Sitting in Ben-Gurion International Airport’s so-called “Arab room” in May 2014, where arriving passengers with Arab surnames or suspect politics are taken for further screening, a teenager wearing a blue-and-white “I [heart] Israel” t-shirt suddenly takes a seat next to me. I knew why I was there: my American passport cannot hide my Arab name and background. It had only taken one second for the Israeli security officer to ask me “what is your father’s name and your father’s father’s name?” So, what was this blue-eyed, blonde-haired kid doing here? Although he told me he’s a fourth-generation American visiting Israel on an Evangelical youth trip (hence the official tour shirt), his distant and dormant connection to the Arab world was sufficient to send him to the “Arab room.” He wasn’t the only one, of course. A Brazilian Christian couple whose surname revealed their Arab origin was brought in, too. And then there were the “real” Arabs, like myself: A second-generation American who identifies as Arab.
Before I set out to travel to Tel Aviv, a Palestinian friend assured me that “there’s a 99% chance you’ll be stopped at the airport.” I had read Michael Scott Moore’s account of his own Ben Gurion airport experience. He went to Israel planning to meet up with Gaza’s budding surfers, but his voyage was nearly scuttled after an Israeli customs officer found a Noam Chomsky book in his luggage, leading him to assume that Moore must be an anti-Zionist lefty. My expectation of being stopped were realized when I was interrogated by a hostile young Israeli man who demanded to know what I thought about “what happened in ’48?” — the year of Israel’s founding and the concomitant expulsion of Palestinians. After four and a half hours, I was permitted to leave the “Arab Room” and enter Israel, stunned that a supposedly democratic nation would probe the political leanings of tourists. In retrospect, it is now clear that had I conveyed pro-Palestinian sympathies, I might have been deported out of the country.
Israel has long enforced discriminatory racial and political criteria toward travelers. The recent amendment to the “Entry to Israel Law,” passed by Israel’s Knesset on March 6, preventing advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement from visiting Israel or occupied Palestine, merely formalizes a long-standing practice. Israel often refuses entry to thousands of Americans of Arab descent for no other reason than their background. Anyone suspected of being sympathetic to Palestinian rights has long risked denial of entry.
This arbitrary policy, which puts travelers at the mercy of a border agent’s whim, is so routine that even the U.S. Congress couldn’t ignore it. In 2013, Israel was lobbying to gain entry to the group of 38 nations in the U.S. visa waiver program, which requires a country to sign an agreement with the U.S. to allow reciprocal visa-free travel. Israel, however, insisted on adding an unprecedented clause that would give its citizens visa-free to the United States while permitting Israeli customs and security authorities to turn back some Americans – Arab-Americans. This insistence on discriminating selectively against Americans violated the diplomatic principle of reciprocity, and the State Department informed Israel that unless it agreed to visa-free travel for all Americans, there would be no agreement. The Israeli government chose discrimination over the privilege of allowing its citizens to travel to the U.S. without a visa. The recent anti-BDS travel amendment is only the latest manifestation of Israel’s discriminatory policies.
It would be wrong, however, to see the law as aimed solely at outsiders. In the hours I spent pacing in the “Arab room,” I saw the decency of some Israelis border officials who were visibly pained at such blatant racial discrimination. These were individuals who had little power to override the interrogators, but, in stark contrast to the interrogators’ open contempt, tried to make my ordeal and that of others in the room a little less difficult through simple humane gestures such as relaying messages to families and friends waiting in Ben Gurion’s arrivals hall. The recent amendment might thwart the good will of those Israeli border officers of conscience by denying them any discretion to permit entry to individuals supportive of Palestinians.
This is why the law has dismayed many Jewish-Americans, who view the law is an attempt to enforce a hard-right litmus test on anyone traveling to Israel: Either you stand unreservedly and uncritically with Israel or you’re not welcome here. Even some pro-Israeli Americans who oppose maximal BDS goals fear that their own support for a limited boycott against settlements will mean that they no longer have any right to visit Israel. Moreover, the amendment follows a previous legislation, entitled “Law for Prevention of Damage to State of Israel through Boycott,” and passed by the Knesset in July 2011, which allows alleged Israeli victims of the boycott to sue domestic supporters of BDS for “compensation.” Both anti-BDS laws bookend another bill, the “Transparency Requirements for Parties Supported by Foreign State Entities Bill,” which targets Israeli human rights organizations. If these organizations depend on foreign funds for more than half their budget, they are required to prominently display the names of international donors on all of their official reports. This ruling plays into the hands of Israeli right-wingers who seek to discredit human rights groups as unpatriotic tools of anti-Israeli outsiders. The law was written to affect only NGOs while exempting the so-called charity organizations that support illegal settler colonization in Palestine, which similarly depend on foreign donations.
It’s worth noting that the sentiments animating U.S. President Trump’s unsuccessful attempts to prevent immigrants from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States mirror and echo the sentiments underlying Israel’s travel ban. Defending his immigration moratorium, Trump repeatedly claimed that the only people Americans want in the United States are those who “will end up loving our country.” The unspoken but obvious meaning is that Muslim immigrants are incapable of truly loving America. Israel is operating under a similar assumption: advocates of BDS, including Israelis and Jews from abroad opposed to the occupation, do not truly love Israel and are therefore unwelcome. Today’s Israel has, effectively, decided that the only people welcome in Israel are those who believe in a certain kind of a self-proclaimed Jewish state: one that is defined by settler colonialism, interminable occupation, and Apartheid. Trump’s executive orders sparked widespread criticism and protests, and have twice been thrown out by federal judges. Israel’s travel ban is an act of legislative intolerance in a country that does not have a constitution and has thus far brought little pushback amongst the public or courts. In this respect, Trump’s exclusionary vision of America remains a minority affair, but Israel’s travel ban represents the long ascent of an intransigent right-wing and its determination to prevent Palestinian statehood.
Faced with a growing anti-Occupation movement, this trifecta of recent legislation reveals a dogmatic view that dissent is tantamount to treason and a myopic determination to intimidate citizens and enforce a loyalty test for visiting foreigners. (Recently, an Israeli minister proposed a database tracking all Israelis supportive of BDS.) But attempting to silence domestic critics while also barring foreign ones will not stop BDS any more than covering one’s eyes and plugging one’s ears to inconvenient truths makes them vanish.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a Junior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.