In March, the writer Andrew Sullivan described each of us as a “Zionist fanatic of near-unhinged proportions.” It was a cheap shot. The word “near” should not have been a part of the sentence.
Otherwise, we happily plead guilty as charged.
Yet even unhinged Zionists can level criticism at Israeli policies, and the story of Lara Alqasem is a case in point.
Ms. Alqasem, 22, is an American student of Palestinian descent who arrived in Israel last Tuesday with an Israeli-issued visa to study in a master’s program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But she never made it out of the airport.
Israeli security officials detained her because of her past membership in the group Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports a boycott, divestment and sanctions policy toward the Jewish state. (Ms. Alqasem was president of the University of Florida chapter.) Now she faces a deportation hearing, despite efforts by Hebrew University and other leading Israeli academics to get the state to allow her in.
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s strategic affairs minister, has said she can enter the country on the condition that she renounce her support of the B.D.S. movement.
Ms. Alqasem is the latest in a growing list of visitors to Israel who have faced deportation or harassment because of their political views.
In April, Katherine Franke, a professor at Columbia, was interrogated and then deported from Israel on charges (which Professor Franke denies) of being a leader of Jewish Voice for Peace, another organization that endorses B.D.S.
In August, Simone Zimmerman, an American Jewish activist who lives in Israel and is a founder of IfNotNow, a group that calls for the end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, was held at the Israeli border for more than three hours and quizzed on her political views, including her opinion of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Also in August, Peter Beinart, the well-known writer and a left-wing Zionist, was detained at Ben-Gurion airport — he was on his way to his niece’s bat mitzvah — and extensively questioned on his political views. The Israeli government said it was “an administrative mistake.”
It’s not just left-wingers who are being detained. In July, Meyer Koplow, the chairman of Brandeis University’s board and a pro-Israel philanthropist, said he was aggressively interrogated at the airport after security officials discovered a brochure in his luggage called “This Week in Palestine.” (He had gone on an educational tour of the West Bank during his trip.)
Israelis have good reason to see the B.D.S. campaign as a thinly veiled form of bigotry. Boycotts of Jewish businesses have a particularly foul pedigree in Nazi Germany. And the same activists who obsessively seek to punish and isolate Israel for its occupation of the West Bank rarely if ever display the same passion for protesting against China for its occupation of Tibet, or Russia for its occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
It’s also true that Students for Justice in Palestine has received funding and other assistance from a group called American Muslims for Palestine, some of whose leaders have links to groups flagged by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for their ties to the terrorist group Hamas. The group seeks to end Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” along with “promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes” — language that has long been code for dismantling the Jewish state.
Israel, like all countries, has a right to protect its borders and to determine who is allowed in and out. But Israel is also a state that prides itself on being a liberal democracy — a fact that goes far to explain the longstanding support for Israel among American Jews and non-Jews alike. If liberalism is about anything, it’s about deep tolerance for opinions we find foolish, dangerous and antithetical to our own.
The case for such liberalism today is both pragmatic and principled. In practice, expelling visitors who favor the B.D.S. movement does little if anything to make Israel more secure. But it powerfully reinforces the prejudice of those visitors (along with their supporters) that Israel is a discriminatory police state. If the Israeli government takes umbrage — and rightly so — when Israeli academics or institutions are boycotted by foreign universities, the least it could do is not replicate their illiberal behavior.
Detaining people like Ms. Alqasem also does little to stem a worrying trend among young American Jews, who are increasingly alienated from Israel because of its hard-line policies.
But the principled case against this paranoid policy is even more important. Theodor Herzl’s vision for a Jewish state was not the “ethnostate” of Bannonite fantasy but an open, pluralistic society. Liberal societies thrive not by expelling critics but by tolerating and even assimilating them — and therefore defanging them.
Societies that shun or expel their critics aren’t protecting themselves. They are advertising their weakness. Does the Jewish state, which prides itself on ingenuity, innovation and adaptability, really have so much to fear from a 22-year-old graduate student from Florida?
Here’s a better way for Israel to confront its young detractors, including those who support B.D.S.: Invite them to visit. No restrictions; no minders; no lectures. Perhaps they’ll find their prejudices confirmed. But we suspect that more than a few of them — those capable of keeping an open mind and appreciating the complexity of life and politics in the region — might find their views changed.
Maybe they’ll even see what we see in Israel: an imperfect but striving and inspiring nation seeking not just security, but also peace with its neighbors.
The longer Lara Alqasem is detained, the more distant that possibility becomes.
Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. Bari Weiss is a staff editor and writer for the Opinion section.