For the first time, Israel has denied entry to a prominent traveler due to her part advocacy of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. African theologian and academic Isabel Phiri is an assistant general secretary with the World Council of Churches in Geneva. She was refused entry at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport on Monday afternoon. The decision has raised a long-standing concern over people being barred from Israel for their political views and protected speech. The decision this week raises the concern that millions of people supporting the BDS movement could be barred from entry on the basis of their political support for the movement.
Israel’s interior minister, Aryeh Dery, took responsibility for the decision. After speaking with public security minister, Gilad Erdan, who is also in charge of countering anti-Israel boycotts, he denied the vida for Phiri. Dery left no doubt that Israel would now deny entry to people who hold the wrong political views: “Granting an entry permit to activists such as Phiri would in effect reinforce the wrongful activities she and her peers are advancing and I have no intention of lending a hand to that. I will use any authority at my disposal to avert harm to Israel.”
Erdan added that “The place of the boycotters is outside the country’s borders and we shall continue to do everything possible to prevent them from entering our country.” The reference to “boycotters” would cover anyone supporting the BDS.
Phiri was a professor of African theology, and head of the school of religion, philosophy and classics at the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. The WCC represents churches, denominations and church fellowships in more than 110 countries with more than 500 million Christians. That includes a wide array of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed churches, as well as many United and independent churches. The ministry noted the WCC engaged in pro-Palestinian activities, including observers sent to Palestinian areas.
What is interesting is that the ministry decided to act unilaterally before a bill was passed by the Knesset that would prevent foreign supporters of the BDS movement from entering Israel. The legislation would leave it to the ministry to allow or bar BDS supporters.
With rising opposition over the settlements in nations like Germany, the decision to bar travelers on the basis for their political views could encompass a wide wrath of travelers. Given Israel’s lucrative tourism business, the uncertainty could have a significant economic impact. For civil libertarians, the move is not just inimical to free speech but inimical to democratic values in Israel. The intolerance for certain political views or non-violent activities would move Israel closer to some of its intolerant Muslim neighbors in the region. Countries like Iran are known for monitoring the views of visitors and barring critics. That is a path that Israel would wisely avoid. The fact is that Israel has a large civil libertarian community as well as a renowned academic community. The way to counter the BDS movement is with more speech, not less speech . . . or barriers to entry. Indeed, having BDS advocates interact within Israel is an opportunity for the other side to make its case both to those advocates as well as those people who are undecided on such questions.
Israel is not alone of course in such policies. I have been critical of decisions by England and the United States to occasionally bar outspoken critics or controversial figures. As will come as little surprise, I oppose such barriers based on free speech. Ironically, they tend to only magnify the complaints of those barred from entry and undermine the democratic credibility of the country. Boycotting the boycotters will not change any minds toward Israel but could well add to the BDS ranks.
What do you think?