The World

The New Exiles

By denying access to its critics, Israel is turning its back on Jewish Americans.

People stand in line below a departures and arrivals board.
Passengers queue for security control before departure at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on July 22, 2014.
Siegfried Modola/Reuters

In the days since the liberal Jewish-American journalist and commentator Peter Beinart was detained and interrogated by security forces at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, there has been significant, global backlash against the Israeli government’s practice of questioning left-leaning foreigners about their political beliefs. Following Beinart’s lead, others, including the popular author and religion scholar Reza Aslan, spoke out about their own similar encounters with Israel’s security forces at border crossings and the airport. On Thursday, an Israeli security Cabinet minister condemned the “ridiculous” practice and predicted that the scrutiny following Beinart’s experience would lead to the end of the practice. “I am certain that now there will be someone who stands there and will check that such stupidity does not recur,” Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel’s Channel 13 television station.

To recap: Beinart wrote a blog post for the Forward on Monday in which he explained that he was traveling to Israel with his family on Sunday for his niece’s bat mitzvah when a security official checking the family’s passports flagged Beinart for additional screening. Beinart writes that he was taken to a separate room and interrogated for an hour by a security official about his political affiliations and whether he planned to attend any protests during his time in Israel. Beinart, a contributor to the Forward, the Atlantic, and CNN, has written extensively about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has expressed support for boycotting products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “[The] interrogator never offered any legal basis for my detention,” Beinart recounted.

In an unusual move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office released a statement calling Beinart’s detention an “administrative mistake” and claiming that Israel “welcomes all—critics and supporters alike.” While the government has backpedaled on the decision to detain Beinart, this is by no means an isolated occurrence. Rather, Beinart’s experience is part of a broader government crackdown on activists who advocate for Palestinians’ human rights.

Although Beinart speaks out frequently against some Israeli government policies, he is a fairly moderate figure who sees debate and criticism as essential for the country’s longevity and well-being. He makes his critiques because he wants Israel to succeed. If Beinart—one of the United States’ most vocal and reliable Jewish advocates of liberal Zionism—is now subject to questioning by Israel’s security forces for his political views, that does not bode well for the growing number of Jewish Americans who are moving further to the left on Israel.

In 2017, Israel’s Knesset passed a travel ban that denies entry to foreigners who belong to organizations that have called for boycotts of Israel or its West Bank settlements. The list of banned organizations, published by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, includes two American organizations—Jewish Voice for Peace and Code Pink—that are run by Jewish activists. (Disclosure: I was actively involved with JVP in college and am still a member.) Since the bill’s passage, several high-profile American human rights activists have been barred from entering Israel, either by being prevented from boarding flights to the country or by being deported upon their arrival.

One week before Beinart, Simone Zimmerman, the co-founder of IfNotNow, a Jewish-American anti-occupation organization, was detained at a border crossing with Egypt along with her friend Abby Kirschbaum. Zimmerman and Kirschbaum, who are both U.S. citizens currently based in Tel Aviv, were questioned for approximately three and a half hours, and the women had their phones and text conversations inspected. The pair was asked questions on a wide variety of topics, such as their opinions on Netanyahu, their connections to human rights organizations, and their personal relationships with Palestinians.

In response to Zimmerman and Kirschbaum’s detention, a spokesperson for the Israeli human rights nonprofit B’Tselem told New York magazine that there’s been a significant uptick in the detention of Jews by Israeli security forces in recent months. “I cannot overstate how incredibly big this is,” the spokesperson said. “It was quite unimaginable that the [Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency] would monitor activists in human rights organizations that are all clearly committed to nonviolence. It seems that there’s a new policy intended to intimidate activists that oppose government policy that goes hand in hand with other recent legislation and expressions from officials to limit free speech and freedom of political activity.”

Even for American Jews who do not support Israel’s policies, being legally barred from the country that calls itself the world’s only Jewish state can be a painful rebuke. With approximately 43 percent of the world’s Jewish population living in Israel, many Jewish Americans have friends and family that live there. Additionally, Israel contains many of the most sacred places in the Jewish faith, including the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Furthermore, many of the world’s leading archives and academic institutions specializing in Jewish history and heritage are located in Israel, including the Holocaust museum and archive at Yad Vashem.

I find it deeply disturbing that, because of my political beliefs and membership in JVP, I could potentially be cut off from visiting family, friends, holy sites, and important cultural and educational institutions. The irony of this situation is that early Zionist thinkers believed that living in diaspora or exile was profoundly damaging for Jews. The denigration of the diaspora (shlilat ha’galut) was a key pillar of establishing Israel as a Jewish nation-state. Now, Israel is perpetuating a similar kind of physical, mental, and spiritual exile (or galut) against some diaspora Jews by alienating and banning them. This contradiction should compel Jewish Americans to reckon with the fact that Israel does not always have our best interests at heart. Our safety and liberation as Jewish people will not come from reflexively siding with a government that relies on such anti-democratic measures to maintain its power and silence its opponents.

The current Israeli administration’s crackdown on Jewish dissenters is a sign that political affiliation has eclipsed Jewish identity as Israel’s litmus test for acceptance. These heavy-handed tactics against foreign left-wing activists are part of a spate of recent measures in Israel that target those whose identities and political positions the government has deemed a threat. For example, non-Jewish Sudanese and Eritrean migrants—many of whom fled war, persecution, and economic hardships to seek refuge in Israel—face serious discrimination and are often called “infiltrators” by Israeli politicians who fear they will jeopardize the country’s Jewish demographic majority. Likewise, the Israeli Knesset recently passed the “nation-state” law, which codifies an ethnic and religious hierarchy into the nation’s constitutional laws. The law’s Arab-Israeli opponents in the Knesset called it a form of “apartheid.” Such practices are not aberrations but necessary functions to maintain a fundamentally unequal status quo.

On Monday, Beinart tweeted a response to Netanyahu’s claim that his detention was a mistake, writing that he would accept the prime minister’s lukewarm apology when “he apologizes to all the Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans who every day endure far worse.”

This is a crucial takeaway. While Palestinians have long been subject to repressive tactics like detention, interrogation, restricted freedom of movement, and expulsion, Jewish Americans are starting to get a taste of how Israel’s expansive security apparatus handles those it considers threats. These practices have undergirded the government’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and within Israel since the founding of the state. The precariousness of Jewish privilege in Israel should serve as a wake-up call for American Jews that it’s time to stand in solidarity with Palestinians to demand full-fledged democracy and acceptance for all.