On March 6, the Knesset passed legislation that prohibits the granting of a visa or residency permit to a non-Israeli citizen or permanent resident “if he, [or] the organization or entity for which he works, has knowingly issued a public call to impose a boycott on the State of Israel” or “has committed to participate in such a boycott.”
Using a definition from a 2011 law that made advocacy for boycotts a civil offense, the amendment applies to academic, cultural and economic boycotts of Israel and areas under its control, including the West Bank.
For those of us adamantly opposed to boycotts of Israel, there should be satisfaction. There is not.
Together with academics across the world, including Israel, as well as such pro-Israel organizations as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, the Association for Israel Studies, which I represent, is deeply distressed. We find the amendment dangerous to academic freedom and harmful to our members, Israeli scholars as well as those who study Israel from abroad.
Why? The AIS, chartered in the United States, is the most significant international scholarly society devoted to the academic and professional study of Israel. We pursue the free and informed inquiry of all aspects of Israeli society, and disseminate our findings in hundreds of institutions across the world. While we hold diverse views on Israeli history, politics and culture, we all uphold a free and unfettered exchange of ideas in the best traditions of academic freedom as practiced in enlightened and democratic societies.
We are committed to non-discrimination against Israeli academicians and institutions by supporters of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), and many of us have leadership positions in the struggle against it. This law undermines our ability to continue to do so.
There should be no doubt that this law will have a chilling effect on students wishing to seek an education in Israel, colleagues anxious to engage in research, and those wanting to participate in conferences.
It will create the absurdity that the Association for Israel Studies will no longer be able to hold its meetings in Israel.
There can be no checkpoint of ideas. Security forces and defenses are essential for deterring actual attacks. But it is fantasy and misleading to think that interrogating academics at the country’s gates contributes to national security. Ideas, good and bad, have no borders and can be spread by modern communications and social media.
There are also personal consequences. As one of our members wrote: “I am a staunch opponent of BDS, but I have signed a petition favoring boycott of products from the West Bank settlements. Will I, who lived in Israel for 12 years, was chair of a department at an Israeli university, served in the army, and have defended Israel in numerous public fora, be allowed to enter the next time I want to visit my daughter there?” Similarly, non-Israelis may not be able to participate in family affairs because of their views.
Our American members and the American public accept that advocating for a boycott – however strongly we object to BDS – is an exercise of free speech, and punishing or threatening to punish someone for that is a violation of rights.
Israel must not become an isolated entity open only to those who ascribe to official policy. Israel has endured economic and cultural boycotts and produced a vibrant economy and culture, and has maintained an animated public sphere with lively debate. Such a self-imposed quarantine can surely only diminish this fundamental prerequisite to democratic discourse.
This law is not only an encumbrance to academics, it is a danger to the vitality of Israeli life. It serves to isolate Israel more effectively than any of the BDS activities have been able to achieve.
The author is president of the Association for Israel Studies and holds the Stoll Family Chair of Israel Studies at Brandeis University and Lopin Chair in Modern History, emeritus, at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.