‘I’m scared of being questioned by the border patrol.”
That statement about entering Israel isn’t coming from a European academic who has been harshly critical of the Jewish state or a hardened veteran of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement to delegitimize Israel.
It’s from a sophomore at Indiana University who is scheduled to go on a Birthright Israel trip later this month.
“I’m actually sort of scared even though I know the ban is not about me,” Leah Grynheim told The Jewish Week. “I don’t support BDS, but I do my best not to buy settlement products because I do not support the [Israeli] occupation of the West Bank.”
Grynheim was referencing a controversial travel ban approved by the Knesset in March that forbids granting visitor visas or residency rights to foreign nationals who support the BDS movement against Israel and its settlements. Just a week after the law passed, Israel blocked a British activist from entering the country because of his pro-BDS activities.
Now, hundreds of young Americans planning to visit Israel on Birthright Israel are wondering if the same fate awaits them.
Last week, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, emailed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to clarify how the new law would impact Birthright participants.
“Just before Pesach,” he wrote, “we received a heartfelt letter sent by some of the URJ’s upcoming Kesher Birthright Israel participants, all of whom are excited to be registered to leave soon for Israel, but all of whom, too, are worried that based on their opposition to settlement expansion, they will be stopped at the border when they land in Israel. …
“I am frustrated that by passing this law, the Israeli government has, in essence, posted a giant sign by the door of the Jewish state saying, ‘Don’t come unless you agree with everything we’re doing here.’”
Birthright Israel expects to bring 33,000 participants to Israel this summer — more than 22,000 from North America alone.
The students’ anxiety and Rabbi Jacobs’ letter came at the same time Americans for Peace Now canceled its annual trip to Israel, saying the “new draconian law is a severe blow to Israeli democracy” and “uniquely affects APN.”
Debra DeLee, president and CEO of APN, which bills itself as a Zionist, pro-Israel organization that supports boycotts of the settlements while rejecting boycotts of Israel proper, said the new law “is aimed at a basic civil liberty — the freedom of expression — and will severely harm Israel by keeping out some of its greatest supporters, including Americans for Peace Now. … It would be absurd for the government of Israel to block us from visiting the country we love and care so much about because we chose to express a legitimate view in a legitimate way.”
The new law, which Israel says is needed to keep out those who attack its very legitimacy, threatens to drive a wedge between Israel and diaspora Jews.
On April 6, about 600 young people — those who had already been on a Birthright trip, those scheduled to go and those planning to go in the future — signed an email to Birthright CEO Gidi Mark citing the new law and asking “whether we will be able to participate on Birthright. A number of students on this letter are headed to Israel in May, and are concerned that, because of this law, they will not be able to enter into the country.”
Mark replied: “Birthright Israel does not inquire about the political views of its applicants and welcomes all Jewish young adults from around the globe to visit Israel.”
In a follow-up email, Mark was asked whether “there is the possibility that some of the students who signed on to the letter could be detained upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport. We’re seeking clarification on how Birthright will respond to a situation like this.”
Both the students and Rabbi Jacobs are awaiting replies, and phone calls and emails from The Jewish Week to Birthright officials with the same question went unanswered.
The new Israeli law is in line with other positions in which Israel has sought to quash dissent, such as its ban on egalitarian worship at the main plaza of the Western Wall, the denial of government funding to artists who refuse to perform in West Bank settlements and the barring of Israelis from fulfilling their national service requirements in organizations that seek to delegitimize Israel and receive the majority of their funding from foreign countries.
Many Israeli Knesset members criticized the travel ban when it was debated in the Knesset. Michal Rozin of the Meretz Party reportedly said the law was “completely unnecessary” and would only spark criticism abroad.
“The interior minister already has the ability to stop anti-Israel groups coming into the country,” she argued. “All this law does is take away his ability to make considered decisions. It does nothing productive and will make us look bad.”
Rabbi Jacobs told The Jewish Week that there are “ambiguities” in the travel law, which he said “covers a whole host of potential dissenters — and that is too big a rubric.”
He pointed out that during a recent Holocaust memorial observance, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin “said it is not anti-Semitic to disagree [with Israeli policies] and that those who do should not be denigrated.”
“It is important we have diversity of views — certainly among young people who wrote the initial letter [to Birthright],” Rabbi Jacobs added. “The idea they may have different views should not exclude their admission.”
He said he would welcome a response from Netanyahu telling him the law would not be enforced, “but if it is not going to be enforced, there should not be such a law. … We have a right to be concerned, and we want assurances that differences with government policies will never be a reason” for refusing a person entry into the country.
Rabbi Jacobs said he would not propose withdrawing from Birthright should his concerns not be satisfactorily addressed. But Ezra Oliff-Lieberman, 21, a junior at Bates College in Lewiston, Me., who serves as the Northeast vice president of J Street U (the college arm of J Street), said a determination has yet to be made.
“We are talking to students in each region to figure out what makes the most sense,” he said. “We’re weighing a number of things.”
Didi Kalmanofsky, 23, a senior at SUNY Buffalo and vice president of the Mid-Atlantic Region of J Street U, said he works with Jewish college students in the New York area and believes the new travel law “undermines some of the messaging we have been doing. … It makes some of our [pro-Israel] work on college campuses harder.”
Logan Bayroff, associate director of communications for J Street, explained that J Street U seeks to get college students “involved in Israel advocacy” by citing the “positive aspects of Israel.”
“Part of the way to do that is to get them to travel to Israel, and this law sends a message that people of differing political beliefs may not be welcome,” he said. “It drives people away from traveling to Israel, and also sends a message that Israel is not a country that welcomes different perspectives. That makes it harder to interest especially progressive students in Israel advocacy.”
J Street U was founded in 2009 and is now on about 100 campuses.
Grynheim, the student on the May 17 Birthright trip, said that before entering college she “didn’t care about Israel. I didn’t want to go on this program because I didn’t know what was happening in the country. But I care about human rights and that is the reason I joined J Street U. It was shocking to me how little I knew about Israel. …
“I’m going but it does not mean I’m not hesitant. I’m thinking of the sticker on my water bottle that has a map of Israel and a green line [delineating Israel’s 1967 border]. I’m feeling that I will have to suppress my freedom of speech.”
Another college student preparing for the May 17 Birthright trip, Cara Kupferman, 19, of Rockland County, who is a student of the joint program of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, said she is concerned about the travel law even though she is against BDS. She said she also opposes boycotting settlement products, even though she believes settlements are an “obstacle to peace.”
“I’m concerned that Israel as a democratic state would take actions to limit political expression — which is fundamental to a democracy,” she said. “A person’s opinions should be welcome and tolerated and it concerns me that Israel would take actions to suppress opposing opinions.”