In the increasingly overwrought imaginations of some alarmists and cynical political actors, a destructive threat has been allowed to penetrate Israel’s borders unencumbered. Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who at one point was considered a viable successor to Benjamin Netanyahu, decided over a year ago to make the irritating Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement into a “strategic” threat. In March 2017, he floated the idea of creating a state blacklist of supporters of BDS in Israel, which was thankfully shot down by the attorney general’s office.
It was Israel’s highest court, long a target of ire from aspiring leaders of the Israeli right, that last week brought to a merciful end the unnecessary and irresponsible ordeal of Lara Alqasem. The court sensibly concluded that Alqasem, who had renounced her campus Students for Justice in Palestine and pledged not to support boycotts while in the country, posed no threat to Israelis and that her past views were insufficient to refuse her visa, which had been lawfully issued at the Israeli Consulate in Miami.
Alqasem, who entered the country on a student visa en route to a graduate program at Hebrew University’s law school, was detained on suspicion of supporting BDS. Last year, the Knesset passed a measure forbidding the entry of boycott activists. This law, which was widely condemned internationally but met as an uncontroversial measure in Israel itself, is what was invoked against Alqasem.
While the court’s decision is restricted to Alqasem’s case, in which a visa was granted prior to her detention, there are important lessons to draw from this debacle.
First, as Anshel Pfeffer has detailed in Ha’aretz over the last month, Erdan’s ministry is a purely political construct. Prior to the 2015 election, Erdan had served as Communications Minister and Interior Minister, both highly coveted portfolios. After the election, with Aryeh Deri insisting on the Interior Ministry and Netanyahu holding onto the Communications Ministry for his own purposes, Erdan was left out in the cold, and the Strategic Affairs title was given to him to conceal the fact that he was effectively demoted. His Keystone Kops crusade against the BDS movement is his way of throwing glitter on the thin blanket he was given.
Second, and most important, the BDS movement does not represent more than a negligible threat to Israeli interests, certainly if it’s compared to the Arab League boycott of Israel, which technically remains in effect. Indeed, the BDS movement was not the driving force behind the defense of Alqasem (who knew the BDS movement is not supportive of studying at the Hebrew University).
Which raises the following question: whom, exactly, did Erdan think would be damaged by this move? It can’t possibly have been the BDS movement, which does not contain a particularly large contingent of members who prioritize their freedom to travel to Israel over their ideals. Indeed, being the target of a government campaign lends the movement prestige and free sympathetic publicity.
I think the truth is more dispiriting: Erdan, like some of his other Likud colleagues, realizes the path to a fourth consecutive victory for the right-wing bloc is made more likely by clear distinctions between “us” and “them.” Israeli politics overheats so often that we sometimes forget its past excesses, but this is a recent history lesson for the Likud. The party’s 2015 election campaign initially tried to run on an experience and competence argument, where the main line of attack the opposition was its lack of preparedness for office. But that quickly shifted to a campaign where “the left” was demonized as disloyal and even enablers of terrorism.
By implication, right-wing voters were effectively told they were the patriots and protectors of the country. Furthermore, the Likud made sure to link the left to Arabs. As Michal Shamir and Gideon Rahat write in their introduction to the Israel Democracy Institute’s collected papers on the 2015 election, “The left and the leftists were connected again with the Arabs, including the Arabs ‘on the outside’ and the Arabs ‘on the inside,’ projecting a threat from them. They were juxtaposed with a Jewish identity group and political identification with the right.”
Alqasem’s chief defenders on the left were Liberal Zionist opponents of BDS, who more or less resemble Erdan’s domestic opponents in Zionist Union and Meretz (though only the latter publicly associated with Alqasem). Ultimately, she was saved by the High Court, an institution associated with the left and Chief Justice Aharon Barak’s activist tenure in the 1990s.
The BDS movement offers Erdan the best chance to present himself as the loyal citizen against the left, the boycotters, and the the High Court. It’s unclear whether this will work, but it will continue a trend of deeply divisive identity politics on the right. Moreover, because of Israel’s relationship to Diaspora Jewry as well as the BDS movement’s main base of activity being Western college campuses, Erdan has the potential to cause severe damage overseas. Many of the groups that traditionally represent liberal American Jews, including the Union for Reform Judaism, came out in support of Alqasem and hailed the High Court’s decision. In doing so they were celebrating values that are under severe attack in Israel.
Is it only a matter of time before Diaspora organizations and public figures join the pantheon of the demonized in Israel? This is not especially inconceivable if Erdan succeeds in exaggerating the threat of BDS and convincing Israelis that only harsh and illiberal measures will protect them. In previous years, the debate has been whether or not it was appropriate for American Jews to intervene in the affairs of Israeli politics. If faced with a “threat” that requires the support and coordination of American Jews, many of whom will find the government’s tactics appalling, frustration of Israeli politicians may boil over. It almost certainly will boil over if it’s a politically convenient time to take a swing at the great piñata of Israeli politics — “the leftists.”