Once again, Israel fumbles its response to BDS

The decision to deny Reps. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibProgressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias Omar: I wasn't equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries Omar feuds with Jewish Democrats MORE (D-Mich.) and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarThe Memo: Democratic tensions will only get worse as left loses patience Simmering Democratic tensions show signs of boiling over Pelosi signals no further action against Omar MORE (D-Minn.) entry into Israel may be one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE worst strategic mistakes in recent times.

Whatever points he scored with President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE, whatever damage he believes would be prevented by barring the lawmakers’ visit, it pales in comparison to the damage this decision causes to Israel’s campaign against its delegitmization. The decision to reverse the ban on Tlaib on “humanitarian grounds does little to undo the damage, especially since Tlaib rejected the offer. Tlaib cited Israel’s “oppressive conditions of travel as her reasoning, which became the headline of the day. Israel played right into her hands. 

Since the early 2000s, Israel has faced a concerted campaign of delegitimization against it, led by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). As part of Israel’s response to the BDS, it amended its entry law to allow the government to refuse entry to BDS supporters. This law was invoked to bar Tlaib and Omar’s visit. The congresswomen have openly supported BDS and Tlaib announced her intention of leading a delegation to the West Bank to counter the narrative produced by pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC. But even AIPAC criticized the decision to deny Tlaib and Omar’s entry.  


This was an extraordinary move on the part of the Israeli government, but it is not the first time it has fumbled the response to BDS. Just last summer, it detained liberal Jewish-American journalist Peter Beinart when he attempted to enter the country on a personal visit. Soon after, it refused entry to American student Lara Alqasem, despite her receiving a visa to study in Israel, on the claim that she had been a leader in her university’s chapter of Students For Justice in Palestine (SJP).

The Alqasem case received wide coverage in Western media. Even conservative supporters of Israel, questioned the decision. What was not reported as widely was that in her 16 days of detainment, Alqasem was afforded access to three levels of the judicial system, all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, which reversed the order and granted her entry. Alqasem is now a student at Jerusalem University. That part of the narrative was lost in the kerfuffle of Israel’s overreaction. 

Delegitimization is and should be treated as a threat to Israel. It presents a serious challenge to Israel’s ability to maintain its Jewish character, which is increasingly viewed as incompatible with the modern values of the international society. Though the BDS movement has had little success in hurting Israel’s economy or diplomatic relations with political elites, it has made considerable strides at the grassroots level, with civil society, on campuses, labor unions and churches.

As a 2016 Pew Research survey indicates, American millennials, including Jews, are far less sympathetic towards Israel than their older counterparts. In certain progressive, and some liberal spaces, Israel is becoming a pariah state. 

If Israel hopes to successfully defeat the delegitimization campaign, it must avoid at all cost illiberal, largely ceremonial actions that serve little to enhance its security. Barring American students and lawmakers, even those most critical of Israel, represents a short-sighted and misguided approach to addressing the challenge. In many ways, Israel is contributing to the very threat it seeks to thwart.


Instead, Israel should have opened its doors to them. Demonstrating that it has nothing to hide. Perhaps Tlaib and Omar would have refused to meet with Israelis while on their trip, perhaps they would have met with Israeli groups that are strong critics of the government — and this would have highlighted Israel’s openness to criticism. Perhaps they would have also met with Israeli and Palestinian victims of political violence. We will never know.

All that is left is the image of Israel as an oppressive state, one that does Trump’s bidding, thereby alienating the very liberal audiences that Israel must win over if it hopes to defeat the delegitimziation campaign against it.  With this decision, Netanyahu has done more to undermine Israeli security than the visit by Tlaib and Omar could have. 

Ronnie Olesker is an associate professor of government at St. Lawrence University. Her upcoming article, “Delegitmization as a National Security Threat: Israel and BDS” will be featured in the fall issue of Israel Studies Review Journal.