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Israeli Airport Detention of Prominent U.S. Jew Prompts Uproar

Wednesday August 15, 2018
Isabel Kershner

Peter Beinart, an author and CNN contributor, was interrogated at the airport in Tel Aviv on Sunday about his political activities.CreditDavid Goldman/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Israeli airport security, long extolled for its success in preventing terrorism, seems to have another target recently: critics of Israel.

On Sunday, officers at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport pulled aside Peter Beinart, a liberal American Jewish journalist, after he landed and interrogated him about his political activities. Mr. Beinart, an author and CNN contributor, is known for his love of Israel as well as his vocal opposition to its occupation of Palestinian territory.

His case is not unique.

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Meyer G. Koplow, the chairman of Brandeis University and a pro-Israel philanthropist, was interrogated at the airport last month on his way back to New York because, after attending a bridge-building session in the West Bank, he had put a Palestinian promotional brochure in his checked luggage.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher, an Israeli living in the United States, was held for questioning about his involvement in two anti-occupation organizations for which he volunteers.

And Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of the American Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow, said she and a friend were questioned for hours at the Taba border crossing this month about their activities and opinions after a weekend away in Egypt’s Sinai Desert. Ms. Zimmerman is currently based in Israel as a human rights worker.

Critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing, religious coalition say the detentions are part of an increasingly hard-line atmosphere in which leftists are branded enemies of the state, efforts are being made to limit Supreme Court oversight, and the Knesset, or parliament, has passed a law saying the right of national self-determination is “unique to the Jewish people.”

Mr. Beinart’s high profile helped cause an uproar after he wrote about his encounter. Mr. Netanyahu declared the detention an “administrative mistake.”

“Israel is an open society which welcomes all — critics and supporters alike,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that did not mention the other cases.

Mr. Beinart had just arrived in the country with his wife and children to attend a family bat mitzvah. He was, by his account, asked about his involvement in any organizations that could provoke violence or threaten Israeli democracy, and about his participation in a protest in the West Bank city of Hebron during a visit two years ago.

“He asked how I had become involved in the protest and I mentioned the Center for Jewish Nonviolence,” Mr. Beinart wrote in a column published in The Forward on Monday.

“He asked if the center had incited violence, and I replied that, as its name suggests, it practices nonviolence. My interrogator then replied that names could be misleading. The government of North Korea, he observed, calls itself a democracy but is not. I told him I didn’t think the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and the North Korean government have much in common.”

The questioning ended when Mr. Beinart was asked if he would attend another protest and replied in the negative.

The Shin Bet internal security agency, which carried out the interrogations, issued a rare apology for Mr. Beinart’s detention, calling it an “error of judgment” by a field officer. The agency said it would look into the case, adding that it works only in accordance with the law and for the security of the state.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a human rights organization, had complained earlier about the questioning of other activists at the airport. In response to those complaints, the attorney general’s office said two weeks ago that the cases had been passed on to the Shin Bet for inquiry.

There has been an increase in deportations of foreign, pro-Palestinian activists since the parliament passed legislation in 2017 barring entry to people considered to have taken significant action to advocate for boycotting Israel. The law was part of a campaign to counter the movement of boycotts, divestments and sanctions, which Israelis overwhelmingly oppose, consider anti-Semitic and view as calling for the country’s destruction.

Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, which is charged with combating boycotts and related actions, published a list of about 20 organizations in January that would be affected by the law. It includes several American groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee, the feminist group Code Pink and the United States Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

Organizations in Chile, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and South Africa were also named. IfNotNow is not on the list.

Activists have also pointed to a shadowy organization called the Canary Mission, which says it “documents people and groups that promote hatred of the U.S.A., Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.” Some of those questioned at Israel’s border control suspected their interrogators were using information drawn from detailed dossiers about them on the organization’s website.

Ben Moore, a spokesman for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said his agency had nothing to do with the questioning of Mr. Beinart, Ms. Zimmerman or the others in recent cases, and that there was “no connection” between the ministry and the Canary Mission.

Mr. Beinart said his interrogator never offered any legal basis for his detention. While he has advocated boycotting settlements in the West Bank, he said the interrogator never mentioned boycotts.

But Gaby Lasky, an Israeli human rights lawyer, said the ministry also fights “delegitimization” of Israel, which is “a lot less clear.” The Shin Bet, she says, is mandated to protect Israeli security and democracy against subversion and its credibility is at risk.

People have been questioned or called in for “cautionary” talks because of their involvement in legal organizations, she noted.

“In my book, they are organizations that preserve Israeli democracy, so it’s a kind of Orwellian paradox,” she said.

Yoaz Hendel, the chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-leaning research group, and a former spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu, offered some possible explanations of why Mr. Beinart, for one, may have ended up in the airport interrogation room.

There is a political argument within Israel over what constitutes legitimate opposition, Mr. Hendel said, creating a “big, murky, gray area” that Israelis themselves have trouble defining.

Preventing terrorism is clear cut, he said. But “when you are talking about people who want to harm Israel economically or to create a provocation that could lead to bloodshed, it gets more complicated.”

Mr. Beinart’s name may have come up, he said, because of a poor system of cross-referencing his connections.

“It shouldn’t happen,” he said, “but it happens.”


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