 'weapon' to silence the critics of their racist and illegal policies; When will justice be upheld for the Palestinians?

I believe we should not be the judge and jury of Lara personal and private decisions when she is being held in detention by the Israeli government for nothing more than wanting to use her newly issued Israeli gov't student visa to study them up close and personal. How ironic. Thank you.

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After being held in detention by the very same people who she wants to study and understand in an academia setting,this should/might open up her eyes to the benefits of supporting the BDS Movement 100% once she returns to America. She should be encouraged to open her eyes and mind to everything going on in the world to better shape her views going forward and know that she does not have a right to study at the Hebrew University because she believes so but only if the Israeli gov't will allow her to.... and with this 'knowledge' gained by being nested among the occupiers of the land of her grandparents,she can then decide to either voice support or not of the BDS Movement as a way to make the world understand the injustices being done to the people under Israeli's gov't thumb of occupation.

If she comes home after studying(if she actually makes it to classes) and decides to speak out against the BDS Movement then her choice should be respected which will mean that the BDS Movement needs to work harder to make their message understood better.

To say she(Lara) can understand the occupation from her home in America just as well as from a classroom in Israel puts everybody on the same level playing field...which we all know is not possible. Her time in an Israeli detention cell should help her going forward in life in my opinion. Just some thoughts Lidia. Thanks.

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We need to consider this issue from a far broader perspective. Let's consider how South Africa changed course. The boycott was one important ingredient, but another ingredient was that many members of the South African government in the late 1980s were themselves of the opinion that the Apartheid system was a rotten system. That attitude is necessary but usually not in itself sufficient, the same is true for external pressure. You need both factors to come together. The pressure can help a government to prioritize making reforms if they are sympathetic to the idea that reforms are necessary.

Israel is not where South Africa was in the late 1980s, so pressure (from external sources) alone won't work. What is needed is a change in the government, and for that there needs to be a change in the public opinion in Israel that can lead to a change in government or the government itself deciding to change course. Cases of people not being treated well from an Israeli point of view due to anti-Palestinian policies may help to bring the necessary change for Israel to change course.

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"Cases of people not being treated well from an Israeli point of view due to anti-Palestinian policies may help to bring the necessary change for Israel to change course."
You've got your feet in the wishing well, I believe.

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I don't know how this got here it was a response to a post to another article.

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Whatever her reasons, Lara Alqasem has chosen not to honour the BDS call. Her attendance at Hebrew University would have been converted into a propaganda victory for the apartheid regime, demonstrating a spurious tolerance of dissent. This, despite her prior renunciation of the BDS campaign, which she's said to have briefly endorsed as an undergraduate in Florida. But Israel's handling of the matter, subjecting her to humiliation and confinement while she appeals a deportation order, instead serves to illustrate the nature of the Zionist state. And yes, millions around the world and especially in Palestine already grasp that reality. But many more do not- in particular, Americans. So there may be some benefit to the cause of justice in bringing to the attention of badly informed people just how extensive Israel's program of separation and coercion really is. Apparently this case is receiving more mainstream coverage in the U.S. than other and far worse examples, and the spectacle of a harmless, pliable graduate student with little interest in politics being jailed in an airport due to blacklisting and racism may cause Americans to reflect on the overall situation there (as well as in the Homeland). I don't claim that a profound impact will be registered, but there's an incremental quality at work. We have an opportunity to focus discussion on the wider meaning of such an event: if the Israelis are prepared to treat this American student as an enemy of the state, what sort of state are we witnessing? And what sort of measures are being applied to Palestinians living under Israel's control? I hope I'm not being foolishly optimistic, but I think there are potential gains to be made in Lara Alqasem's decision to defy the BDS call. If the gang at the NY Times is running around with their hair on fire, this incident is not without significance. And I think that the BDS campaign will be reinforced, not weakened, by her failed attempt at circumvention.

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For those Pro Israel and pro Palestine advocates, I ask you to stop using this amazing intiligent open minded 22 year old American student for your own political gains to score a point on your opponents. Armed only with her own peaceful genuine curiosity and her hope for understanding the region and its people, Lara came to be simply a student, seeking education from a University of her own choice and for her own educational curiousity. Lara did not come to Israel to take sides or to score a point against or pro anyone, she simply wanted to learn something from the “other side” and as a free thinking American she is entitled to do so as she secured her acceptance to further her education at Hebrew University and was praised for her academic achievements and civility by her professors at University of Florida and gained their support during her unfortunate dilemma as she landed in Tel Aviv and was denied entry.
Both sides in the region had their battles and wars on every possible front for years as the Israeli Palestinian conflict became a never ending cycle fueling hatred on both sides and with no end in sight. So if pioneers like Lara were encouraged and allowed to learn and think for themselves and not forced to be influenced by the endless speeches, fanatism, sanctions, propagandas and boycott from both sides, maybe a new generation of free thinkers like her could emerge to make a difference in the future and pave the way to an everlasting peaceful solution that could bring sworn enemies to a peaceful coexistence? Lets give Lara Alqasem a chance to be who she is and allow a potential new seed of peaceful free thinkers to hopefully make a difference. Lara’s brave stand to pursue her educational journey is already an inspiration, please leave her to be who she is and let this light of hope in!

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Well, why don't you direct your efforts into demanding that the Israeli government release her from confinement under threat of deportation? I mean, if you're really concerned to see her pursue that path of pure education uncontaminated by such sordid motives as a commitment to the cause of the oppressed. Because nobody commenting here is holding her in a jail cell at Ben Gurion Airport.

Nice hasbara, though.

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The application of the BDS entry law is a valid point of discussion for both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli activists. The fact that the subject of this is a young American of Palestinian ancestry does take the discussion beyond the pale. Saying that, I agree that given Alqasem's youth, some sensitivity regarding her motivation and character is fair enough.

You characterise her as an 'amazing intelligent open-minded 22 year old', and maybe she is. Tom Hall sees her as a 'harmless pliable graduate student' and again, maybe she is that. And maybe she is something in between or something entirely different. Who knows and, in the wider sense, who cares. Basically her motivation and character are irrelevant. The issue at hand is the BDS entry law. Israeli legislation requires that non-Israelis who support or call for a boycott of Israel and the territories under its control, are to be denied entry into Israel. Evidence of support of BDS was obtained at the point of her entry into Israel; her Palestinian surname sufficient to raise the alert and a subsequent Canary Mission check. From all accounts, her activism was limited to membership of a small SJP group but this is sufficient for the tireless Canary Mission to blacklist her. This blacklisting was sufficient for a low level civil servant to call her out and for her entry to be denied.

Compare this to the treatment of Peter Beinart, a high profile American who has publicly called for a boycott of settlement products. Beinart has a fair following in the public space and also fell foul of the BDS entry law. But he is Jewish and was eventually allowed in with an apology from Netanyahu and talk of a low level stuff up. Whatever Alqasem is or is not, until she was detained, she did not have a public presence. She is one denied entry and thus it is her case which under discussion. We don't stop the discussion or give her a heroic status as a 'free-thinker' simply because she is young and breaks a picket line.

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I think it's a little bit unfair to say that Lara "will be striking a blow at the collective efforts of people all over the world to end Israel’s brutal repression of Palestinians." I understand wanting her to be outspoken on BDS for tactical reasons but it sounds like she's being held to an unrealistic standard. Even if she were to say something more outright against BDS I can't imagine it having much of an impact on the movement, in spite of what you may read in the NYTimes. Furthermore, if you wanted her to be more explicitly pro-BDS I doubt that publishing an article that vaguely holds her in contempt will have a positive impact on your goals. Mind you she is in Israeli detention and not on vacation. It's sad because it seems like because she is not stating an explicitly pro-BDS stance she's not deserving of our sympathy or support, which is ridiculous. At some point it's going to be like every time some one gets stopped at a check point they have to salute BDS or they're a collaborator.

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No one has asked her to be “outspoken” about anything. The minimal demand of Palestinians is simply that people not cross their picket line.

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