Why has Israel banned Jewish leftists but not members of Nazi-linked groups?

by Natasha Roth

Israel’s latest step in its self-described “offensive” against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is to include Jewish Voice for Peace, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and the American Friends Service Committee on a list of organizations whose leading members are banned from entering the country. Although the law barring boycott advocates was passed in March last year, the blacklisted organizations only came to light on Saturday. But while Jews who support the boycott movement are now barred from visiting the country, members of Nazi-allied organizations and anti-Semitic political parties continue to be allowed into Israel — including at the invitation of government officials. 

The Israeli government apparently considers the banning of BDS activists acceptable behavior for a democracy, a view facilitated by its having very diligently cultivated and promoted the lie that BDS is an anti-Semitic movement aimed at destroying Israel. This lie has been remarkably successful, despite the clear statement on the official website of the BDS movement that its goal is to secure the same human and civil rights for Palestinians as everyone else living in Israeli-controlled territory. But if granting equal rights to everyone who lives in the territory controlled by Israel will cause the state to implode, then surely those who oppose BDS on those grounds are ignoring a fundamental problem — that a state which cannot survive if all its residents have equal rights is by definition not a democracy.

It’s also worth looking at which political opinions the government does not deem grounds for banning individuals from the country. In September last year, for example, Sebastian Gorka — who belongs to a Hungarian Nazi-allied group, and sports a medal declaring his affiliation — was a keynote speaker at an anti-terrorism conference in the Israeli coastal city of Herzliya.

Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria and the country’s vice chancellor, has been hosted by members of the ruling Likud party several times in recent years, despite the party’s Nazi roots and Strache’s own dabbling in anti-Semitic imagery. While Israel’s Foreign Ministry in December took the step of temporarily restricting contacts with FPA government ministers following the Austrian elections, they are not prohibited from visiting Israel — and Netanyahu’s office is said to be in favor of accepting the party’s claim to have broken with its anti-Semitic roots.

In January of last year, the secretary-general of France’s far-right National Front (Front National, or FN) — which has traditionally counted anti-Semitism among its core ideologies, despite party head Marine Le Pen’s attempts to refurbish its image — visited Israel for a series of meetings with government and army officials. As with the Freedom Party of Austria, Israel officially refrains from direct contact with the FN due to its history, but nonetheless allows its members into the country.

In its choices over who and who not to ban from the country, the Israeli government has demonstrated that its concern is not what Nazis and the rest of the far-right think about Jews, but rather what they think about Muslims, leftists, and the proper way — i.e., the authoritarian way — to run a country. Gorka, Strache et al mirror the dominant political culture in Israel today, one that is anti-democratic, racist, populist, virulently Islamophobic and intolerant of the merest suggestion of left-liberal values. And while their Nazi ties may prompt “official” Israel to purse its lips and furrow its brows, they are clearly quite welcome to visit the country.

Yet there’s a further element to Israel’s latest blacklist, which specifically concerns Jewish Voice for Peace. They are, of course, not unique in being banned from the country for their political outlook; as executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson told +972 on Saturday, JVP members are “now joining Palestinians, Muslims from around the world, people of color and other activists who are often barred from entry.” JVP members are also far from the first Jewish left-wing activists to have been refused entry to Israel-Palestine.

But the formality of this step — banning outright leaders and key members of a Jewish organization — is yet further concrete evidence of what has been apparent for some time: that even as the Israeli government makes crystal-clear its commitment to having as few non-Jews as possible within its borders, it is also becoming increasingly blatant about possessing criteria for the types of Jews it considers kosher.

This latest incident should be added to a gallery of physical and moral assaults on the Jews who fall outside these criteria, whether it’s the recent deportation of a Kenyan Jew with a valid visa (“Do you want half of Africa coming here?” cried an Interior Ministry official); the arrests of women who try to bring a Torah to the Western Wall; or the violent disdain for Reform Jews, whom Jerusalem’s chief rabbi not long ago declared to be “worse than Holocaust deniers.”

There is a toxic mix of prejudices at work here: racism, illiberalism, religious chauvinism. As the checks on these impulses fall by the wayside — and not just in Israel — these blacklists will continue to grow. For now, though, this latest ban sends a clear message: acting in support of Palestinian human and civil rights makes you persona non grata in Israel.

After spending several years as a writer, editor and translator in Israel-Palestine, Natasha Roth is now based in Charlottesville, where she is a doctoral student in history at the University of Virginia. Her work has appeared in The London Review of Books Blog, Haaretz, The Forward, The Daily Beast and The Fair Observer. Her work can be found at www.natasharoth.com. Reprinted, with permission, from +972 Magazine. Photo: Heinz-Christian Strache (Franz Johann Morganbesser via Flickr).

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