Israel doubles down on intimidation tactics to silence Jewish critics

Many in Israel warn that criticising governmental policy on Palestine is becoming impossible.
Sunday 19/08/2018
A security officer leads a dog as he patrols the entrance of Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv. (AFP)
Culture of fear. A security officer leads a dog as he patrols the entrance of Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv. (AFP)

LONDON - After Jewish-American commentator Peter Beinart was detained and questioned at an Israeli airport — one of a series of similar incidents — there are questions as to how Israel is dealing with its Jewish critics.

Beinart, a contributor to CNN and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was questioned by border officials at Ben Gurion International Airport about his political activities and views. Beinart is a self-described supporter of Israel but has criticised Tel Aviv’s position on many issues, particularly its policies towards the Palestinians and close alliance with US President Donald Trump.

In an opinion piece for the Forward, a liberal Jewish publication, Beinart said an Israeli security official questioned him in detail about his attendance at anti-government protests and his history with groups, such as the Centre for Jewish Nonviolence, that criticise Israeli government policy towards the Palestinians.

Israel sought to play down the incident as an “administrative mistake” and the Shin Bet domestic security agency apologised and promised a review but Beinart has remained firm in his views. “[Israeli Prime Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu has half-apologised for my detention yesterday [August 12] at Ben Gurion airport. I’ll accept when he apologises to all the Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans who every day endure far worse,” he tweeted.

This is not the first time that a Jewish critic of Israel has been in an interrogation room in recent months.

Israeli peace activist Tanya Rubinstein was held at the same airport in May when she returned from a conference in Sweden. Rubinstein is the general coordinator of the Coalition of Women for Peace and has been critical of Tel Aviv’s policy towards the Palestinians.

“We act to expose the effects of the Gaza siege and the occupation on the residents, especially on women. That’s exactly what Israel doesn’t want the public to hear,” she said after the incident.

In June, left-wing activist and journalist Yehudit Ilani was detained after returning to Israel from Europe after reporting on preparations for a flotilla to the Gaza Strip on behalf of Israel Social TV, a Hebrew-language news site identified with the left.

In July, Jewish-American philanthropist Meyer Koplow was questioned at Ben Gurion International Airport after security personnel reportedly found a Palestinian leaflet in his luggage. Koplow has donated millions of dollars to Israeli hospitals and schools but his latest visit to the country included a trip to the West Bank with the Encounters Programmes, a non-partisan organisation that takes Jews to Palestinian areas to meet Palestinians.

In the same month, Israeli author Moriel Rothman-Zecher was detained at the airport about his ties to left-wing organisations such as Breaking the Silence and All That’s Left, both of which criticise the Israeli occupation. Israeli officials described the Rothman-Zecher incident as a “cautionary conversation.”

Rothman-Zecher’s lawyer, Gaby Lasky, had a different take. “The fact that Shin Bet investigators wait for Israeli citizens, whose only crime is involvement in human rights organisations, to caution them ought to keep us all awake at night. This government is apparently introducing the norms of a thought police and trying to intimidate normative citizens so they’ll cease their civic engagement,” she said.

Jewish pro-boycott activist Ariel Gold was denied entry into Israel in July under a law passed last year allowing Tel Aviv to bar entry of supporters of the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement.

American Jewish activist Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of the IfNotNow group, a progressive American-Jewish organisation opposing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was stopped in early August at the border between Egypt and Israel, along with fellow activist Abby Kirschbaum.

Zimmerman said they were questioned solely about their political activities, including their views on Netanyahu.

This is a situation that angered many in Israel, who warn that criticising governmental policy on Palestine is becoming impossible.

“It is now beyond doubt that the Netanyahu government has turned its border crossings into interrogation chambers,” said Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, reacting to the reports on Zimmerman’s interrogation.

“The government is demonstrating once again that the test for entering the country is a political one — either you agree with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ultra-right-wing coalition or you’re subject to questioning, intimidation or refusal. This may be legal but it’s morally unacceptable and anti-democratic,” he added.