There is one Jewish group on the list of 20 organizations that Israel on Sunday banned from entering the country: the left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace which, like the others, supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
For Benjamin Douglas, a member of the steering committee for the D.C. Metro chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, the ban is a signal that BDS is beginning to bite.
“The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is gaining steam globally and that’s why JVP supports it and the authorities in Israel are against it and have turned to these undemocratic measures,” he said.
Others disagree, saying that the ban is an attempt by Israel’s government to placate the country’s right wing. Or, as Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said in announcing the ban, part of Israel’s defense against its enemies.
“We have shifted from defense to offense,” Erdan told Haaretz. “The boycott organizations need to know that the State of Israel will act against them and not allow [them] to enter its territory to harm its citizens.”
The list includes five U.S.-based groups in addition to JVP: American Friends Service Committee, American Muslims for Palestine, Code Pink, National Students for Justice in Palestine, and the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
In March, Israel approved a law denying entry to foreign nationals who publicly call for boycotting Israel or the settlements.
The Interior Ministry will be responsible for enforcing the list, reportedly beginning in March. The ban is reported to be limited to those who hold senior or key positions in the groups that appear on the blacklist, or important or high-profile activists.
Douglas sees the ban as an admission that Israel is losing sway with liberal and young Jews.
David Pollock, Kaufman fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, doesn’t anticipate the ban having much of an impact — either on behalf of the BDS movement or against it. But he does see it as an indication of a rightward shift in Israeli politics that could have much larger implications down the road.
“I think the ban is a terrible idea,” he said, “even if only from the point of view of Israel’s own interests.”
Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington also sees the ban as a political move by the right wing.
“I think it’s horrible,” he said, “but I also think it reflects the deep frustration of officials on the right in Israel. They use BDS as a punching bag. These voices on the right use Zionism — whose purpose was to unite the Jewish people — to divide them. I think it’s reprehensible.”
Zemel, who visits Israel every year, said he opposes BDS. But he is in favor of allowing anyone to “step into the public square” to make their argument peacefully. Instead, this ban is “a gag on free speech,” he said.
Pollack said Jewish Voice for Peace has always been an outlier in its views about Israel. He called “insulting” the inclusion on the list of the American Friends Service Committee, which is a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights, considering the group’s World War II-era support for Jews and human rights.
This ban is “of a piece” with what the country has done before in response to BDS, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be effective, she added.
“In general, democratic states know well that you don’t remove ideas by just suppressing them,” she said. “Do I think this ban on entry is going to have some concrete impact in suppressing the BDS movement? No, not at all.”
The BDS movement has not been particularly effective in its goals either — there has been no discernable impact on Israel’s economy — or in winning victories on campuses, Wittes said, a sentiment echoed by Pollock.
In Wittes’ and Pollock’s view, the best way to combat BDS is through engagement and dialogue. Israel would be better served inviting activists into the country to see it firsthand, they said. Douglas pointed out that most JVP members have been to Israel.
Israel is well within its rights to determine who is allowed to enter the country, Wittes added, but, in terms of Jewish Voice for Peace, it was troubling for Israel to decide “some Jews are not kosher enough.”
To Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch, however, the ban is solely about Israeli security.
“Israel pretty much allows anyone who they don’t feel will harm the country to enter,” he said. “But if you’re engaged in activity intended to harm Israel, then why should Israel allow you in?
BDS is more annoying than effective,” he added. “At the same time, you can’t ignore that a certain segment of our community has been affected by it. So, anything that hurts BDS is a good thing.”
Liberal Jewish groups J Street, Americans for Peace Now and New Israel Fund have spoken out against the ban even while they reiterate their opposition to BDS.
And the ban has been denounced by liberals in Israel. Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, called the move “an idiotic idea,” according to the Times of Israel. “So our policy to fight boycotts is by implementing another boycott?” he said.
Tzipi Livni, a leader of the Zionist Union, said: “Israel is beautiful. Israel has equality. Let [boycott advocates] see it! Keeping them out only expands the gap between Israel’s image and the reality.”